2008-09 Gathering of Voices

Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, Opus 49 (Original Scoring)

Albert Clay

When I was young, I spent a fair part of my early adolescence fascinated with armed conflict, the space program, and the pyrotechnical devices used in those fields. Due to a series of misunderstandings the nature of which I am not able to quite reconstruct, I managed to conflate the father of Russian rocketry Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky with the Russian Romantic composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Sometime later, when I had realized that Tchaikovsky was not a great pioneer in astronautic theory but was simply an acclaimed composer, I realized how marvelously appropriate my confusion had been, particularly in context of the 1812 Overture's explosive ending. I have most often heard this work performed for the Fourth of July, its grand finale punctuated by sixteen cannon shots,  and at times further accentuated by a fireworks display going off in time with the majestically bombastic coda. Ever since I first heard it performed by the Boston Pops for a Fourth of July, I have been intrigued and impressed by how the piece seems to tell a story through representative musical themes. In the next few pages, I will touch upon the historical background of the work and its composer, delineate the structural elements of the Overture, and share my own general analyses of the work.

Tchaikovsky was born May 7, 1840, in what is now the Russian republic of Udmurtia, and died November 6 1893,  leading a life rather fraught with discord. For example, though he displayed musical talent at a young age, his parents decided that a career as a bureaucrat would be ideal for him, and enrolled him in a training academy for the civil service, which forced him to seek musical instruction from outside the school. He graduated from the school as the lowest possible rank of civil servant, and served a mere three years in the Russian bureaucracy before further pursuing musical instruction. This sort of not quite ideal path seemed to establish an ongoing pattern of not quite fitting.  In many ways, Tchaikovsky's circumstances and career lead to him uneasily straddle parallel yet not quite congruent worlds, and this kind of torn and conflicted experience was a driving force in his artistic expression. As a Russian composer, trained at the cultural crossroads of St. Petersburg in its conservatory, he was strongly influenced by Western ideals. Although he was of Russia's musical elite due to his education by Anton Rubinstein and eventually became a  professor at the Moscow Conservatory, his own Russian contemporaries (known as the Five) found him to be far too Western and not sufficiently Russian enough. This is particularly ironic in how he is viewed today as quintessentially the Russian Romantic composer, as exemplified by the 1812 Overture (with its use of Russian folk songs and patriotic themes) and Swan Lake (derived from Russian folk-tales). Another source of conflict in his life was his homosexuality, which he attempted to conceal by engaging in a doomed loveless marriage with a student of his from the Moscow Conservatory, a marriage which ended unconsummated and in short order. Given the social mores and laws of Russia, which frowned upon homosexuality, Tchaikovsky's own emotional lability (as demonstrated by the strong emotional content of his music), and his lack of true acceptance by his own Russian peers, this would seem to indicate that Tchaikovsky was a man that walked a conflicted path. However, in the end, his efforts on behalf of Russian music were recognized and he was given the Order of St. Vladimir by Tsar Nicholas III, which more than symbolically gave him the royal stamp of approval.

Originally commissioned as a work to be presented for consecration of the Cathedral of the Saviour in Moscow (which was constructed in honor of the liberation of the Russia from the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte) which required the work to be populist and patriotic, and by all measure, the 1812 Overture certainly qualifies.  Instead of being a dirge lugubriously mourning the horrific slaughter of the loss at the Battle of Borodino in 1812,  the Overture is rather a commemorative piece, full of fervor and vigor, which makes it seems like the aftermath of that battle was a grand Russian victory against the forces of Napoleon.  In actuality, the end result of the Battle of Borodino was a French pyrrhic victory in that the Russian forces retreated after a horrific mutual slaughter, preserving the integrity of their remaining badly mauled forces and opening the road to Moscow, which allowed the French to occupy the city. Considering that Moscow was then burnt to the ground, not providing any useful shelter or resources, caused the already logistically over-extended  French to be in an untenable position, thereby causing a very long retreat in the midst of the Russian winter, which caused the wasting away of the Napoleonic forces during the long, frigid, and bloody retreat. The Russians triumphed by attrition, having more troops available to lose during the long harrying of the French forces from Russia, and also due to the debilitating effects of the Russian winter upon the logistically cut off French army.  Tchaikovsky artfully conveyed the overall idea of a Russian victory in the face of great adversity by presenting the conflict in musical terms, with Russian themes in contrast to the French theme.

The piece opens somberly, with a small group of cellos playing, mournfully and somberly foreshadowing the slaughter to come. According to the liner notes, the music is derived from the hymn, God Preserve Thy People, which is quite apropos in light of the great conflict it is foreshadowing. It has a preemptive mourning quality, and is followed by what I believe is a plaintive sounding oboe which quickly segues into strings building up to bombastic horns, creating a theme I shall call the martial theme, building tension all the while. A descending line of strings follows, which quickly leads into   A snare drum beats out a martial rhythm while horns play a Russian military like theme (which felt to me like something that might be played whilst one is readying one's cavalry).  Another theme then appeared, driven by strings and also climbing upwards, like a gathering conflict.  The strings build up to another crescendo, which is then responded to by horns and drums playing a very powerful version of the Marseillaise, characterized by passages in which the horns play the first eight notes or so that melody, and repeat several times, before then playing those same notes and the subsequent ones. This interruption of the expected continuation of the Marseillaise very effectively builds in an expectation of tension. then trails off with repetitions of the same starting notes in a descending pattern which by elision transforms into   the greatly contrasting sound of strings gently playing what is most likely some sort of Russian folk song, that almost positively sparkles in its twee-ness and pastorality (and therefore contrasts very effectively with the aggressiveness of the Marseillaise) with the triangle tinkling away in the midst of it. It slowly declines, repeating itself and then via a repetition of a single note uses what seems to be elision again to into what I am considering to be a Cossack-like song, with jingling yet martial sounding bells, like the jangling of the metal-work upon a bridle and tack upon a troop of cavalry. Then the striving strings and horns appear again, turning in the Marseillaise again, which builds through repetition of the first measure or so, but then rising with rising triplets yet again to a clamorous peak, full of ardor and exultation of the French anthem, then declining into somberness and again transitioning gracefully into the delicate twee Russian folk ditty again. The graceful segue into the Cossack-like theme reappears again, with bells but strangely martial sounding at once. The clamor of the Marseillaise emerges yet again, sounding more strident and striving than before, building with a repeating pattern of 3 or 4 notes, with the feel of quick march or a charge into battle, then quickly punctuated by four cannon blasts, then declining with the repetition of approx four notes in a repeated descending pattern. This pattern here I believe is symbolic of the gradual wearing down of the French forces as they retreat. I may not be catching all of the themes used in this process, but the preceding portion may well be of at least a partial sonata-allegro form, with the theme one of the Marseillaise, followed by the theme 2 of the Russian pastoral melodies, repeated, and this final portion as a combination development leading into a coda. As the Marseillaise declines, the theme from early on I termed the martial theme triumphantly reappears, liberally strewn with the pealing of bells, bells rung as if they were church bells rung in celebration of a grand victory, the Marseillaise is quoted once more briefly, before the triumphant Russian cavalry theme crashes to the fore, punctuated with cannon fire after I believe the fourth repetition, and then after each until, culminating in a crescendo of triumphant fervor (that seems to go on and on) and closing finally with rolling drums and horns stopping at once.

It is not at all surprising why this is such a popular piece, in my opinion. It has a very stirring, emotional quality, that readily lends itself to popular enjoyment even without knowledge of what the work actually means, hence its popularity for Fourth of July celebrations.  The use of the strong contrast between the opposing themes, the brassiness of the Marseillaise contrasted against the gentle nature of the folk songs gives an impression of noble resistance against an aggressor. The triumphant Russian cavalry is gaudily celebratory and is quite inspiring. The use of the repeated groups of three or four notes either downwards or upwards also seems to be a particularly effective way of giving an emotional roller coaster ride to the listener.

The version of the performance that I used conducted by Antal Dorati, performed in the University of Minnesota's Northrop Auditorium by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and University of Minnesota Brass Band on April 5, 1958. This performance was designed to be as faithful as possible to Tchaikovsky's original conception of the work. The cannon fire was added in post-production, as were the Bells of the Laura Spelman Memorial Carillon (The Riverside Church), due to the geographic considerations that the cannon and carillon were not transportable for use in Northrup itself nor would it be practical to do so. Interestingly enough, the cannon used was an actual 12 pound siege cannon courtesy of the Museum of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The poundage actually refers to the weight of the standard cast-iron ball projectile that could be fired from the gun, as the weight of the cannon itself is 3180 pounds. This cannon punctuated the piece very well in that it actually has a deeper sound than that of the more usual variety of cannon used on the battlefield, the more maneuverable six pound cannon (commonly known as a grasshopper), and was also historically accurate considering that it was originally a french artillery piece of that very era. From a performance standpoint, the 12 pounder used in this performance has a more resonant feel to it than the usual 105 mm howitzers used in performances by the Boston Pops. This is due to the slower burning nature (and relative crudity)of gunpowder in comparison to the much faster burning propellant used in a modern artillery round which produces a sharper sound.   Also, a modern artillery piece is constructed of much thinner materials, whilst a cannon of the Napoleonic era is seemingly far more sturdy looking in its construction, which may further contribute a more booming sound. The venue itself is one at which I have attended a few musical events, and I can testify to its acoustic qualities, regardless of what style of music was being played, considering that I heard Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie of folk music fame there, and also the whimsical Southern-fried party rock stylings of the B-52s. Not having heard any symphonic type productions there personally, I can not testify to how the venue might react to that sort of sound, but the recording certainly produced a crisp and rich sound.

The Overture was initially played on a Macbook playing loss-lessly encoded music files transferred from the CD, from which the audio was transferred to a fairly high-fidelity stereo setup with disproportionately large speakers for the listening session. After the complaints about the volume, which apparently was not inconsiderable, the music was replayed on an iPod also using the loss-lessly encoded files for maximum fidelity, using studio-grade headphones, in an effort to maintain the integrity of the listening experience.

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