Musical Selection: 1812 Overture
Composer: Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
This popular and emotional nationalistic composition begins with a very sad theme: the Russian hymn "God Preserve Thy People.” The sadness here reflects the Russian’s collective sense of hopelessness when Europe’s most powerful ruler, Napoleon, invaded their relatively helpless nation. The hymn represents a prayer for salvation.
As Napoleon advanced, the Russians burned their fields, cottages, and towns, thereby depriving the 650,000 strong French army of a local source of supplies. As the advance continued, the French supply lines grew longer and more vulnerable to quick Cossack- Russian attacks. The French army was too large to effectively respond to these unpredictable lighting strikes. Napoleon’s army was on the path to a slow death. At one point Napoleon refused to ride in his carriage, preferring to walk with his weary men.
The great general had miscalculated how far Moscow was from the French frontier and how long the invasion would take. As the Russian winter closed in he desperately needed a decisive military victory. At Borodino (outside Moscow) he had his chance, but the Russians stood their ground and inflicted heavy causalities. Technically, Napoleon emerged as the victor, but it was a hollow victory.
The battle at Borodino is the setting for the Overture of 1812. The "French” victory was actually the critical turning point for the Russians in repelling Napoleon; it was actually their victory. In the music this battle and its evasion is signaled with the popular French National Anthem, "Marseillaise” and musically, the defiant Russians answer with cannon fire and traditional Russian folk tunes. As Napoleon entered Moscow the city was ablaze. The church bells announce the impending Russian victory. Cannon fire (again) and the Tsarist National Anthem emerges as the dominant theme. The Russians re-enter their capital city with the triumphant concluding theme "God Save the Tsar.” The Russian winter had made the occupation, and the now necessary retreat, extremely difficult. Abandoned French weapons and artillery were used by the Russians to inflict additional casualties on their former owners. Napoleon lost approximately 400,000 men. The Russians had defeated the most powerful army in Europe. The concluding moments of this fabulous patriotic composition are among the most exciting and emotional orchestral pieces ever composed.
Tchaikovsky was the first nationalistic Russian composer to gain wide recognition and appreciation in Europe and the United States. In 1891 he conducted the 1812 Overture at the dedication of Carnegie Hall in New York.
Tchaikovsky did not begin his serious musical career until he was twenty-three. His father encouraged him to become a civil servant and was not supportive of a musical profession. He studied under the demanding tutelage of Nicholas Rubinstein at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. As his career progressed Nadejda von Meck, a wealthy widow who was impressed with him, provided Tchaikovsky with an allowance for thirteen years under the stipulation that he never attempt to meet her. While they never met, they exchanged a 1,000 plus letters, and were very close. Certainly this relationship was a stabilizing factor in Tchaikovsky’s life. When her financial situation deteriorated, she ended her support.
Throughout Tchaikovsky’s life he suffered from severe depression and feelings of rejection and failure. His marriage was a failure and a continuing source of stress. His emotional distress is especially evident in his "Symphony Pathetique.” He died 9 days after that symphony was premiered. He was only 53 years old. The medical diagnosis was cholera; however, some historians/musicologists believe that it was, in fact, a suicide, due to his fear of exposure about personal matters. If this is the case he may have intended the Pathetique to be his final musical statement. Regarding the ever popular 1812 Overture, he was in fact quite critical of it as being too noisy!
Tchaikovsky’s opinion notwithstanding, the 1812 Overture has been adopted in the United States as a wonderful Fourth of July patriotic orchestral pops composition. His Overture was actually composed to celebrate the Russian defeat of Napoleon and celebrate the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Still, the composition has become solidly woven into America’s July 4th celebrations. It might be argued that the French-Russian conflict so weakened the French that Great Britain found an opportunistic moment to put an end to Napoleon once and for all. With this opportunity, Great Britain did not want to be continuously distracted by an ongoing war with the United States.
1. Music Appreciation: The students will be able to recognize the sad tone of the initial theme, the French attack, and the battle’s turning point with cannon fire, folk song melodies, and the celebratory tone of the concluding theme with its cannon fire, bells, and anthem.
2. Music-European History: This music would enrich any study of Europe in the 1800’s. An analysis of Napoleon’s defeat also has a number of important strategic lessons, including the difficulty of not having "home field” advantage, the utility of "bending but not breaking” in the Russian strategy, and the importance of correctly anticipating your opponent’s dedication to victory as contrasted with the aggressor’s desire for a "quick” win.
3. Music-Geography: Napoleon’s defeat in Russia, and his later defeats in Europe, with the final battle in Belgium.