A musical history lesson

This column is being written on September 7, the date in 1812 on which the Battle of Borodino took place as French troops clashed with Russian forces outside Moscow; that historic battle, ultimately won by Russia, provides the inspiration for Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” performed to great acclaim across the United States on patriotic holidays and other occasions. And I recently discovered that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky hated this almost universally popular piece!

A sensitive, serious-minded musician whose melodic turn of phrase transformed the art of composing ballet music assessed his “1812 Overture” as follows: “very loud and noisy and completely without artistic merit.” Huh? Some scholars believe that Tchaikovsky meant the 1812 to sound ambiguous and questioning, rather than triumphant, in spite of the fact that to the listener, there’s nothing ambiguous about it. To Tchaikovsky, the success of the piece told him that the world cared more about theatrical spectacle than for the personal expression conveyed through his music, convincing him that his art was fundamentally misunderstood.

Tchaikovsky wrote the “1812 Overture” in six weeks in 1880, using every device in his repertoire to tug at Russian heartstrings in a period when Russian pride still flamed at the memory of Tsar Alexander I’s troops thrashing Napoleon’s army. Wanting to express fundamental truths about the Russian spirit, the composer opens his work by recalling an Orthodox hymn; other traditional songs and folk melodies are utilized throughout as he musically portrays the shattering impact of the French invasion on his country. The “Marseillaise” intrudes upon the score, followed by another Russian theme, “God Save the Tsar,” skirmishing with the French anthem; the two nations battle through the music, climaxing with cannon shots and cathedral bells as “God Save the Tsar” triumphantly rings out, proclaiming victory.

The construction of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour had been commissioned to celebrate that victory, and the plan was for Tchaikovsky’s composition to be premiered at the cathedral’s opening. However, the plan had failed to reckon with the fact that, due to the time lag between releasing the shot and the shot sounding, getting cannon shots to explode in time with music is extremely tricky; coordinating the shot to the score proved to be impossible. Additionally, the Emperor of Russia was assassinated in 1881, making triumphalist music seem inappropriate. Therefore, the piece had its first hearing indoors two years later at the Arts and Industry Exhibition without cannon shots or cathedral bells.

However, the 1812 has survived its less than stellar beginning and composer’s disregard, sometimes in ways that Tchaikovsky would also have hated. For example, in 1962, the magnificent strains underscored a commercial for Quaker Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice, cereals carrying the slogan “shot from guns.” Woody Allen used the Overture on the soundtrack to a love scene in his 1971 comedy film Bananas. A 1976 episode of the Muppet Show featured Gonzo growing a tomato plant to the accompaniment of the piece, and in 1990, Bart Simpson manically hummed the tune as he prepared for a death-defying skateboard stunt. And worst of all, in 2009 a New Zealand advertisement recreated the “1812 Overture” using the ringtones of 1,000 mobile phones. Aaargh!

Even though the “1812 Overture” was not held in high regard by its composer, it has become beloved by the public, demonstrating that the person who writes a piece of music cannot be trusted to give a reasoned opinion on it; additionally once a piece leaves the composer’s hand to be shared with others, listeners put their stamp of approval or disapproval on the work based upon their own responses. Audiences have reveled in the noisy splendor of this music for over a century; Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” is celebrated around the world, its magnificent themes and melodies moving hearts and minds despite its origins in another time and culture or its composer’s negative assessment.