If you are like me, this Fourth of July holiday will involve family cookouts in the backyard and outdoor concerts with fireworks. A frequent musical piece played during these patriotic concerts is Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. If you are fortunate, the orchestral piece will include a choir singing, live church bells chiming and cannon fire booming in a grand finale. When the fireworks are choreographed to coincide with the crescendos, it’s just magical.
Most Americans associate this patriotic tune as a tribute to the War of 1812 that America fought against England, but in fact, it is a piece of music commemorating the Russians victory over Napoleon. At that time, Napoleon’s Grand Army was the largest and best military fighting force in the world. The Russian people, realizing that their poorly equipped and minimally-trained army would be facing this massive foe, followed the advice of their Tsar and fled to the churches and cathedrals to pray for a miracle. Their prayers were answered and the Grand Army faced an unprecedented deep freeze that, in combination with an over-extended supply line and disease, crumbled the French army. Russia was victorious and church bells rang in celebration.
Listen carefully to the piece and you can follow along as the French army advances and the Russian citizens, via a choir, beg for divine intervention. The tune, La Marseillaise, weaves in and out of the piece as does several traditional Russian folk tunes and melodies. Cannon fire is heard as the battle commences and, in the end, the Russians fire captured artillery in celebration as the French run away.
The orchestral piece became associated with our national holiday in 1974 when the legendary Boston Pops conductor, Arthur Fielding, included the piece in an attempt to enliven the annual concert. The response was so popular, it’s been a part of their musical repertoire ever since then.
If you can’t get to a live concert this year, you can still listen to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (Overture in E Flat Major Op. 49) by checking out a CD from the library.
Happy Fourth of July!