The 1812 Overture: an attempted narration
By Jessica Barbour
I was a sophomore in college, sitting in my morning music history course on the Romantic period, and my professor was discussing the concept of program music, which Grove Music Online defines as “Music of a narrative or descriptive kind; the term is often extended to all music that attempts to represent extra-musical concepts without resort to sung words.”
The musical example my professor chose to illustrate the idea was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture, which is celebrating the 131st anniversary of its premiere at the Moscow Arts and Industry Exhibition in 1882. The original title of the piece, which is a festival overture, is simply 1812, “The 1812 Overture,” being its accepted nickname.
It turned out that this piece of music I’d been enjoying every 4th of July for the past 18 years was trying to tell me a very specific story. That story was not, of course, the story of the War of 1812, though its title might be misinterpreted that way by American audiences. Despite its traditional performance by US orchestras on Independence Day, the work is unrelated to any British-American conflict. Tchaikovsky wrote the overture to celebrate Russia’s defeat of Napoleon’s army in 1812.
My professor went on to play a recording of 1812 and eloquently narrated the entire thing, never pausing, like a foreign-language interpreter. The level of detail in what the music intended to tell us was impressive; the piece was not about nationalism or war in general, but described in detail this specific conflict’s individual participants, their actions, and the conclusion of the fighting.
I went to my friend’s house the night after the lecture and told him all about it. We found a recording of the overture and I claimed I could narrate it just like my professor had done for the class. And I was doing well, for about two minutes—after that there were long stretches of the piece during which I had no idea what Tchaikovsky was trying to describe. I could fake my way through it for ten-second stretches, maybe, but each was followed by awkward pauses in my storytelling, and my poor friend had to sit for 15 minutes of me vamping between reprises of musical motifs I knew how to explain.
For today, I’ve prepared a little better. I hope you’ll join me in celebrating the anniversary of the 1812’s premiere (and in apologizing to my friend) by listening to this recording and reading along with my second attempt at narrating the piece. Be forewarned that there are still some moments in the overture whose meanings elude me.
I’ve indicated the time markings for each section below, so please listen along with the same recording I used. (I picked this recording because it warns you that it uses real cannons—be sure not to listen to this with headphones on, as I did when I was preparing, or to at least keep the volume turned down. They’ll be louder than you think. Ow.)
(1) [0:00–1:30 or so]: An arrangement of the Russian hymn “Spasi, Gospodi, Iyudi Tvoya” (“O Lord, Save Thy People”) is played by soloists in the viola and cello sections, with other orchestra members entering in gradually. We, the listeners, are in Russia, our minds trained on the country’s inhabitants.
(2) [2:12– 3:45]: The suspenseful, storm’s-a-comin’ sort of music (notice any narrative water-treading already? Yeah, me too.) emerges out of the peaceful hymn, and we know that trouble is approaching Russia.
(3) [3:48– 4:45]: French soldiers are on their way! Snare drums, long a musical indicator of the military, are heard in this first appearance of what is probably the overture’s best-known theme:
Or to put it phonetically: bada-bumbum-BUMbumbumbum-BUM-bum-bummmmm….
(4) [4:46– 6:36]: Frantic, escalating passages culminate in brief snippets of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, underscored by tense ostinatos in the strings. The French are on the attack. This music then morphs into…
(5) [6:36–8:10]: …the attractive Russian countryside? Hoo boy, I’m not sure. I think of this pastoral section sort of like those side chapters in long novels where the authors take a break from the main plot to discuss an attractive landscape in great detail. Pretty, but lacking in action. Perhaps it’s just here to give us a respite from the battle scenes. Eventually transitioning into a minor key, it segues gradually into the next section.
(6) [8:10–8:54]: The traditional, dance-like Russian folk-tune “U vorot” (“At the gate”) enters the work. Perhaps Tchaikovsky’s borrowing of several different Russian tunes while providing only one musical stand-in for France says something important about the way the piece characterizes the two warring countries: one is more complex, with a great depth of culture and slant toward the serene, while the other is a single-minded aggressor.
(7) [8:54–10:25]: Suspense builds again—the battle is back on—as a variation of the earlier frantic music and the accompanying hints of the Marseillaise return in a modified form.
(8) [10:25–11:10]: The peaceful-countryside music returns again, first in a major key, then in minor.
(9) [11:10–11:31]: “U vorot” is reprised, completing the cycle of repeated sections. Note that the first time through this cycle (sections 4 through 6) took approximately four minutes and nine seconds to complete, while this second time (7 through 9) only took two minutes and 37 seconds. The plot is moving more quickly now; we’re approaching the denouement.
(10) [11:31–12:04]: The Marseillaise snippets appear alone in the horns, accompanied by more frantic playing from the strings and a rumble in the timpani that grows, and grows, and grows, until…
(11) [12:04–12:11]: THE CANNON. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. The five blasts ring out as the powerful Russian army fights back against their enemies. This, by the way, is how a cannon blast was notated in the score I looked at:
Notice the dynamic marking, ffff, or fortissississimo. This is actually from cannon blasts later on in the piece, at section 14—those in section 11 are only marked fortissimo. Apparently specific levels of loudness can be indicated for cannon fire (even if it was just for consistency within the score)—they have a bigger dynamic range than I thought. Remember to play out, you guys!
(12) [12:56–13:59]: Bells begin ringing out. To reference Grove Music Online once more, apparently Tchaikovsky originally wanted to use “all the churchbells in Moscow,” but “had to be content with the massive bells at Uspensky Cathedral where it was first performed.” I guess sometimes we just have to make do with what we’ve got.
(13) [14:01–14:08]: Goodbye, French! Their bada-bumbum-BUMbumbumbum-BUM-bum-bummmmm theme is played quickly as they retreat.
(14) [14:09–15:09]: “Bozhe, Tsarya khrani!” (“God save the Tsar!”, the Russian Empire’s national anthem during Tchaikovsky’s lifetime) overtakes the French theme, and is underscored (or overscored, depending on your speaker system) by ten more cannon blasts, the last of which, at 14:31, overlaps with a return of the bells, confirming the Russian victory.
Jessica Barbour is the Associate Editor for Grove Music/Oxford Music Online. You can read her previous blog posts, “Baseball scoring,” “Glissandos and Glissandon’ts,” and “Wedding Music” and learn more about Tchaikovsky, program music, and musical nationalism with a subscription to Grove Music Online.
Oxford Music Online is the gateway offering users the ability to access and cross-search multiple music reference resources in one location. With Grove Music Online as its cornerstone, Oxford Music Online also contains The Oxford Companion to Music, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, and The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.