The Year 1812, Festival Overture in E-flat Major, Op. 42, more conventionally known as the 1812 Overture, may be one of the most recognized pieces of Western art music. Tchaikovsky wrote it in 1880 on a commission for performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. It was intended to be part of a festival to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the 1812 Battle of Borodino, in which Russian forces turned back Napolean’s invading Grande Armee outside Moscow. This was an utterly improbable victory: the French forces were well-trained, battle-hardened, and large, numbering around 150,000. They had state-of-the-art artillery, and they had never lost a battle. The Russians had no hope of matching them on any level. However, the French were exhausted from a long campaign, while the Russians had their people from which to draw reserves. Both sides suffered heavy casualties during the battle, but the French ultimately felt their losses more profoundly. The Russians, though, were forced to retreat from Moscow. Yet in doing so, they burned a large portion of the city, denying the French quarter in the cold. A deep freeze set in, which froze much of the French artillery to the ground. At this point, the Russians were able to force a retreat of the exhausted French forces, turning their own artillery against them. Only about 23,000 Frenchmen made it back across the Russian border.
The 1812 Overture portrays the events in and around that battle. It opens with a hymn based on the Russian Orthodox Troparion of the Holy Cross as the Russian people, hearing of the impending invasion, pray for deliverance. Tense preparations for battle follow. The French can be heard approaching to the tune of La Marseillaise, which grows ever more prominent as they gain the upper hand in battle. A folk dance (“At the gate, at my gate”) comes in, depicting the Tsar appealing to his people to join the cause. The battle continues with the French still dominating, followed by more appeals to the people. With Moscow burning, the tide finally turns as the opening hymn returns punctuated by icy woodwind scales, heralding divine intervention by deep freeze in the Russians’ favor. The famous finale features scored cannon shots and clanging bells, meant to reflect the Russian appropriation of the French artillery and the celebratory ringing of church bells at the conclusion of the battle.
Tchaikovsky was a rather miserable fellow, and that is evident in his feelings about this piece, which he saw as little more than a vapid propaganda exercise. There are some truly choice quotes in this discussion of his correspondence relating to the 1812 Overture. My favorite: “It is impossible to set about without repugnance such music which is destined for the glorification of something that, in essence, delights me not at all.”
Here’s a rousing recording, complete with pealing bells and roaring cannons at the end:
A nice article from 2003 about how this Russian overture became an American 4th of July tradition.
The 1812 Overture has inspired countless pop culture responses. Here are just a few:
Vodafone made an ad in which they used 1000 cellphones to recreate the finale of 1812.
In case you were wondering, I do not endorse any of the stuff in these commercials.