……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.
One 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.