July 2009

The 1812 Overture, Op. 49

by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Pyotr (some say "Peter") Ilyich (pronounched "ILL-yikh") Tchaikovsky (pronounced "chie-KOFF-skee") was born in Votkinsk, Russia on May 7, 1840. He has written many great classical works during, what is called, the Romantic era (mostly the late 1800s).

In 1880, Tchaikovsky wrote a piece of music to commemorate the Russian victory in 1812 against Napoleon's invading troops. This piece features a form of leitmotif to tell the story.

Napoleon was leading the French army to a world conquest, and he had now set his sites on Russia. The Russian Orthodox Patriarch had called for all the people to pray for deliverance and peace (particularly as the Russian army was considerably smaller and not nearly as well equipped). The French army approached and a battle ensued. When all seemed lost (for the Russians), a bitter winter freeze arrived on the scene. The Russians were accustomed to this sort of weather, but the French were not. The French attempted to retreat, but their guns, stuck in the freezing ground, were captured by Russians and turned on them. The Russians were victorious.

Although the 1812 Overture has nothing to do with the American War of Independence or even the War of 1812, it is commonly played at Independence Day celebrations throughout the United States. Probably the most unique feature of this piece is the use of live cannons to demonstrate the Russians driving back the invading French.

Jon's Introduction to This Piece:

I don't remember the first time I had heard this piece. I have to believe that my parents introduced it to me. It seems that I've always known it. I don't remember listening to it a lot as a child, but I remember becoming more fond of it when I reached my teen years. It's an exciting piece, and hey, come on. Cannons! What's not to like?


Now it's time to listen to The 1812 Overture. It starts out with a choir (it's usually cellos and violas) singing a Russian Orthodox hymn Troparion of the Holy Cross. Roughly translated, the words in English are:

O Lord, save thy people,
and bless thine inheritance!
Grant victory to the Orthodox Christians
over their adversaries,
and by virture of thy cross,
preserve thy habitation.

This is to represent the Russian people praying for safety and peace. Next, the music gets tense to demonstrate an approaching conflict.

The next main theme heard is called La Marseillaise. It's the French national anthem. It's to represent the approaching French army. You can hear just this theme here.

Finally, God intervenes and sends the bitter cold winter winds (these can be heard in the music, too). The choir returns to represent this. Now the Russians prevail against their attackers. A low brass theme is heard underneath the main theme. This is the Russian national anthem God Save the Tsar!, and can be heard here. And here come the cannons!

Lastly, there is much celebrating and bell ringing! Victory is to God and the Russian people.

Now you can listen to the piece in its entirety. It's almost 17 minutes long. Make sure that you turn it up fairly loud (at least to start with) because it starts very quietly.

The 1812 Overture, Opus 49 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

For those interested, this recording is Lorin Maazel conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.

Jon's Interpretation:

I absolutely love the excitement of this piece. It kind of covers the whole spectrum. It starts out very peaceful, quiet and serene. Then, it gets tense, and you get some ups and downs until it builds to a huge climax, and then come the cannons! I think there need to be more musical pieces that incorporate cannons. It adds color to a piece like nothing else can. I've actually seen the 1812 performed live, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has not. The cannons on this recording are good, but nothing, and I mean nothing, beats live.

Extra Credit:

Peter Schickele has made a career of being, what I think of as, the Weird Al of Classical music. He writes parodies, but instead of making fun of popular music, he makes fun of classical music. He does this using a fictional character named P. D. Q. Bach, who is supposed to be an illegitimate son of the famous Johann Sebastian Bach.

Anyway, P. D. Q. Bach "wrote" a piece of music called The 1712 Overture. This is his parody of The 1812 Overture, and it's so well done that I had to include it here. I will warn you, though, that as much as I love it, once you hear this, you'll never be able to listen to the 1812 Overture the same way again.

The hymn in the beginning is replaced by "Yankee Doodle" (listen carefully). The French national anthem is replaced by "Pop Goes the Weasel". Some themes are kept, but they're just played backwards or inversed. The album jacket gives a very elaborate story about the 1712 overture (which is really worth a read, but too long to include here), but part of it is J. S. Bach going to test a new pipe organ in Massachussetts. This is the reason why there's this weird organ solo in the middle (see if you can pick out "Day Tripper"; at the end of the piece, enjoy a little tribute to Toccata and Fugue in D Minor). This is also why you hear a little bit from the Fourth Movement of the New World Symphony (which replaces the Russian national anthem) [see April 2009 Music of the Month]. And instead of cannons, popping balloons.

In my opinion, this is P. D. Q.'s best work. Enjoy!

1712 Overture by P. D. Q. Bach