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On This Day: Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” Debuts in Moscow

Last updated: February 13, 2023

On Aug. 20, 1882, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky introduced his “1812 Overture,” which commemorated Russia’s defeat of Napoleon, at the 1882 Moscow Exhibition.

A “Loud and Noisy” Piece

Tchaikovsky was commissioned by the Cathedral of Christ the Savior to write the “1812 Overture” to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Russia’s victory over Napoleon in 1812. He worked on the piece between Oct. 12 and Nov. 19, 1880.

Tchaikovsky did not personally enjoy the piece, calling it “very loud and noisy,” according to the Web site Classical Net. However, the audience at the cathedral, where the piece debuted on Aug. 20, 1882, loved it. The overture went on to be played at many performances throughout Russia and Tchaikovsky conducted the piece many times in his life.

Historical Symbolism of the “1812 Overture”

Having conquered most of Europe, Napoleon led an army of 600,000 into Russia beginning in June 1812. It would be an ill-fated invasion that crippled Napoleon’s hold on Europe.

Tchaikovsky’s piece begins solemnly, with “divided cellos and strings intoning the quiet, even mournful hymn ‘God Preserve Thy People’” to represent the mood of the Russian people following Napoleon’s declaration of war, according to Sonia Knox of the Burgess Hill Symphony Orchestra.

The next section includes a lively horn piece, with notes from “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem, to symbolize the arrival of French troops. “This is followed by a Russian folk dance theme, which commemorates the national unity that developed in beating back Napoleon,” according to the University of Kansas’ William Comer.

The Russians chose not to engage Napoleon in direct battle; instead, they retreated to Moscow and employed a scorched earth policy. Suffering from exhaustion, starvation and sickness, Napoleon’s army lost an average of 5,000 people a day from death and desertion, according to PBS. The French losses, says Comer, are reflected in Tchaikovsky’s piece through “dizzying spirals of a diminuendo.”

On Sept. 7, the Russian Army finally met Napoleon head-on in the Battle of Borodino, about 60 miles outside Moscow. More than 100,000 people died in the battle, which was not a decisive victory for either side.

At this point, the overture reaches “its explosive climax using the utmost power of brass and percussion, at which point the cannons add their voices to the score,” writes Knox.

The Russian forces then retreated from Moscow after stripping it off food and supplies, and setting buildings on fire. In October, at the onset of the Russian winter, caught deep in the Russian interior with inadequate food and supplies, Napoleon decided to retreat from Russia.

The overture ends with a church chant and “God Preserve The Czar,” the Russian national anthem, which commemorate the Russian victory.

Biography: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Sources in this Story

  • Classical Net: “1812” Overture in E Flat Major Op. 49
  • PBS: The Russian Campaign, 1812
  • Burgess Hill Symphony Orchestra: ‘1812’ Overture
  • University of Kansas: Chaikovsky’s 1812 Overture
  • Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: How a rousing Russian tune took over our July 4th
  • The New York Times: A Revolution in Fourth of July Concerts Also Started in Boston

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born on May 7, 1840, in Viatka Province, about 600 miles east of Moscow. His first attempts at musical composition came during his nine years at boarding school, including his first published song, “Mezza notte,” writes Tchaikovsky biographer Alexander Poznansky on a Web site dedicated to the composer.

It was not until he attended a class at the Russian Musical Society in 1861, however, that Tchaikovsky decided to dedicate his life to music. He was among the first students when the Saint Petersburg Conservatory opened in 1862. There he studied with famed pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein.

Tchaikovsky began his professional music career in Moscow in 1866, and his early compositions reflected a strong Russian nationalist style. The 1870s and ’80s were productive for the composer, and he wrote several major works, including the “1812 Overture,” but he also suffered from overworking and had several nervous breakdowns.

The composer’s personal life was also a constant source of stress. He married conservatory student Antonina Miliukova, supposedly to suppress rumors about his homosexuality. But less than three months after marrying, Tchaikovsky left his new wife to travel. Despite personal problems, he went on to compose a variety of pieces, including operas and ballets, most famously “Swan Lake,” “The Nutcracker” and “Sleeping Beauty.”

On Nov. 2, 1893, six days after premiering his final work, the “Symphony No. 6 in B minor,” Tchaikovsky died of cholera at the age of 53.

The “1812 Overture” on the Fourth of July

Though the “1812 Overture” is a Russian patriotic song, it has become commonly associated with Independence Day in the United States.

The “1812 Overture” became part of American tradition in 1974, says the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Andrew Druckenbrod, when Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler performed the piece with a fireworks display and real cannons during Boston’s July 4 celebration by the Charles River.

Before the performance, David Mugar, a businessman who sponsored the concerts, told Fiedler that he worried about the coordination of the “explosive ending” with both the overture and the fireworks, according to The New York Times.

But Fiedler knew the crowds wouldn’t be afraid of the music Tchaikovsky once called “noisy,” and replied, “Oh, don’t worry about it, just let all hell break loose at the end of the piece.”

The performance was broadcast across the nation and symphonies everywhere began playing the overture for their own Fourth of July celebrations.

“He was a good musician but the ultimate showman,” clarinetist Thomas Thompson said of Fiedler to the Post-Gazette. “Audiences loved him, and he was a genius at marketing.”

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