November 18, 1307: William Tell shoots an apple off his son’s head – or not. The legend says Tell was an expert marksman who lived in the Canton of Uri in Switzerland. The Gotthard Pass, a high mountain pass through the Alps, had recently opened trade routes. The Hapsburg emperor of Vienna sought to control Uri and thus control the trans-Alpine trade route. To that end, Hermann Gessler was sent to Altdorf to become the new bailiff of Uri. The citizenry of Uri did not want a new bailiff.
The Swiss locals had already banded together with neighboring towns and vowed to resist the Austrian oppression. Gessler raised a pole in the center of Altdorf. He placed his hat on top of the pole and commanded all to bow before this symbol of his power and authority. Tell, who lived outside the city, either didn’t know about the new rule or chose to ignore it. Either way, he didn’t bow. Gessler had Tell seized and proposed a punishment. Tell’s skill with the crossbow was known. He was to shoot an apple off his own son’s head. If he missed, both William and Walter Tell would die.
Tell placed one arrow in his quiver and one in his crossbow. His son’s hands were tied as his father aimed and shot the apple away. Gessler asked about the second arrow. William explained that if the first had missed, the second would have hit – Gessler. For this act of defiance Tell was arrested and sentenced to life in the Dungeons. While crossing the lake to get to the castle, Tell escaped. The night was stormy and the boat was difficult to manage. The boat finally landed and as the troupe was trudging toward the castle, Tell emerged from the forest and finally used his second arrow. The tyrant Gessler was dead and Tell fled once again.
The first mention of William Tell comes in the White Book of Samen written in 1475. The Song of the Founding of the Confederation written in 1477 is the oldest surviving poem about the heroic freedom fighter. By 1598 there was beginning debate over the authenticity of the man and his deeds. Outsiders were far more convinced about the mythology while natives remained positive of the veracity of the story. Whether the tale is a simple rallying point or the chronicle of actual events remains unproven. Many modern Swiss still believe he really existed.
“An intellectual snob is someone who can listen to the William Tell Overture and not think of The Lone Ranger.” – Dan Rather
“My name is William Tell: / when little oppressions touch me / arrows hidden in my cloak / whisper, ‘Ready, ready.'” – William Stafford
“I’ve always wanted to go to Switzerland to see what the army does with those wee red knives.” – Billy Connolly
“Switzerland is a small, steep country, much more up and down than sideways, and is all stuck over with large brown hotels built on the cuckoo clock style of architecture.” – Ernest Hemingway
This article first appeared at examiner.com in 2009. Editor’s update: Most Americans know about William Tell and his story because of the work by Gioachino Rossini. He wrote an opera called William Tell and the Overture to the opera has become famous. It was Rossinis’s 39th and last opera and premiered in 1820. After this he went into semi-retirement but continued to write cantatas, sacred music, and secular vocal music. The Overture lasts for about twelve minutes and is written for a Piccolo, a flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four French horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle, bass drum, cymbals, and strings. The mood is to paint a picture of the Swiss Alps which is the setting for the opera. It was described as a symphony in four parts but the overture does not have discrete breaks but simply transitions. What we might recognize when hearing the overture is the theme music to The Lone Ranger from both radio and television.
Also on this day: Jonestown – In 1978, a mass suicide takes place in Jonestown, when 913 of Jim Jones’s followers kill themselves.
Steamboat Willie – In 1928, the cartoon featuring Mickey Mouse was released.
Antipope – In 1105, Antipope Sylvester IV claimed the papacy.