Light up the barbeque and get ready for the fireworks. The “1812 Overture” has become an American tradition almost as sacred as hot dogs and our national anthem’s “bombs bursting in air.” Americans have embraced this famous orchestral work as one of their favorite patriotic themes. But it is not an American composition, and it doesn’t celebrate the War of 1812 against the invading British.
Most recently popularized in the climatic ending of the film “V for Vendetta”, the orchestral work was written by famed Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The score depicts Napoleon’s devastating withdrawal from Russia in 1812, following the French army’s invasion that successfully penetrated Russia’s interior, all the way into Moscow itself.
But Tchaikovsky’s work itself is an invasion of sorts: a Russian invasion of America. During the Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s, Americans wouldn’t have been too fond of embracing a Russian classic. But only a few decades before the Cold War broke out, Tchaikovsky was welcomed to the United States as a highly popular composer.
“Tchaikovsky knew how to write a barn-burner, and they are really hard to write,” says Bards College president Leon Botstein. “He had a foothold in the late 19th century in the broadening public taste for classical music.”
Botstein states that when Tchaikovsky came to open New York City’s Carnegie Hall in 1891, with a performance of the “1812 Overture”, he “was a kind of pop figure when he arrived in the United States.”
Tchaikovsky himself sometimes disparaged the overture as “very loud and noisy.” But from its debut in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow on August 20, 1882, the overture has grown in popularity.
Napoleon would probably cringe. Opinions are divided over exactly why he invaded Russia. The emperor of France was a brilliant soldier and strategist who won many battles and had been able – like Julius Caesar – to grab near-absolute power. But there were mistakes along the way, and Russia was one of them.
When his horse stumbled as he crossed the Dnieper River west of Moscow, noticing this bad omen, a voice from the shadows eerily said, “A Roman would have turned back.”
Warfare at that time meant forcing your opponent to stand and fight, resulting in victory on one side or the other. But the Russians merely retreated, burning crops as they went, and leading Napoleon deeper and deeper into the same huge Russian land mass and awful Russian weather that also eventually defeated Hitler. Whether this was a brilliant Russian military strategy, or whether it was due to the Russian military leadership’s ineptness, Napoleon followed the retreating Russians, leading his 691,500 men deep into the heart of the enemy.
Napoleon had hoped to capture Moscow intact, but the Russians stripped the city of all its supplies, burning many of the buildings and thus denying the French shelter. Napoleon ordered all remaining public buildings, including the Kremlin, burned. With the Russian army posing a possible threat, and Russia’s dreaded winter upon them, the French retreated. By the time they had returned home, only 22,000 soldiers had survived the deadly retreat – overwhelmed by attacks, starvation, disease and freezing conditions.
Among many things that commemorate this historical event, there are three that have immortalized it: the construction of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, and Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”.
Music critic Andrew Druckenbrod writes that the growing acceptance and eventual embracement of the overture in American consciousness was a slow transformation that took place over the last century. Though some ensembles had played the “1812 Overture” earlier — Chicago’s Grant Park Orchestra performed it on Independence Day 1935 — most had done so only sporadically before the ’70s.
“In 1974, the overture came into its own as an American tradition,” states Druckenbrod. That July 4, famed Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler decided to perform the overture with fireworks, real cannons and a coordinated steeple-bell choir to increase attendance at the Pops’ summer concerts on the Esplanade, says Bridget Carr, archivist of the Boston Symphony. Also, the nation’s bicentennial was around the corner and the desire to have a spectacular show outweighed Cold War feelings.
“He was a good musician but the ultimate showman,” says Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra clarinetist Thomas Thompson, who toured with Fiedler in 1962. “Audiences loved him, and he was a genius at marketing.”
Druckenbrod observes that “a massive, celebratory outdoor piece pushed by the nation’s premier outdoor orchestra, whose July 4 concert was broadcast across the country, captured the public’s imagination. Countless orchestras began performing the work outdoors, quickly solidifying the tradition and the piece’s connection to American patriotism.
“But because conductors, musicians and Americans in general would probably not have accepted this work during the Cold War if it were widely known to be a Russian victory piece, the “1812 Overture” first had to lose its original meaning. That’s essentially what happened.”
David Grayson, professor of musicology at the University of Minnesota, puts it this way. “Almost any way that you look at it, a work doesn’t end when the composer puts down the double bars — that’s when it begins. That’s when it begins the process of reaching its audience, and from that moment on it takes on a life of its own. The composer may try to influence its subsequent use and meaning, but he or she will probably be unable to do so. And the work will eventually enter the public domain.”
So, other than Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, how could a Russian composition become as classic as mom’s homemade apple pie?
Think Quaker Puffed Wheat TV commercials. Remember the cereal being shot out of a cannon? The “1812 Overture” was the rousing music playing in the background.
“To Americans, this might conjure up memories of childhood, watching television, or the family breakfast — all presumably happy memories and positive associations, even if only of breakfast cereal shooting from a cannon,” says Grayson.
“This obviously could not have been what Tchaikovsky intended, but it helps to explain why Americans enjoy the piece.”
We remake meanings all the time when we recombine things. It’s our way of relating to things in an individual way. That’s how a great work of patriotic Russian music has been embraced as part of our own sense of patriotism. Music has that kind of power and influence. It is a universal language that enables us to connect across cultures, politics, religions and languages.
A live concert of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” will be performed by the Bedford Community Orchestra, under the direction of conductor Scott Walter. The BCO’s Spring Concert will be take place at 7:30 PM on Saturday, May 6th, at the Bedford Middle School Auditorium. Admission is free.
Other concert selections will include Aaron Copland’s Outdoor Overture, Carousel Waltz, Brahms’ Hungarian Dances 5 & 6, the Prophet’s Dance and music from the films Jurassic Park, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and Dances with Wolves. A BCO concert is great fun and includes music designed to please a diverse musical audience. Be sure to mark you calendar now for an exciting evening of musical thrills and adventure.