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The William Tell Overture (The Lone Ranger Theme)

Jun 13, 2008
Mention the song title "William Tell Overture," and a lot of people might scratch their heads in confusion. But hum a few bars, and there are few people who don't recognize this classic tune. It's so famous that it's been covered by literally hundreds of artists since its composition in the early 1800s. Modern recording artists still turn out renditions of the "William Tell Overture" today because of the public's instant connection to its familiarity.

Though everyone recognizes it, many are not aware of the history and the context from which the song originated. It was composed by Gioachino Rossini for his 39th and most famous opera, William Tell. The man on whom the opera is based is a figure surrounded by mystery and lore. William Tell, although well-known in Switzerland as a national hero, is arguably a somewhat controversial figure. Some historians debate whether the man even existed. If he did, was he really the legendary figure he has been lauded as being?

Regardless of such questions, school children around the world can recite the story of William Tell, the man who shoots the apple off of the head of his son with his crossbow. According to legend, Tell, who was something of a renegade, refused to bow to the statue of a contentious ruler. As punishment, he was forced to either shoot the apple, or subject both himself and his son to execution. An expert marksman, he successfully saved the life of both himself and his son with a single shot. (He reportedly said afterward that he had one arrow in reserve for his punisher, should he have failed his son.)

It's a grand story that is told fondly in many classrooms. But, like many legends, his has probably been embellished over the centuries, if indeed the man lived at all. Despite the questions about his life, he is still recognized as a Swiss hero. Perhaps it is this cloud of intrigue that has inspired so many artistic works based on the legend of William Tell.

The opera William Tell was based on a previous work, a play written by Friedrich Schiller. The musical version of the hero's life is a four- hour work characterized by complicated and demanding scores. Since its first public performance at the Paris Opera in 1829, it has been edited and recreated in less-demanding versions over the following centuries.

In the years after its first performance it was censored and banned by various governing authorities for its controversial glorification of a revolutionary character. As censorship often does, this tended only to fuel the public's interest even more. This may be one of the reasons the legend of this Swiss hero became so dramatically retold, embellished, and exaggerated.

The overture itself is written in four distinctive sections, with each leading seamlessly to the next. Rarely has any song without lyrics been sung so frequently. While the composer Rossini might be pleased with how his work has become so ingrained into modern culture, he may be less impressed with the reasons why. The "William Tell Overture" catapulted into popularity when it was used as the theme music for the television series "The Lone Ranger." Appearing first as a radio broadcast in 1933, followed by the television series, the "William Tell Overture" may be forever associated with the media hit. Politically incorrect though it was by today's standards, "The Lone Ranger" continues to be credited with indelibly etching the overture in the minds of popular culture.

Today the song is parodied more than any other classical song, with versions found on the CDs of modern artists and even on YouTube. It graces sporting events, and it is particularly associated with horse racing. Even those who can't identify it by name refer to it as "The Lone Ranger Song," and usually they can't help but hum or whistle along when they hear it played.
About the Author
Duane Shinn is the author of the popular DVD home study course on playing piano titled
"How To Play Piano By Ear"
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