Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture
Composed in 1880 to commemorate the successful Russian defence against Napoleon in 1812, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture has become one of his most popular works. Premiered in August 1882, the 1812 Overture received a rapturous reception due to the work’s epic finale section which features cannons, chimes and a rip-roaring brass fanfare.
Interestingly, Tchaikovsky was not a fan of the overture at all. In a letter to Madame von Meck he wrote:
“The overture will be very loud and noisy, but I wrote it with no warm feeling of love, and so it will have no artistic merits at all.”
Perhaps Tchaikovsky’s disdain for the overture came from perhaps its status as a commissioned work. In previous years Tchaikovsky had refused to take on commissioned projects, commenting to Meck that:
“I trust you would never imagine that I would undertake any musical work purely for the sake of the 100 ruble note at the end of it.”
In June 1880, Tchaikovsky received a commission from Nikolay Rubinstein to compose a work for events unfolding over the coming years, such as: the 25th anniversary of Czar Alexander II’s coronations; the completion of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and Moscow’s Exhibition of Industry and Arts. This commission was very high-profile and well paid, so Tchaikovsky agreed to take part. He put off writing the work for some time which led to him composing the 1812 Overture in just one week.
The overture aims to represent the conflict between the French and Russian forces, however Tchaikovsky certainly condensed the story and perhaps fictionalised parts too. For instance, there was not a big Russian victory at the end of this battle, as the cannons and fanfares at the end of the piece suggests.
The work shows Tchaikovsky’s use of Russian hymns and folk songs, as well as utilising the French revolutionary anthem La Marseillaise. As the themes are in battle with one another, the music goes through a range of trial and tribulations before the glorious finale.
Opening with the plaintive Russian melody of the Eastern Orthodox Troparion of the Holy Cross, the humble opening sees only four cellos and two violas play. The simplicity of the opening is highly effective, with the bare scoring creating room for Tchaikovsky to play with harmonic structures. The upper winds join in this musical dialogue, with it being said that this opening section represents the Russian people praying for a quick conclusion to the invasion.
This humble opening is soon rumbled by the explosion of the French National Anthem. Tchaikovsky utilities brass to highlight the calls for war. The horn calls in particular pierce through the veil of strings and winds to set the scene for an upcoming war. As the French get closer and closer to Moscow, the two themes are pitted against each other. The brass largely lead the Russian theme, with the strings and winds leading the French side. Tchaikovsky obviously uses the brass for the Russian side as they are the most bombastic, the loudest and can be heard above all else. They also signify power and regality, which is something that Tchaikovsky would have wanted to get across.
Tchaikovsky’s shift between lyrical sections led by the strings and the more military-led sections creates an intriguing dichotomy between the orchestra. Tchaikovsky’s flair for pairing rich textures and harmonies together, makes the light and shade of the 1812 Overture prominent and important.
After the central lyrical section, the music becomes agitated again. The horns and trumpets play out their fanfares once more, with the strings moving chromatically to build tension. Cymbal crashes and bass drum hits adds to the dramaturgy of the music. As the French theme becomes the most prominent in the mix, hinting that the French are winning the invasion, the music begins to retreat.
The hymn that opens the overture is then heard again. The horns call out their famous theme as the Russian’s prayers are being answered. The brass build up their fanfares before the cannons begin to explode across the music. The cascading scales from the strings represent the French retreating for good.
The grand finale gives us eleven more cannon shots, alongside chiming bells, crashing cymbals and timpani rolls. The whole brass section burst into colour and play the victory fanfare in unison. The theme is loud, triumphant and persistent. The rumbles from beneath add to the drama and intensity of the fanfares before the orchestra join back in for the final melody of God Save the Tsar!
The epic ending to the 1812 Overture has become one of most performed works in Western classical music. The fanfare theme has been used in films, TV and other media. The 1812 Overture is a true crowd pleaser, and was at the time it was first premiered. Although Tchaikovsky wasn’t a fan of this work, it has stood the test of time and surely will for many more years.
Ⓒ Alex Burns
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