I recently had the opportunity to watch Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture played at an outdoor performance of the Utah symphony. The symphony did a great job, but the best part was –of course- the CANNONS. How can a live concert be un-awesome when it includes choreographed artillery? Take that 2nd amendment haters!
Until I looked up the history of the overture in advance of seeing it performed I has assumed that it was penned for some celebration of the American (pronounced “Murkan”) war of 1812. This conflict resulted in the death of the amazingly named “Zebulon Pike” and the penning of the American national anthem. The American National Anthem features rockets, and I lovingly pictured some 19th century “battle of the bands” with a war of 1812 theme where Tchaikovsky and Francis Scott Key both tried to use pyrotechnics to win big.
Unfortunately Tchaikovsky really penned the 1812 overture to celebrate the Christian god’s divine intervention against the Christian, but slightly more secular, army of Napoleon as he threatened Moscow in the early fall of 1812. Tchaikovsky heavily sampled “La Marseillaise” and the Russian hymn “Spasi, Gospodi, Lyudi Tvoya” (O Lord, Save Thy People) to melodically juxtapose the themes of the two opposing armies. For some reason Tchaikovsky used the French anthem in use at the time of his writing the overture and not the one that the Napoleonic armies used (Veillons au salut de l'Empire).
The mythology presented by the overture is that by praying lots the more pious Russians conjured up a bit of severe early winter weather, and this drove the better equipped and much larger French army away. Interestingly, in 1880 (the year Tchaikovsky wrote the Year 1812 festival overture in E♭ major Op. 49), there was a severe blizzard in North America.
The narrative of praying away the invasion of French influence invading Russia might also have worked if the story was about the influence of the Paris Commune over Russian society, and in 1880 this narrative would have been fresher in the minds of those who first heard Tchaikovsky’s new overture. However, despite the fact that it had only been destroyed nine years earlier, in 1871, the Paris commune's most lasting influence over Russia would still have needed a bit more time to percolate through the mind of Karl Marx before it invaded Russia with its full effect.
It might be interesting to replace the “Spasi, Gospodi, Lyudi Tvoya” samples in the 1812 overture with bits of the “Internationale” (whose 1871 lyrics were finally put to music just 8 years after Tchaikovsky wrote the 1812 overture) and change the meaning of the artillery choreographed in to the work?