Keepin’ It Classy: The Stories Behind the Most Memorable Classical Compositions of All-Time…Composition #8/50: 1812 Overture by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

In the 1960s, when I was a child, we only had two TV channels that we could access. They were both from our taxpayer-funded national broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation; one channel was CBC in English and the other channel was the CBC in French. As the 1970s dawned, we thought we had moved into the big time because a private broadcasting company called CTV became available. Suddenly there was a wider variety of programming including shows that originated in the United States. A decade or so later, the television universe expanded again with the introduction of something called cable TV. With the advent of cable, a dozen new channels became available at the push of a button on a huge converter box that sat on our coffee table in the living room. The real draw to cable TV was that about half of the new channels that became available actually were American channels. Growing up in Nova Scotia meant that the American channels that we accessed via cable TV all broadcast out of Bangor, Maine (which was the closest US city with its own television stations). Because Maine was considered to be part of the “New England” states, the focus of much of the US cultural coverage on TV from there was centered on Boston. So, I grew up watching the Boston Red Sox baseball team, the Bruins hockey team and the New England Patriots football team as much as I ever did my own Canadian teams (which, at the time, revolved around Toronto and Montreal). Because I was able to immerse myself in the cultural traditions of two different nations, many aspects of American history and culture became very familiar to me and, as such, became part of the fabric of my own identity to a certain degree. This brings me to the Canadian and American national holidays which are celebrated on July 1st and July 4th, respectively. For me, those two holidays became one long weekend of festivities. There were the actual events I attended in my hometown on Canada Day, and then those were bookended by the July 4th celebrations we would watch on cable TV. Not surprisingly, the July 4th evening concert by The Boston Pops Orchestra under the direction of conductor Arthur Fiedler always seemed to serve as the finale for that long weekend of festivities. The finale of that concert was always the “1812 Overture” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Thus, the booming of sixteen real cannons is something I have always associated with my childhood and with my relationship to America.

Childhood is a safe haven for more innocent memories and times. In those days, politics was not part of my thought process. I was proud to be a Canadian citizen. I believed that my country was one of the nice guys on the world stage. I viewed America as being our friends and Americans as being basically good people. There was never any thought of the fact that both countries were built upon foundations of colonization and oppression of indigenous cultures. Back then, it was all hot dogs and fireworks. Good times if you were a wide-eyed, well-behaved white teenage boy like I was.

However, the passing of time has revealed that much of what I believed to be true as a child was, in fact, not true at all. One of the simplest examples comes in the form of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”. Until very recently, I always regarded this composition as being an American patriotic tune. It is not. I believed that this composition was about The War of 1812 and that the reason it is played on the Fourth of July is because of the importance of that war to America and Canada solidifying their status as independent countries, apart from England. I was wrong to believe that, too. The final pinprick into the heart of my nostalgic bubble came in the form of the realization that this most famous of compositions by Tchaikovsky was one that he wrote under duress and always hated because of the crass showiness of how it plays out. So, if the composer hated it and it has nothing to do with America or the Fourth of July, how did the “1812 Overture” become such an integral part of American culture, and by osmosis, my own cultural upbringing? Let’s find out.

Napoleon invades Russia in 1812.

Believe it or not, the “1812 Overture” is actually a composition that chronicles a famous military victory for Russia against Napoleon Bonaparte. Way back in the early 1800s, Napoleon Bonaparte had a reputation as being a cunning military strategist. Without going into the entire geo-political history of Europe at the time, let me tell you that in 1812, Russia found itself the target of an invasion by Napoleon and the mighty French Army. Like many nations who have tried to conquer Russia, France made great headway at first. Not far from Leningrad, a fierce battle was fought. This battle was called The Battle of Borodino. Napoleon’s army eventually prevailed but at the cost of two thirds of its soldiers. Russia then played a trick on Napoleon. They abandoned Moscow. Napoleon mustered the remaining troops at his disposal and marched into Moscow with the complete expectation that he would be greeted as a conquering hero and that terms of surrender would be discussed at that time. However, when French troops arrived, they found Moscow deserted. After a few weeks, Cossack resistance fighters burned Moscow to the ground, leaving Napoleon’s army trapped in a barren, deserted city, far from their supply lines. No Russian emissary ever came to negotiate with Napoleon. Eventually his troops began to starve and became dispirited. With health and morale plummeting, Napoleon made the tactical decision to withdraw from Moscow. However, the French retreat was plagued with hardships brought on by the cruel Russian winter, as well as by guerilla war tactics from what was left of the Russian army. By the time Napoleon made it to the Russian/Polish border, only 20,000 French troops remained from an invasion force that totalled almost half a million when the campaign began. Although Napoleon won all of the major battles his army fought, he ended up losing the war. Three years later, Napoleon would meet his Waterloo at the hands of The Duke of Wellington. Shortly thereafter, exile to the Island of Elba would seal his fate.

Historical fiction is a time-honoured literary genre. In the 1880s, a Russian writer named Leo Tolstoy wrote a novel that you may have heard of called War and Peace. As part of the storyline to this book, Tolstoy recounted the mighty victory enjoyed by Russia over Napoleon and the mighty French army. The publication of “War and Peace” sparked renewed interest in this aspect of Russian history. As the 75th anniversary of The Battle of Borodino approached, the Tsar called for commemorative celebrations to be held. These celebrations were to include parades and concerts. As part of this call to the Arts community, Tchaikovsky was commissioned to create a patriotic piece of music for the Tsar. He was told that it needed to be more loud than quiet, more forceful than subtle. He was told that the Tsar, himself, was expecting Tchaikovsky’s most rousing anthem to date. The piece that Tchaikovsky ended up writing was called The Year 1812, Solemn Overture, Op. 49. As noted earlier, Tchaikovsky hated it. He thought it was loud and crude but it was what was demanded of him by the Tsar who, in turn, thought the “1812 Overture” was perfect.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

The “1812 Overture” clocks in between 12-15 minutes, depending on the orchestra performing it. In that time, Tchaikovsky created a complete timeline of the military campaign. There are periods where Russian music dominates the composition. At other times, the French national anthem is woven into the score to show how Napoleon’s advance into Russia threatened their nation. In the end, the piece concludes with celebratory cannon blasts to signifying the exultation felt all across Russia because of this great victory over a mighty foe.

History is a murky business. This post will be published on July the 4th. No doubt, as the day draws to a close, orchestras all across America will strike up the band and play a Russian military song, while Americans revel in their own patriotism, believing the music to be about them. I have no doubt that many people in my hometown of Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, will tune their televisions to their local cable PBS channel and will watch the concert from the comfort of their Canadian living rooms. As for me, I will participate in Canada Day, and to a lesser extent, July 4th, by wearing an orange shirt dedicated to the memory of those Indigenous children whose bones were ground and mixed together to help create the foundation upon which these two countries were built. Like my boy, Tchaikovsky, I am sure I will think the overt celebratory nature of the day is just a tad too much.

The link to the video for the composition, “The 1812 Overture” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky can be found here. ***Note: the composition begins at the 2:00 mark.

The link to the official website for Classical 103.1…the classical music radio station located in my town of Cobourg, Ontario, can be found here.

The link to the report of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission can be found here.

My daughter and I picking strawberries on July 1st.

***Many Indigenous communities across Turtle Island are recommending that Canadians spend July 1st in sombre reflection with regard to the true nature of how Canada came to be a country and the price paid by Indigenous Peoples as part of that process.

Fireworks or thoughtfulness? I will leave that decision up to you.

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