Revisiting That American Summer Staple, Tchaikovsky's '1812 Overture'

Aug 8, 2017

Every summer, many American audiences are reintroduced to a classic, the "1812 Overture." The only problem is, this piece by Peter Tchaikovsky isn’t American at all.

In fact, it has nothing to with the USA. 

Yet we hear it every summer, at pops concerts and Fourth of July fireworks displays.

One of the more remarkable feats of Peter Tchaikovsky’s "1812 Overture," is how he manages to cram a bit of European geopolitical history into 15 minutes of music.

As a quick clarification; this piece is not about the American War of 1812, between the U.S. and Britain. It wasn’t even written in 1812. It’s actually about the Napoleonic Wars. The piece is a celebration of the Russian victory over Napoleon.

But before the cannons and the fanfare, Tchaikovsky actually opens the piece with a prayer, sort of a hymn-like tune.

“It really is a religious song,” says Carl Grapentine, morning host for classical radio station WFMT in Chicago. “It’s played by just the cellos and violas, and it’s called ‘Oh Lord Save Thy People.’”

Grapentine says beginning quietly is an effective way to build tension in the piece.

“You don’t want to just start and bang away for 15 minutes, and so with that sort of that prayer. It could be thought of as a prayer before battle for that matter,” says Grapentine.

But then the battle begins. Tchaikovsky quickens the pace, and adds drums and horns. If you remember your European history, Napoleon was an officer in the French army after the revolution. After some success on the battlefield he convinces the French Senate to name him emperor. He decides to expand the French empire, and starts marching through Europe conquering nations.

This is where Grapentine says the piece really starts to gain momentum.

“As it generates a little more excitement later on you begin to hear the first hints of the French national anthem La Marseilles,” says Grapentine.

Then we get a musical battle between the French and the Russians. This is not exactly an accurate musical representation of what mostly happened. The Russians didn’t really fight Napoleon’s army with major forces lining up on the battlefield.

In fact, the Russian army retreats. But it was a strategic retreat. The Russians themselves go around burning their own lands and resources so by the time the French reach Moscow it’s pretty much empty. Basically they just tire the French out.

Napoleon's retreat from Moscow
Credit Adolph Northen (1828–1876) / Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

But then out of the bleakness bursts this grand Russian song called God Save the Tsar. Tchaikovsky may have played a little loose with history hear, creating a sort of “Russia Triumphant” scenario.

This piece was written well after 1812. It was kind of a propaganda piece to celebrate Russian history. Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write it for a cathedral opening some 70 years after Napoleon marched to Moscow. And if you want to talk about being loose with history, the songs Tchaikovsky uses aren’t exactly accurate either.

“Even though we associate the Marseilles with the French Revolution, it wasn’t really written until a few years after in 1795, but then Napoleon banned that song during his reign so it would not have been used during the battle of 1812,” says Grapentine. “And as for God Save the Tsar, it hadn’t been composed in 1812. So really, both of those tunes don’t belong, even though they’re part of the success of the piece.”

So why do we hear the "1812 Overture" every summer as we chow down on hamburgers and watch Independence Day fireworks?

“I think it’s just all about the cannons,” says Grapentine. “I mean if you think about it, it’s kind of strange that we play it at American patriotic celebrations. As I always say, nothing says America like the Russians defeating the French.”

And though Tchaikovsky brought the piece to the most venerable of concert stages Carnegie Hall, the tradition is really rooted in modern pops orchestras.

“Most people trace the practice back to Arthur Fielder and the Boston Pops,” says Grapentine. “He started using it to accompany the annual Fourth of July fireworks on the river in Boston, and now it’s become just what everybody does.”

But that’s not the end of the story. Though audiences adore this perennial hit, it turns out Tchaikovsky himself didn’t like the piece. 

“He wrote once in a letter to his benefactor, ‘I am not a conductor of festival pieces.’ But he went on the overture would be very loud and noisy, but without artistic merit, because I wrote it without warmth and without love,” says Grapentine.

But perhaps Tchaikovsky was wrong. His opinion does not seem to have any bearing on people’s love of this piece.