Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture

The Battle of Borodino on August 26, 1812, by artist Lejeune, Louis-Francois, Baron (1775-1848). Found in the collection of Musée de l’Histoire de France, Château de Versailles. Tchaikovsky uses five cannon blasts in his 1812 Overture to symbolize this battle and the beginning of Russia’s victory in the war.
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

With a performance history going back over 300 years, Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" may have been written by a Russian to commemorate a new cathedral, but today it is perhaps most well known as a musical symbol of America's independence.

A Grand Commemoration

In 1880, Tchaikovsky’s friend Nikolai Rubinstein suggested that the Russian composer of some of the world's most beloved ballets should create a grand work to be played in honor of a number of upcoming events. Rubinstein specifically had in mind the completion of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior (which also served as a memorial commemorating Russia’s victory in the 1812 French Invasion of Russia), as well as the 25th anniversary of Emperor Alexander II’s coronation and the Moscow Arts and Industry Exhibition of 1882. In October that same year, Tchaikovsky began composing the work and completed it six weeks later.

Musical Structure

Tchaikovsky’s score is a musical account of the events that transpired during Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812. When over 400,000 French soldiers with their 1,000-plus cannons and artillery began marching toward Moscow, Russia’s Holy Synod called its people to pray for safety, peace, and deliverance, knowing full well that Russia’s Imperial Army was only a fraction of the size of Napoleon's—and ill-equipped for battle to boot. Russians gathered in churches across the country and offered their prayers. 

Tchaikovsky represents this in the overture’s opening by scoring the one-stanza Eastern Orthodox hymn, "Troparion of the Holy Cross (O Lord, Save Thy People)" for four cellos and two violas. To symbolize the increase of wartime tensions, Tchaikovsky employs a combination of pastoral and martial themes. When French forces approach closer and closer to the city and the fighting commences, the French National Anthem, "La Marsillaise," is heard more prominently, eventually overwhelming the orchestra once it appears that the French are invincible.

At this point, Russia’s Tsar calls upon the people of Russia to leave their homes and defend their country alongside their fellow soldiers. The Overture now shifts gears, with a series of Russian folk melodies coming to the fore. The French and Russian themes go back and forth, symbolizing the fighting leading up to the Battle of Borodino, the turning point in the war. Here, Tchaikovsky's score features the blasts of five cannons, followed by a series of descending melodies as the French retreat. Russia’s victory celebrations are represented by a grandiose iteration of "O Lord, Save Thy People," complete with the ringing of bells of all kinds and 11 more cannon blasts.

Initial Performances

Big plans were made for the overture’s first performance. Concert organizers envisioned the performance taking place in the square just outside of the newly completed cathedral, with a large brass ensemble supplementing the orchestra. The cathedral’s bells, as well as the bells of other downtown Moscow churches, would ring on cue with the overture. Even cannons with electronically wired ignition switches were planned to fire on cue. Sadly, this grand concert never materialized, largely in part to its overambitious production and the assassination of Emperor Alexander II on March 13, 1881. The overture was finally performed in 1882 during the Moscow Arts and Industry Exhibition in a tent outside of the cathedral (which wasn’t completed until 1883).

Tchaikovsky and the Pops

Perhaps the most famous performance of the "1812 Overture" took place not in Russia or in Europe, but in America. Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler was no doubt inspired by the overture's exhilarating musical structure when he decided to include it as part of his 1974 Independence Day performance. In addition, Fiedler choreographed fireworks, cannons, and a steeple bell choir to the overture. Since then, orchestras all over the U.S. quickly followed suit, and it is now a tradition to perform the overture during Independence Day celebrations. As a result, many American’s have come to believe that the piece represents the victory of the United States against the British Empire during the War of 1812, never mind that the overture includes "La Marsillaise" and "God Save the Tsar." Still, if Tchaikovsky were alive today, he might be flattered at the misrepresentation, since the mark of any great artwork is its timelessness and universal relevance.