September COMPOSER: pytor tchaikovsky
1812 Overture, 1880
(The Year 1812, festival overture in E flat major)
There were many brilliant Tchaikovsky pieces I could have chosen for this last post. He wrote some stunning symphonies, piano concertos and ballets, but in the end I couldn’t go past the 1812 Overture. It has bells, even more bells and proper military cannons and it’s probably one of the most recognised pieces of classical music. It’s been used so many times on television and wait for it, at fireworks events that you probably didn’t even know that you knew it. Well Tchaikovsky was the man that composed it, and he didn’t like it all that much either. Which is a shame, because the public loved it and it’s what cemented his reputation worldwide as a great composer.
Watch the finale, you get the idea of the theatre that this piece has turned into. Skip ahead to 2:45 if you want a quick listen to the extremely recognisable part of the composition.
The full 1812 Overture goes for 15 minutes. It begins with the gentle hint of an orthodox hymn woven through the string section, and builds up to a lengthy dramatic climax which involves the peeling of bells and the firing of cannons.
The overture was written to coincide with a number of nationalist celebrations in Russia – the biggest being the opening of a cathedral to commemorate the 1812 victory over the French invasion. It was a success, however Tchaikovsky himself later said it was “very loud and noisy and completely without artistic merit, obviously written without warmth or love.”
Watch the full performance
What better image could this piece conjure up than that of a party. Starting in the afternoon people slowly drift into the house and mingle about awkwardly in the kitchen, by the BBQ, or sat separately and too far away from each other on fold-out canvas directors chairs or plastic camping stools. A few drinks are had, the food is eaten and slowly, slowly people start to relax and little and talk to each other. Then suddenly as if you’ve just blinked, a couple are dancing in the courtyard, the mosquito coil smoke curling around then, the fairy lights hung from the trees blinking on and off on their faces. The music is louder, people are singing, and spilling out from very room in the house.
The 1812 Overture was said to be a triumph of nationalistic pride featuring Russian folk songs, orthodox hymns and national anthems. It follows the story of the 1812 invasion, but it is well woven and written in true Tchaikovsky lyrical style. He may have composed it in a short 6 weeks but by this stage he had years of experience and what he produced was not only exactly what was wanted, but it has managed to speak to every nation. (The USA use it to commemorate the 4th of July, interesting when you consider the cold war history between the two countries.)
I can see why Tchaikovsky was perhaps disappointed with the response to this piece, compared to his more serious compositions. But I think he overlooked one of the biggest things in the art world – sometimes you need to blockbuster to be able to make more personal art. It’s the same in publishing, in popular music, and I’m sure in the fine art world. The 1812 Overture cemented Tchaikovsky’s hard earned reputation as a composer for generations to come, ensuring that all his other creations would also continue.
End note: If you’re after a bit of light-hearted Tchaikovsky fun, I highly recommend playing this game.