Birds With Billy Tell Tails
It turned out to be almost as much fun as a birthday party. Maybe that was appropriate. For centuries, February 28th has served as the almost birthday for the 19th century composer Gioachino Rossini. This year there actually was a February 29th. But because it fell on a Saturday, we had to settle for another almost celebration on Classic Mornings.
I had planned to play his famous William Tell Overture in honor of the occasion. And only that morning did the thought occur to me that you can have a multilingual feast just with the title of the opera. It was inspired by Friedrich Schiller’s German language play Wilhelm Tell about the legendary Swiss hero. Rossini’s opera originally was in French and known as Guillaume Tell. It later apeared in the composer’s Italian version (Guglielmo Tell). But I almost never hear it referred to as anything but William Tell. And the famous overture to the opera is commonly known as the William Tell Overture – in English-speaking countries, anyway.
While the music was playing, with Riccardo Muti conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, I realized that this year marks the 40th anniversary of the release of that recording (EMI 47118). That was a pleasant surprise.
The real fun began when I glanced at the notes written in 1980 by Peter Gammond, who was a British music critic, broadcaster and poet. He desciribed the overture bit by bit, including “dawn in the Swiss Alps,” “a storm on the lake,” “ the rich greenery of the lower pastures” and “the triumph of patriotism” in the well-known finale, which he said “all the world can whistle.”
I found that final phrase to be rather amusing. And when the music finished playing, I made reference to Gammond’s notes, commenting that I’d like to hear somebody try to whistle the finale of the William Tell Overture.
My wish came true later that day. I had decided to conduct a quick online search, just for the fun of it. Within moments, I was led to the archived audio of a 78 rpm recording from 1939 featuring Fred Lowery whistling the finale of the overture with an orchestra. It’s impressive.
I had never heard of Fred Lowery. So I kept searching to learn more about him. He was born in Texas and lost most of his vision at age 2, due to complications from scarlet fever. He began whistling when he was inspired by a bird imitator. He went on to become a regular on radio programs and even toured with a big band.
Lowery made quite a number of recordings, reaching number 9 on the Billboard charts with his rendition of Dmitri Tiomkin’s theme for the 1954 film The High and the Mighty. And the next time you catch a rerun of the Andy Griffith Show, that’s Lowery whistling the famous theme, which I learned is titled “The Fishin’ Hole” Somebody posted a comment online that Fred Lowery visited his elementary school in the 1980s and whistled that tune along with harmony!
I came upon audio/video clips of others who have taken on the finale of the William Tell Overture. One of those was David Morris, winner of the 2003 International Whistler’s Convention in Louisburg, North Carolina. Morris is from England. A story on the BBC website showed him whistling bits of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee. And he mentioned being recruited to teach milk delivery folks in England how to whistle.
Sean Lomax was the 1992 winner of the Whistler’s Convention, There are clips online of him performing selections from Bizet’s Carmen. I understand that he once dazzled an audience with an excerpt from Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.
Suddenly, whistlers were emerging like birds from every hiding place in my memory. There’s a famous piece from 1904 by Arthur Pryor called The Whistler and His Dog. Pryor had been a trombonist and arranger for John Philip Sousa’s band. He gave the dog’s part in the piece to the trombone. The tune was used for a fun gag in one of the Little Rascals comedies in 1936
And, of course, I was reminded of the song “Whistle While You Work” from the 1937 film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as well as Kenneth J. Alford’s Colonel Bogey March which was whistled by a chorus of soldiers in the 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai.
I realize that just mentioning that some have whistled the tail end of Rossini’s William Tell Overture, others might want to try it. Go ahead! Give it a whirl! It’s just for fun! And if it turns out to be a little tougher than you imagined, you’ll have a good laugh. It’ll make you appreciate the whistlers who can carry the tune at a gallopping pace. Maybe you’’ll even be inspired to find a tune to whistle that’s more in your league when you join us for Classic Mornings, Monday through Friday from 9 to noon on FM 90.9 and online at will.illinois.edu.