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One of the best-known pieces ever composed, the 1812 Overture was written in 1880 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The full title for the work is The Year 1812 Solemn Overture, op. 49, and it was meant to commemorate the successful Russian defense against Napoleon's invading Grande Armée in 1812. The premiere performance in 1882 in Moscow took place in a tent next to the then-unfinished Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which itself had been commissioned to commemorate the War of 1812. It is often performed outdoors, since it calls for church bells, a huge brass band of indeterminate size, and multiple cannon shots. Tchaikovsky himself conducted it in 1891 for the opening of Carnegie Hall in New York City. One wonders how they managed cannon fire and church bells inside the brand new concert hall!

The piece is cleverly organized. It begins with a traditional church hymn played very softly by only two violas and four cellos. This is meant to represent the people of Russia, praying for a quick conclusion to the impending invasion by Napoléon. Before long, we hear the Marseillaise—France’s national anthem—representing the advancing army. That theme dominates for awhile, suggesting that the Russians may lose the war. It grows stronger and stronger, and eventually we hear it in counterpoint with Russian folk melodies as the two forces do battle. The devastating clash is represented by five cannon shots, presumably from the French side. Historically, the French eventually occupied Moscow, and all seemed hopeless. Then a miracle occurred. A legendary winter storm descended, defeating the French where they stood. In Tchaikovsky’s music, at that point we can hear the blowing of the winter winds in the orchestra. The retreat of the invading army is symbolized by a long descending scale, out of which emerges the opening hymn, now played by the full orchestra. In counterpoint with God Save the Tsar. The Russians fire the captured rifles in celebration, and the bells of Moscow ring out. In fact, the ringing of the bells has another deeper meaning: in the Russian Orthodox religion, bells symbolize the voice of God.

In performance, the 1812 Overture seems to excite the creative juices of concert producers the world over. Usually, the rifles at the end are replaced by more cannon shots, and more than often there are fireworks. LOTS of fireworks. I once witnessed a particularly lavish indoor performance by the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Hall. Near the end, suddenly two costumed “armies” with muskets streamed into the auditorium on either side of the audience. They were firing blanks, but they had a battle right there in the hall. It was thrilling!

As popular as this work has been with audiences since its premiere, Tchaikovsky himself detested it. He confessed in a letter to his patroness that it was  “… very loud and noisy, but [without] artistic merit, because I wrote it without warmth and without love." It is surprising to read that, but it in no way diminishes the pleasure audiences take in hearing it over and over.

Recommended recording: New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein


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