There’s an old joke among American children about whether there’s a Fourth of July in England. The answer is yes! It’s the fourth day of the seventh month. Of course, it’s just not a day that England celebrates as Independence Day.
The “1812 Overture,” a Tchaikovsky piece that I greatly admire (much more than the composer himself apparently did), reminds me of this joke. It’s not that the piece is poorly written or comical in any way. On the contrary, its carefully constructed harmonies, rich orchestration, and intricate weaving of motifs has arguably made it rank among the most recognizable and stirring pieces of Western music ever written.
The oddity is the work’s close association with Independence Day and, by extension, American patriotism. The piece, which has become famous for its inclusion of loud cannons, has quietly become a part of the canon of American patriotic music. But, as sure as the Fourth of July arrives each year in England, the status of the “1812 Overture” as an Independence Day favorite requires some explanation. After all, the piece is about Russia versus France.
The War of 1812
If I were to hear a piece entitled “1776 Overture” at a Fourth of July concert, I would probably assume it had something to do with the Revolutionary War. In this manner, many people have assumed that the “1812 Overture” is about the War of 1812, the military conflict that pitted a young America against the United Kingdom. In fact, I’ve so often heard the piece referred to as the “War of 1812 Overture.” While this is understandable, it’s highly inaccurate.
Tchaikovsky composed the “1812 Overture” to commemorate his country’s strong defense against Napoleon’s forces at the Battle of Borodino. The fact that this Russian victory happened to occur in the same year as a key date in American history, and that Tchaikovsky used the year in his title (“The Year 1812” was the original name) has added to the confusion.
It’s worth noting here that the War of 1812 did play an important role in American patriotic music. The sight of the American flag following a victory at Fort McHenry in Baltimore inspired Francis Scott Key to write a poem that would serve as the lyrics of our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
1812 Meets 1974
There’s no doubt that the “1812 Overture” has the hallmarks of a patriotic piece, with its rousing melodies, militaristic percussion, and impassioned brass fanfares. A product of the late Romantic era, it’s a musical cousin of John Phillip Sousa’s many popular marches, especially his classic “The Stars and Stripes Forever” (which, don’t worry, is certainly American—so much so that Congress made it the official march of the United States in 1987 (36 U.S.C. § 304).
But while the “1812 Overture” is patriotic, both in its sound and its meaning, the patriotism is Russian. In fact, if you’ve ever left a performance of the “1812 Overture” whistling, chances are you were parroting French and Russian motifs, which Tchaikovsky intertwined with great mastery.
Tchaikovsky personally introduced the “1812 Overture” to American ears in 1891 when he conducted his work at the dedication of New York’s Music Hall (now known as Carnegie Hall). But the pivotal year for the “1812 Overture” in the United States came in 1974. Hoping that the attraction of the piece would boost attendance at the Boston Pops’ Fourth of July concert, conductor Arthur Fiedler added the “1812 Overture” to the program. It proved to be a hit, and so the “1812 Overture” became a staple at this annual patriotic event. Over the years, as millions of people have enjoyed the Boston Pops’ televised performance, whether on the lawn of the Esplanade or the sofa of their living room, the “1812 Overture” has taken hold as an annual Fourth of July tradition—and, thus, an American tradition.
The assimilation of the “1812 Overture” into our Independence Day repertoire reminds us that although patriotism is often viewed through the prism of one’s own country, national pride is a common feeling shared by people across the world. For years, this sentiment has provided the creative fuel for eloquent and passionate works of timeless music and beautiful art, reflecting a diverse set of cultures, history, struggles, and achievements.
The “1812 Overture” itself isn’t American (like it or not), but that doesn’t mean that listening to it on the Fourth of July isn’t. Indeed, the fact that we perform, embrace and enjoy this musical import on the day we celebrate our own nation’s independence is part of what makes America great.
Ron Leshnower is the author of books and articles exploring a range of topics. He is also a composer.
Follow him on Twitter (@hillocrian) and visit hillocriancreative.com.