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6. Tchaikovsky – “1812 Overture”, Op. 49

March 26, 2011

Listen and watch here on youtube:
Tchaikovsky “1812 Overture”, Op. 49, part 1
Tchaikovsky “1812 Overture”, Op. 49, part 2

You definitely know this piece – or more likely you definitely know the ending of this piece (starting at 4:55 of part 2), which is one of the most widely recognized excerpts of classical music around. It’s one that carries lots of superlatives, which is one big aspect of the romantic era – one of the loudest pieces (check out the cannons), one of the most over-the-top, one of the most flamboyant and unrestrained (at least the ending), calls for one of the largest orchestras (when performed “properly”), and has one of the biggest and most “crushing” endings of all classical music.

One big trait of the Romantic Era exemplified in this piece is Musical Nationalism – could be pride in your nation (or people group), a particular incorporation of elements of your culture in music, usage of mythological or historical events of your culture, etc. Often, musical nationalism was political, or in response to an ongoing event, intended to stir up the masses – for solidarity, morale, resistance, or revolution.

The 1812 overture was written in commemoration of a pivotal battle of Napoleon’s attempted invasion of Russia, in which the Russians, vastly outnumbered and outclassed, held off the French advance in a grueling and drawn out winter battle. Lots of elements of the actual history make it into the piece in a pretty literal manner – the opening of the piece is a hymn-like chorale played by the lower strings, which recalls the churches praying for their troops as the French armies approached. The bit of the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise”, first appearing at 5:05 of part 1 in the french horns, represents the advancing French forces. There are also lots of Russian hymns and folk music elements which appear throughout, often being juxtaposed with the “La Marseillaise” motif, representing battle scenes. When the Russians repelled the French and took over their artillery, they fired off their cannons in celebration – you won’t miss that in the music. Finally, there are also church bells which were rung in celebration near the end, and even literal crowd cheering written into the music on a few spots near the end.

Things to listen for:

– The recurring “La Marseillaise” motif, mostly played by brass instruments
– “Battle scenes” – tense and fast-paced sections, featuring exchanges of instruments and different music ideas coming in an out of the picture
– The Russian victory – the triumphant conclusion to the piece
– The generally “militaristic” feel of the piece – heavy on the brass and percussion
– The sheer volume and force of many sections, particularly towards the end
– The cannons, lights, and pyrotechnics at the end – historically, there have been performances that have used REAL cannons (though this performance pulls it off pretty “properly” without using real artillery)
– The “extra” brass instruments added in at the end – Tchaikovsky basically indicated in the score to include additional brass instruments (of an unspecified number) at the end, to make the ending even bigger. This is pretty unusual in classical music, and kind of ridiculous… in a good way.

In summary, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture is one of “biggest” and most forceful of pieces of classical music that could be named. Tchaikovsky is among the best-in-class for writing with drama, excitement, intensity, and “muscle.” My high school orchestra teacher thought that Tchaikovsky has a very strong appeal with teenagers in general, also considering that Tchaikovsky’s emotional content is much more outward and obvious than what you hear in Mozart’s time.

However, we’ll see next that Tchaikovsky could also do intricate, delicate, and more quietly beautiful.

Next: Excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” Ballet Suite

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