By Ricky O’Bannon
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture is as accepted a July Fourth tradition in the United States as hot dogs and fireworks.
But like the hot dog’s roots in German frankfurters or fireworks’ origin in China, theoverture is a cultural work that has been imported, adopted and repurposed in a distinctly American fashion. How else could a piece meant to celebrate the successful Russian defense of the Napoleon-led French invasion become a celebrated July 4 staple?
The full 15-minute piece — which is programmed for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s July 3 and 4 Star-Spangled Spectacular concerts at Oregon Ridge Park — outlines the unsuccessful venture of Napoleon’s Grande Armée in a way many who are only familiar with the overture’s bombastic finale might not realize.
The work begins with the Eastern Orthodox tune “O Lord, Save Thy People” on cello and viola, which becomes increasingly distressed. Almost four minutes in with the Russian people musically fleeing and praying for help, fragments of the French national anthem La Marseillaise enter with military snare drum accompaniment.
As the French army advances and the La Marseillaise continues, Tchaikovsky invokes another Russian folk tune,“U Vorot, Vorot” or “At the Gate,” to represent the French army’s approach of Russian forces in Moscow.
In the finale of the overture, strains of the La Marseillaise mixes in counterpoint and battle with Russian themes before orchestrated cannon fire sends the French army in full retreat, signified musically by descending strings. With the French theme routed, the tune “O Lord, Save Thy People” opens the piece returns alongside “God Save the Tsar” with more cannons and church bells in full celebration.
There are some historic reasons for how a piece with such an overt celebration of Russian victory became a centerpiece in July Fourth concerts despite often frigid Russian-American relations. Tchaikovsky was a celebrated and popular figure in the United States who personally conducted the overture at the 1891 opening of Carnegie Hall in New York nine years after he debuted it in Moscow. Chicago’s Grant Park Orchestra played the piece at an Independence Day concert in 1935, and is believed to be the first orchestra to do so. Finally, Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops’ performance of the work complete with howitzers in 1974 — at the height of the Cold War — for a July Fourth concert and again two years later at the bicentennial that helped associate the piece in the public mind as an Independence Day tradition.
Damon Gupton, who will conduct the pair of BSO’s Star-Spangled Spectacular concerts, said he believes something about the character and nature of the music connected with its American audience.
“It’s a big and brassy piece, and we’re a pretty big and brassy kind of nation,” he said.
Gupton said the piece offers plenty of things that fit nicely within the American identity ranging from bombast, resilience in the face of overwhelming odds, folk music and some artillery for a nation that includes the phrase “bombs bursting in air” in its own national anthem.
“We are a bold people of pageantry, and ideals and celebratory spirit. We know folk styles, and have celebrated and explored that through much of our diverse history and tragedy,” he said. “So this huge orchestral work that begins with a sense of praying persistence … gives way to spirited fight and defiance, a dance, and eventual triumph when that big prayer theme returns and the orchestra, augmented with cannons, basically obliterates any traces of the morose or walking with your head down.
“It's persistent. It's strong,” Gupton added. “While not American, we have certainly bound ourselves with familiarity — and did I mention cannons?”
For tickets and information on the BSO’s Star-Spangled Spectacular concerts July 3 & 4.