2:43pm

Sun June 24, 2012
Music

The Co-Opting Of Tchaikovsky's '1812 Overture'

Originally published on Thu July 3, 2014 2:08 pm

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote his piece The Year 1812, Festival Overture in E flat major in commemoration of the Russian Army's successful defense of Moscow against Napoleon's advancing troops at the Battle of Borodino. Most Americans, however, know the piece as the bombastic tune that accompanies Fourth of July fireworks shows all over the country. Jan Swafford, a professor at the Boston Conservatory, says there are a handful of reasons why Americans have adopted it as their own.

"Arthur Fiedler, in the '70s — I think '77 — started doing it with the Boston Pops and it was a gigantic success," Swafford tells NPR's Guy Raz. "There are two things about it: It has fireworks built in, so in that sense it's a natural. And it has an enormous, patriotic, celebratory quality, no matter what it's celebrating, and that's certainly relevant. And, you know, by the time it comes around with the fireworks at the Fourth of July, everybody's pretty drunk anyways. It's a fantastic climax for the evening, this explosion of joy and fireworks and cannons."

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Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1812 OVERTURE")

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Two hundred years ago today, on June 24, 1812, Napoleon's grand army began its fateful march into Russia. Now, three very important things came out of that invasion. The first was the eventual downfall of Napoleon. The second, Tolstoy's "War and Piece," and the third was this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1812 OVERTURE")

RAZ: This is actually one of the most recognizable pieces of music ever made. It's Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture." Now, most of us are familiar with the climactic cannon-pounding finale that comes about 17 minutes in. We usually hear that on the Fourth of July. And we'll fast forward there in a moment.

But first, we asked writer and composer Jan Swafford to explain the story behind the "1812 Overture." Almost 70 years after Napoleon's invasion, the then-czar, Alexander II, commissioned Tchaikovsky to write a piece commemorating the event.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1812 OVERTURE")

JAN SWAFFORD: Well, this is a piece that's almost cinematic, even though cinema hadn't been invented yet. It's a point-by-point depiction of the story. So at the beginning, you hear this very beautiful hymn.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1812 OVERTURE")

SWAFFORD: And it represents the point at which the czar asked the whole country when the French were approaching to pray.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1812 OVERTURE")

SWAFFORD: And then it goes into the approach of the French.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1812 OVERTURE")

SWAFFORD: We have a sudden cinematic cut.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1812 OVERTURE")

SWAFFORD: And this represents the people in the villages, the poor peasants trying to absorb what to do, and they're praying. And then the battle music starts up again, and there's an absolute conflagration of Russian tunes against French tunes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1812 OVERTURE")

SWAFFORD: It's almost a battle of the bands, really, the "1812 Overture."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1812 OVERTURE")

SWAFFORD: It's a kind of defeated the Marsyas(ph), the French, in these teaming, whirling strings.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1812 OVERTURE")

SWAFFORD: Yada-dada-deda-data-data--yeah. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1812 OVERTURE")

SWAFFORD: And then you hear the triumphant Russian march.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1812 OVERTURE")

SWAFFORD: With underneath it a song called "God Save the Czar."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1812 OVERTURE")

SWAFFORD: Because the whole thing that they said at the time was, we prayed for God to help us and he did. And that's what everybody knows won the war.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1812 OVERTURE")

SWAFFORD: Tchaikovsky was not self-critical. He was self-loathing. And he thought the piece was a bunch of junk and completely disavowed it and was - just considered it a kind of noisy patriotic piece that he could do. The thing is that he did things like this very, very well. And the piece is fantastically well scored.

It's really beautifully done. There's a kind of Russian genius for orchestration and from the - from those cellos, divided cellos and violas at the beginning playing this throaty, profound Russian hymn all the way to the big celebratory quality of the end.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1812 OVERTURE")

SWAFFORD: It's really a great piece of work.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1812 OVERTURE")

RAZ: Well, here's a question. Why do we hear this song on the Fourth of July? This is about Russia defeating Napoleon. Why - what does that have to do with the War of Independence here in the U.S.?

SWAFFORD: And music that's Russian to the core. You know, it really is. Well, two things: Arthur Fiedler in the '70s, I think '77, started doing it with the Boston Pops, and it was a gigantic success. And after all, it's a piece that - it has fireworks built in. So in that sense, it's a match, really. And it has sort of enormous patriotic celebratory quality no matter what it's celebrating.

And then, you know, by the time it comes around, the fireworks, the Fourth of July, everybody's pretty drunk anyway, and it's just - it's a fantastic climax for the evening with this explosion of joy and fireworks and cannons. And, you know, what could be better?

RAZ: We are all celebrating Napoleon's defeat at the hands of the Russians, and yet it happens on the Fourth of July.

SWAFFORD: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

RAZ: It's sort of weird.

SWAFFORD: Most people don't know that at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1812 OVERTURE")

RAZ: That's Jan Swafford. He teaches at the Boston Conservatory. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.