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The 1812 Overture: an attempted narration

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:

1812 pic 1

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:

1812 pic 2

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.

Snippets from the score courtesy of IMSLP.

Recent Comments

  1. Paul

    Appreciated your analysis of the 1812 overture. But I had interpreted the “pastoral interludes” you refer to not as a reference to the Russian countryside, but the dawning of a new day. Each is followed by increasingly urgent strings, which I interpret as the Russian preparation for the day’s onslaught, more feverish as the days pass.

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  5. Jake

    The section starting at 12:55 seems to be based off of Spasi, Gospodi, Iyudi Tvoya as well, cool!

  6. PMH

    Please add the music credits so that I may find this particular recording. Thanks!

  7. Sheryl Fairbrother

    Thank you so much for your informative and funny explanation of this piece of music. It enhances a wonderful musical experience.

  8. Don Trayer

    I’ve been looking for a phonetic translation of the Russian text…..with NO luck. Can you help?

  9. Steve Marcrum

    I had a History Teacher in ninth grade back in 1973 that played this album for us and gave the narrative of the war as the music was playing. That was 44 years ago and I remeber it like it was yesterday. From my memories, I do not believe you could have given a better narrative. Thank you for your hard work.

  10. Kevin

    You’re on the right track, I think. I’ve got a similar narration that I use in a class to teach kids about telling stories with sound. My favorite version of this is the Eugene Ormandy Philadelphia Orchestra with real howitzers and large church bells.. and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing the hymn at the beginning.

    The hymn: sets the stage. The Russian people crying for protection. Then into the “rising action” music. Trouble is afoot. Rumors that Napoleon’s Army is on the march, and this time they intend to push through to Moscow. The people are frightened, and their only hope… the Czar’s Army, which I believe is represented by the recognizable theme. The armies clash, France wins the first round.. we hear the French National Army. The armies pull apart.. we’re now back in the Russian countryside… the theme is troubled… here comes Napoleon again.. the people must band together. The peasants know what to do. They’ve lured Napoleon into Russia so far, the French army is trapped. Once again, the sounds of a battle, but this time Napoleon is screwed because the peasants burn everything to the ground. The crops, the farms, everything. Napoleon has nothing to do but retreat. The Russian people have chased away the nightmare, and we hear the return of the triumphant theme. The Ormandy version is the best, to me. Real military howitzers and huge church bells that are allowed to ring after the last note. I love this stupid thing.. it’s nothing but comic relief in the modern world.. but I love the feeling of freedom at the end. That’s all. Oh.. might I suggest on the 4th of July, you give Charles Ives “Holidays” a try. His “Fourth of July” is magnificent.

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