Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture

The Battle of Borodino on August 26, 1812, by artist Lejeune, Louis-Francois, Baron (1775-1848). Found in the collection of Musée de l’Histoire de France, Château de Versailles. Tchaikovsky uses five cannon blasts in his 1812 Overture to symbolize this battle and the beginning of Russia’s victory in the war.
The Battle of Borodino on August 26, 1812, by artist Lejeune, Louis-Francois, Baron (1775-1848). Found in the collection of Musée de l’Histoire de France, Château de Versailles. Tchaikovsky uses five cannon blasts in his 1812 Overture to symbolize this battle and the beginning of Russia’s victory in the war. Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Overview: 1812 Overture 

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. Tchaikovsky himself called for the use of cannons in his score.) Since then, orchestras all over the USA quickly followed suit, and it became a tradition to perform the overture on Independence Day.

 Now, many American’s believe that Tchaikovsky’s overture represents the USA’s victory against the British Empire during the War of 1812, however, Tchaikovsky’s music 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 Tsar within the overture. 

History: 1812 Overture

In 1880, Tchaikovsky’s friend, Nikolai Rubinstein, suggested that he should compose a grand work with intentions for its use at a number of upcoming events including the completion of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (which also served as a memorial commemorating Russia’s victory in the French Invasion of Russia), the 25th anniversary of Emperor Alexander II’s coronation, and the Moscow Arts and Industry Exhibition of 1882. In October that same year, Tchaikovsky began composing the work and completed it six weeks later.

Big plans were made for the overture’s first performance. Concert organizers envisioned the performance taking place in the square just outside of the newly completed cathedral with a large brass ensemble supplementing the orchestra. The cathedral’s bells, as well as the bells of other downtown Moscow churches, would ring on cue with the overture.

Even cannons with electronically wired ignition switches were planned to fire on cue. Sadly, this grand concert never materialized, largely in part to its overambitious production and the assassination of Emperor Alexander II on March 13, 1881. The overture was finally performed in 1882 during the Moscow Arts and Industry Exhibition in a tent outside of the cathedral (which wasn’t completed until 1883)

Musical Structure: 1812 Overture

Tchaikovsky’s score is nearly a literal account of events that transpired in the war. When over 500,000+ French soldiers with their 1,000+ cannons and artillery began marching towards Moscow, Russia’s Holy Synod called its people to pray for safety, peace, and deliverance, knowing full well that Russia’s Imperial Army was only a fraction of the size and ill-equipped for battle. Russians gathered in churches across the country and offered their prayers. Tchaikovsky represents this in the overture’s opening by scoring the Eastern Orthodox Troparion (a short, one stanza hymn) of the Holy Cross (O Lord, Save Thy People) for four cellos and two violas. As wartime tensions and stresses increase, Tchaikovsky employs a combination of pastoral and martial themes.

When French forces approach closer and closer to the city, the French National Anthem is heard more prominently. 

Fighting between the two countries continues, and it seems the French are invincible as their anthem overwhelms the orchestra. Russia’s Tsar calls upon his people to venture out to defend their country. As the Russian people begin leaving their homes and joining their fellow soldiers, Russian folk melodies are increasingly voiced. The French and Russian themes go back and forth. This leads to the Battle of Borodino, the turning point in the war. Tchaikovsky scores the blasts of five cannons.Following the Battle of Borodino, Tchaikovsky represents the French’s retreat with a series of descending melodies.Russia’s victory celebrations are represented by a grandiose iteration of O Lord, Save Thy People with bells of all kinds ringing as if there were no tomorrow and eleven more cannon blasts.