1812 Overture Op 49 – Tchaikovsky’s Frankenstein Monster

……although the most celebrated section of the work is inevitably Tchaikovsky’s flamboyant, proto-cinematic finale, its opening passage is equally spectacular – albeit spectacularly understated. – ClassicFM.com

Let us dispel a common misconception before we begin:
The idea that the overture was written to represent the United States victory over England in the War of 1812 is false.

1812 Overture cannonsOne of the most famous climactic pieces of classical music commonly used in fireworks displays and patriotic events such as Independence Day in the US and the 5th of November in Britain (Guy Fawkes Night), The Year 1812 Solemn Overture commonly known as the 1812 Overture was composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to commemorate the successful Russian defence against Napoleon’s invading Grande Armée in 1812. Having heard the most celebrated section more often than I care to in cinema, other media and new years eve events I listen to 1812 Overture mainly for its opening passage which as described above ‘is equally spectacular – albeit spectacularly understated‘.

According to Wikipedia: The overture debuted in Moscow on August 20, 1882, conducted by Ippolit Al’tani under a tent near the then-unfinished Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which also memorialized the 1812 defence of Russia. Tchaikovsky himself conducted another performance at the dedication of Carnegie Hall in New York City. That was one of the first times a major European composer visited the United States.

The overture is best known for its climactic volley of cannon fire, ringing chimes, and brass fanfare finale. The 1812 Overture went on to become one of Tchaikovsky’s most popular works, along with his ballet scores to The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake.

Other interesting information about the Overture from the Classic FM.com:

*Tchaikovsky hated the piece.

That infamous assessment of it as “very loud and noisy and completely without artistic merit, obviously written without warmth or love,” was penned by Tchaikovsky himself. The overture’s popularity was a source of deep frustration to this sensitive, serious-minded symphonist whose imaginative fantasy and whimsical, melodic turn of phrase had also managed to transform the art of composing ballet music to a high calling.

Tchaikovsky cranked out the 1812 Overture in six weeks, cutting his imagination loose with every note and theme designed to tug at Russian heartstrings. And although the most celebrated section of the work is inevitably Tchaikovsky’s flamboyant, proto-cinematic finale, its opening passage is equally spectacular – albeit spectacularly understated.

Needing to ground the music in some fundamental truths about the Russian mind and spirit, Tchaikovsky opens by recalling a soulful Orthodox hymn, ‘Troparion of the Holy Cross’. A lesser composer might have sentimentalised the harmonies, but Tchaikovsky places this objet trouvé delicately on four violas and eight cellos, like an ethereal and wistful sound borrowed from the memory bank of history.

Tchaikovsky ought to have been proud. He had written the ultimate showpiece, but his faith in the 1812 Overture quickly unravelled. His aspiration to see it performed in the cathedral square, with a brass band marching on stage to clinch the climax – only to top that with cathedral bells and cannon fire – proved impractical.

Tchaikovsky hadn’t reckoned on a basic logistical flaw: that the arithmetic of exploding cannon shots in time to the music proved trickier than splitting the atom. A time lag between releasing the barrel and the shot sounding made shot-to-score co-ordination impossible. Then in 1881, the Emperor of Russia, Alexander II, was assassinated and triumphalist music suddenly seemed inappropriate. The work had its first hearing – indoors – at the Arts and Industry Exhibition two years later; no brass band, no cannon shots, no cathedral bells.

If he didn’t like his 1812 he’d have hated how its been used since….

  • 

1962 Used in a commercial for Quaker Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice – with the slogan, ‘This is the cereal that is shot from guns.’
  • 1967 Charlie Drake as orchestral musician, then conductor, tickles the nation’s funny bone by performing the 1812 Overture single-handedly, dressed in an ill-fitting tuxedo.
  • 1971 Woody Allen uses the 1812 Overture on the soundtrack to a love scene in his comedy Bananas.
  • 1974 The piece becomes part of American folklore after a televised Boston Pops performance captures the national mood.
  • 1976 In an episode of The Muppet Show, Gonzo grows a tomato plant to the accompaniment of the 1812 Overture.
  • 1990 In an episode of The Simpsons, Bart hums the 1812 Overture manically as he prepares an Evel Knievel-style death- defying stunt with his skateboard.
  • 1995 The Swingle Singers release an a cappella 1812 Overture, complete with air-raid sirens and machine gun fire.
  • 2005 The dystopian thriller V For Vendetta gives the
 1812 Overture a sinister twist, referencing it alongside music by The Velvet Underground and The Rolling Stones to suggest a society out of balance.

  • 2009 An advert for Vodafone New Zealand recreates the
 1812 Overture using the ringtones of 1000 mobile phones. It sounded horrible.

“The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize, the less I know.”- Michel Legrand

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Posted in Music
12 comments on “1812 Overture Op 49 – Tchaikovsky’s Frankenstein Monster
  1. When I witnessed the Boston Pops play the 1912 on July 4 1986, I then when home and was able to watch it “live” on TV. The delayed broadcast differed considerably from the performance in the flesh – the cannons were fired exactly on cue!

  2. selizabryangmailcom says:

    I can’t even imagine hearing this live and in the exact fashion Tchaicovky originally intended!
    I definitely never thought about the cannons and timing and all that before. Wow! Thanks!

    His negative feelings about the music later remind me of artists who loathe famous works for one reason or another. A big mystery is why Woody Allen hated his film Manhattan so much, but he did. More understandably, Mario Puzo was having money problems and his agent told him to write something “with more sex and violence” so he could actually sell something, and The Godfather was born…much to his regret, on some level at least, lol !!!

    • I am envious of my friend Bruce who you may have read in another comment here had seen the Boston Symphony Orchestra perform it live.
      That’s funny you mention Manhattan a movie I wrote about here and mentioned: ‘Supposedly Allen didn’t like Manhattan, which surprises me, but I wonder if it was because its story and premise was a bit close to home? I’ve noticed his more recent personas encapsulate a less ‘introspective’ Woody and are driven towards showcasing other uniquely neurotic characters and more forceful stories and plots.’ Only recently did I watch an interview with Woody; I think it might have been the one with Sir Michael Parkinson (which is wonderful by the way) where he mentioned his disliking Manhattan.
      I didn’t know that about Mario Puzo. I’m intrigued to know why he may have regretted writing the Godfather? I haven’t read it myself.

  3. selizabryangmailcom says:

    Yeah, I was jealous when I saw Bruce’s response about the live performance!
    My mother used to be good about taking my brother and me to interesting events like that, but I’ve proven to suck very badly at taking myself as an adult.

    So none of know what the deal is with Woody and Manhattan, huh? I’ll have to look for your review of it in here. Hmm…

    Yeah, evidently Mario hates “The Godfather” ’cause it’s his version of chick lit, except it’s man lit, you know? Sex and violence. So even though my book hasn’t become a best seller or become an underground classic (lol), because it’s a comedy about vampires and aliens, I wouldn’t do back flips if it somehow became insanely popular. It’s sort of embarrassing, on one level at least. So that’s how I think Mario felt. And maybe he also felt like he clilched Italians.

    When I was trying to find out about Stairway to Heaven (’cause I heard Robert Plant hated that song after a while) I found this website that’s interesting about famous folk who hated their works: https://listverse.com/2015/02/18/10-artists-who-hated-their-own-masterpieces/ I’m sure there must be a lot more! Tchaikovsky’s discontent had good company!

    • I too was fortunate as a child that we attended events like that. I’m hoping to take my kids soon to see Circus OZ who are coming to visit Bogota. I’m afraid I have not been so proactive in the past to enjoy such extravaganzas with my children so I’m trying to make amends to keep my moral credits up. Hehe.

      My review of Manhattan is here:
      https://observationblogger.com/2014/04/12/manhattan-a-stupendous-movie-about-dating-and-relationships/

      That is fascinating regarding Mario Puzo’s distaste for his most esteemed book. ‘Man-lit’ and cliched Italians Haha.

      Hold on! You have written a book about vampires and aliens and you aren’t pulling my leg? I hope one day it becomes insanely popular so you can hate it lol Would you be kind enough to point me to where I could find more information about it? I’m fascinated to learn more.

      I’m afraid I share the same opinion as Robert Plant regarding that song. I’m going to look at that link you shared with me. Thank you.

      • selizabryangmailcom says:

        Thank you for the link! Can’t wait to see what you had to say about Manhattan.

        Not pulling your leg about the book but wish I was. I shouldn’t get so down on it, though.
        It was fun to write and the sequel’s at the publisher’s. It’s called Day for Night, Stacey E. Bryan, but I really don’t tell men about it ’cause it’s not for them. You can take a look at the horrible cover, though, which I asked the publisher to re-design, so we’ll see what happens….! Thanks for asking. You’re very polite, lol !!

        I hope you get to this Circus Oz thing you talk about. You’re a good father! I did try with my stepson, although everything we did was more low-key–bike riding in the park, camping in Upstate New York. My husband and I did manage to get him to Universal Studios and Disneyland, though, so he can’t hate us TOO too much, hahaha.

        BTW, you’re in Bogota?

      • I hope you like my review. Speaking of liking other people’s stuff, I enjoyed reading about your book in ‘goodreads’ and Amazon. I’m thrilled you already have a sequel in the pipeline and by golly you have an actual publisher! This must be so exciting for you. I can tell from the excerpts I read in the customer reviews and also by how you write here, you are very talented and I wish you great success with your two books. I hope one day I get to read them despite my not being part of your target audience, being a male and all!

  4. selizabryangmailcom says:

    Thanks for your kind words. I appreciate it!
    Tchaikovky I am not.
    But I think I got a few laughs out of some folks, at the very least. 🙂

  5. selizabryangmailcom says:

    LOL ! ! 🙂

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