”Why do they play the 1812 Overature on the 4th of July? It has nothing to do with the USA.”
I decided to do some research. As I suspected, I was, indeed, correct that the 1812 Overature, written by Tchaikovsky (a Russian composer) had to do with the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. If you listen to the music, you can hear strains of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise within the overature. That’s why I was pretty certain that it had nothing whatsoever to do with the War of 1812 fought between the United States and Great Britain. I was correct. Here’s what I learned:
Excerpted from Wikipedia:
While this piece has little connection with United States history besides the War of 1812 diverting the British, freeing Napoleon to attack Russia, it is often a staple at Fourth of July celebrations, such as the annual show by the Boston Pops and at Washington DC’s annual program called A Capitol Fourth.
And, according to Aaron Green, About.com Guide.
For the past 30+ years, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture has been performed during countless United States’ Independence Day celebrations, due largely in part to an exhilarating performance by the Boston Pops in 1974, conducted by Arthur Fiedler. In an effort to increase ticket sales, Fiedler choreographed fireworks, cannons, and a steeple-bell choir to the overture, as Tchaikovsky himself called for the use of cannons in his score. Many American’s believe that Tchaikovsky’s overture represents the USA’s victory against the British Empire during the War of 1812, however, Tchaikovsky actually tells the story of Napoleon’s retreat from Russia in 1812. In fact, Tchaikovsky even references the French national anthem La Marsillaise and Russia’s God Save the Czar within the music. The USA was quick to adopt the piece, as it found itself lacking in the patriotic song department.
Now, I understand why this particular overature has been played on the 4th of July! It’s really a great, dynamic piece. I’ve been on the grounds of the Washington Monument when this overature has been played by an armed forces band with cannon and it is truly a moving experience – literally – the ground reverberates under you when the cannon are fired!
However, I strongly disagree with Mr. Green in his statement that the USA is lacking in the patriotic song department! His statement couldn’t be further from the truth! I decided to compile a list of Patriotic songs of the USA, and, I think it’s pretty extensive.
Our National Anthem – The Star Bangled Banner (which isn’t a “pop” song and, in my opinion should not be sung as a pop song – but that’s only my opinion!)
America; America The Beautiful; God Bless America; The Battle Hymn of the Republic; U.S. Armed Forces Medley; Ballad of the Green Berets; God Bless The USA; Yankee Doodle – one of the oldest; I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy; This Land is Your Land; TAPS; You’re A Grand Old Flag.
There’s also the wonderful American Anthem, which was sung by Denyce Graves during a memorial service for 9/11 and which I was privileged to sing in my church as a memorial to my neice, Angie Houtz, who died in the pentagon on 9/11.
There are patriotic songs I’ve never heard of: I’m Thankful To Be An American; I Love You So; Song Of Freedom.
Oh, and let’s not forget the monumental works of that great American composer, John Philip Sousa, including Stars & Stripes Forever and many other compositions written for Presidents and commenorations – too numerous to mention!
And what about Leonard Bernstein? The list is, obviously, MR. GREEN, quite extensive. QUITE EXTENSIVE!
Additionally, for those interested in the history of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overature, here’s more history according to Wikipedia:
The 1812 Overture, complete with cannon fire, was written by Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in 1880 to commemorate Russia’s defense of Moscow against Napoleon’s advancing Grande Armée at the Battle of Borodino in 1812. The overture debuted in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow on August 20 [O.S. August 8] 1882. The overture is best known for its climactic volley of cannon fire and ringing chimes.
The music can be interpreted as a fairly literal depiction of the campaign: in June 1812, the previously undefeated French Allied Army of over half a million battle-hardened soldiers and almost 1,200 state-of-the-art guns (cannons, artillery pieces) crossed the Niemen River into Lithuania on its way to Moscow. The Russian Orthodox Patriarch of All the Russias, aware that the Russian Imperial Army could field a force only a fraction of this size, inexperienced and poorly equipped, called on the people to pray for deliverance and peace. The Russian people responded en masse, gathering in churches all across the Empire and offering their heartfelt prayers for divine intervention (the opening hymn).
Commission of the overture. In 1880, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, commissioned by Tsar Alexander I to commemorate the Russian victory, was nearing completion in Moscow; the 25th anniversary of the coronation of Alexander II would be at hand in 1881; and the 1882 Moscow Arts and Industry Exhibition was in the planning stage. Tchaikovsky’s friend and mentor Nikolai Rubinstein suggested that he write a grand commemorative piece for use in related festivities. Tchaikovsky began work on the project on October 12, 1880, finishing it six weeks later.
The piece was planned to be performed in the square before the cathedral, with a brass band to reinforce the orchestra, the bells of the cathedral and all the others in downtown Moscow playing “zvons” (pealing bells) on cue, and live cannon fire in accompaniment, fired from an electric switch panel in order to achieve the precision demanded by the musical score in which each shot was specifically written. However, this performance did not take place, possibly partly due to the over-ambitious plan. Regardless, the assassination of Alexander II that March deflated much of the impetus for the project. In 1882, at the Arts and Industry Exhibition, the Overture was performed indoors with conventional orchestration. The cathedral was completed on May 26, 1883.
On his 1891 visit to the United States, Tchaikovsky conducted the piece at the dedication of Carnegie Hall in New York City.
So, the next time you watch fireworks on the 4th of July and you hear Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overature, you’ll know that although it has nothing to do with American Independence, it’s a great work of music that fits our celebration well – thanks to Arthur Fiedler!
I ENJOYED READING THIS ONCE AGAIN – HOPE YOU DO TOO!