Tchaikovsky would be surprised his music is celebrated in the U.S


The famous Independence Day music is not about the U.S.

I was sitting alone in my room, staring at the window to observe what was going to happen on the night of (or, in the evening of) July 4th. Since I knew that Americans celebrate Independence Day with fireworks, I was quite excited to watch them from my window.

I thought that the fireworks would set off from one particular place. However, I was surprised that people set them off from everywhere. I think that many individuals were letting off fireworks while the main event was happening in Milligan Park.

At first, I enjoyed watching the colorful fireworks decorating a flower garden in the dark sky. I thought that summer has finally arrived as it is also one of the customs that is also done in Japan. There are no particular days in which we have a firework display, but we enjoy it anytime during summer.

However, as I became sleepy, I suffered from their enormous explosive sounds. I was shocked that it continued until midnight. I was not able to go to sleep. I was glad that the following Monday was a holiday because I was able to sleep until late morning.

The sound of fireworks is so loud that I thought of someone blasting cannons continuously. Whenever cannons come into mind, I think of Tchaikovsky’s The Year 1812 Solemn Overture, sometimes often called simply the 1812 Overture.

I asked my friends about it. Although they did not know the title, they knew the music because it is commonly performed on Independence Day. Then, I asked if they knew why it was composed. They said it was something related to the U.S. Well, it is totally wrong.

In 1880, Tchaikovsky’s friend Nikolai Rubinstein suggested the composer write a composition for All-Russian Arts and Industry Exhibition of 1882. He also kept in mind the silver jubilee of Czar Alexander II and the completion of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. This cathedral is known to be the tallest Orthodox church in the world.

The music portrays the Napoleonic Invasion of Russia in 1812. Although Tchaikovsky hated composing this music, he did not decline it. In a letter to his patron, he wrote, “The Overture will be very loud and noisy — but I wrote it without any warm and loving feelings, and consequently it will probably be lacking in artistic elements.”

The first performance did not have cannons, a brass band, nor cathedral bells in the finale. These all proved impractical. For example, it was hard to accurately fire cannons at the right time because of the machines’ performance at that time. Also, controlling the sound is hard since cannons are not made to be musical instruments. 

Some of the readers might wonder how it became a tradition to perform the 1812 Overture on Independence Day. It all began when the Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler was inspired by the overture’s musical structure, especially the finale’s exhilaration. He performed it in his 1974 Independence Day concert, which was broadcast. He even added fireworks. Since then, it spread throughout the U.S., and it became a tradition to perform the piece on July 4th.

Nowadays, many Americans like my friends believe that it is something related to the U.S. Maybe the simple title “1812” confuses people. Americans will remember the War of 1812, when the U.S. won a victory against the British Empire’s invasion. Also, I think most people only know the finale. If they listen to the earlier parts in which the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, is loudly performed, they might realize that it is not related to the U.S.

The music begins with the small ensemble of two violas and four cellos. It is played quietly as if Russian people were praying humbly to God. An Eastern Orthodox hymn, “Tropario to the Holy Cross (O Lord Save the People),” is quoted by the composer in the introduction to express that they were going to face a national crisis. The strings’ warm texture sounds as if actual people singing the lyrics.

It is about people praying to the Lord that He will protect the Czar and the country from their enemies. Compared to the French army led by Napoleon I, Russia did not have a well-equipped and well-trained army. It was obvious that they were going to be defeated by more than 400,000 French troops unless a miracle would happen.

The strings play in crescendo implying that their prayers were getting more serious. The woodwinds join the strings, making the music more colorful. It gives a more detailed scene of people praying in a cathedral.

After the prayer reaches a climax, the orchestra and the timpani play one short striking sound to change the scene, now to the nightmare of crossing the Russian Empire’s borders. However, the Russians still did not know when they would encounter the enemy as the brass instrument plays a melody driving them nervous.

What all the Russians could do was to escape to survive, which is represented by all the strings playing the fast passages. The woodwinds play despairingly, implying that the Russians did not have the spirits to fight.

Then, the enemy appeared from the mist by stepping forward with the snare drum beating. This musically represents the French army invading Russia. The French horns play the national anthem, La Marseillaise, which might be intentional sarcasm by the composer. The Russian people suffered grief, as the strings play depressing phrases with long notes.

The trumpet takes over La Marseillaise from the French horn. It plays the tune much stronger and braver as the French army overpower the Russians. The strings play descending fast scales to imply that the Russians barely escaped and abandoned their hometowns.

Following the national anthem, the whole orchestra plays a Russian folk song, U vorot, vorot (At the Door, At my Door). The lyrics is nothing related about the war, but it is about children playing before their houses. However, the music comforted the Russians’ hearts, who were tired of escaping and desperate about their future. The tambourine and the triangle make the atmosphere cute as the children play innocently. Not only the soldiers, but also the citizens fled with their family from the French army.

The orchestra plays La Marseillaise and U vorot, vorot alternatively to imply that the war was stuck in mud. The Battle of Borodino in September was fierce, known as the largest and bloodiest battle of the war. The French army won the battle and conquered Moscow. However, the Russians did not give up. Instead, they trapped the French army without leaving anything behind to make them starve. They also burned the buildings in the capital to damage the places that the French troops could stay.

As time passed and winter was approaching, the situation got better for the Russians, who knew much more about their country’s climate. The French army started to retreat because of the severe winter. The Russians started attacking with the five cannon blasts while the French was escaping, represented in the piece by the brass instruments playing La Marseille and the strings playing fast descending scales.

Then, the carillon and tubular bells ring as the Russians recover their territory and announce victories from various cathedrals. The additional brass band starts playing to show how the Russians were overwhelming the French army with their delighted spirits.

The French army completely retreated from the Russian Empire and never came back. The war severely damaged France’s military power and pride, which led Napoleon I to lose his position. The entire orchestra plays the Russian Empires’ National Anthem, “God Save the Tzar.” It is played in a gorgeous marching style, and it is hard to recognize that the original national anthem melody is used in the finale. The Russians celebrated and rejoiced their victory by firing salutes of cannons. The more it is played lavishly, the more it makes the finale stand out from all previous parts of the overture.

As you read my music review so far, you would finally be convinced that the overture is not at all related to the U.S. Although many American orchestras play the piece on or around Independence Day, I think that many Americans still do not realize how it is not historically connected to the U.S. Maybe they cannot just wait to listen to the finale with cannons and fireworks, which is their traditional way to celebrate the holiday. 

I wonder how would Tchaikovsky think if he attends to the music event on that day. He might be surprised that the music is enthusiastically celebrated by the U.S. citizens in one particular day. Also, he might be astonished by the fireworks, which he did not include in the music score. However, I think he would agree using them because the piece is about celebration. I hope no severe accident caused by gunpowder will happen in the future because of this music.


Io Maeda is serving as an intern with the Journal Review. He is a rising sophomore at Wabash College and is a native of Japan.


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here