Siouxland Observer

Master of Science

Sunday, July 03, 2016

An 1812 4th of July

Tchaikovsky hated it.  Not America’s 4th of July celebration, but the "1812 Overture" itself. Tchaikovsky died November 6, 1893, long before Arthur Fielder led the Boston Pops through the same piece in 1974.

But Fielder's "1812 Overture" had fireworks, real cannons and a coordinated steeple-bell choir at the Pops' summer concert on the Esplanade that year, according to Andrew Druckenbrod. Today, many know the loud, live cannon fire and ringing bells well. The “1812 Overture” is heard every 4th of July at concerns across America.

Perhaps Tchaikovsky would have enjoyed the noise today, although it is doubtful. According to, he wrote the ultimate showpiece, but his aspiration to see it performed in the cathedral square, with a brass band, cathedral bells and cannon fire proved impractical.

There is a basic logistical flaw, said. The arithmetic of the exploding cannons will not work. The time lag between the firing of the cannons and the musical score cannot be coordinated in a live performance.

Could this be why Tchaikovsky hated his overture?  Why he wrote that it was “very loud and noisy and completely without artistic merit, obviously written without warmth or love.”  This is nonsense, of course, but understandable.

As a young man, a reporter, who asked about classical music, was told to listen to Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” Not the best advice, perhaps....  How many young people can hear cannon fire in the pounding of a drum?  But that is exactly what Tchaikovsky tried to do, and remarkably so.

There is no need for real cannon fire (although fun), given this history,  The overture needs no embellishment. In their excellent article, “The 1812 Overture: the hit that Tchaikovsky hated," reported that the Battle of Borodino is the event that Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” commemorates, and was the key battle of the Napoleonic Wars — and its bloodiest.

Seventy thousand troops perished as Napoleon’s army attacked the Imperial Russian Army outside the village of Borodino, west of Moscow.

Over a 24-hour period, the French bombarded the Russian Army, capturing the strategic points on the battlefield, but failed to destroy their enemy.  Napoleon occupied the battlefield after the fighting was over, exploiting his position to launch an attack on Moscow, where he waited for over a month for a Russian surrender that never came.

Napoleon, like many before and after him, failed to understand Russia’s harsh winters. With food running out, Napoleon was forced to retreat.

In Tchaikovsky’s music, Russian folk songs chase away the French national anthem, "The Marseillaise," before obliterating it in sound, according to Most Americans remember a breakfast cereal "puffed" in cannons though.  Still, Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” is serious music.

Layman’s Review, on, said Mozart’s "Piano Concerto No. 25" played a roll in its creation. Tchaikovsky "used extensive quotes from 'The Marseillaise' to represent the invading French army," it said.

According to the article, Mozart influenced Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, the composer of "La Marseillaise," which helps explain common threads between Mozart's concerto and Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture."

But did Tchaikovsky read Mozart?  Of course.  Like Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 25” though, the “1812 Overture" gets boring fast.  But both should be dusted off and played loudly this time of year.  They dull the bombs bursting in the air, for sure — like the one that just hit the car.