1812 Overture

Recommended recording

Curated by Maryna Boiko, Primephonic Curator

About this work

Frequently derided as a patchwork of bombastic clichés, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture is in fact a tautly crafted, brilliantly orchestrated, and immensely exciting piece for large orchestra, cathedral bells, and muzzle-loaded cannon. True enough, the work makes shameless use of Russian and French anthems and a folk hymn, and its level of sophistication as music is comparable to that of a pie in the face as humor. But, a pie in the face can be hilarious, and this can be tremendously effective music.

Opening with a gentle hymn, God Preserve Thy People, the work sets the scene by depicting the Russians as bucolic, peaceful folk upon whom is suddenly thrust a war of aggression at the hands of the invading conqueror, Napoleon Bonaparte. Fragments of the French anthem are heard but rather than as music, they are blunt instruments and savage thrusts, rending the peace and wounding Mother Russia. The work erupts into successive passages of angry conflict and repetition of bits of themes among shattered fragments of music suggest the random violence of war. Eventually, a stirring fanfare of horns based upon Le Marseillaise calls forth a monstrous cadenza of Russian fervor which swarms over the work and finally bursts into an incredibly expansive version of the original Russian hymn, which then joins with God Preserve The Czar, complete with cannon shots and cascading bells. The work plays out at between 15 and 20 minutes and becomes rather more effective if given a pace to build tension and energy.

Even though the work is superficial, it contains the same emotional vectors found in all of Tchaikovsky's music, and leaps to life in a properly realized and sensitive performance. Similarly, it tends to fall flat if rushed or played merely for its sonic effects. As with many of his works, Tchaikovsky at different times both praised and derided the work, and given his schizophrenic tendency to do this, his own opinion of the work may be suspect. It is effectively if conventionally orchestrated and leaves the impression that the composer enjoyed writing it. Although not among his best works, the 1812 Overture is representative of Tchaikovsky's skills in structure and scoring, and certainly belongs in the collection of every listener at all interested in Tchaikovsky, nationalism in music, program music depicting war, or brilliant orchestration. Many otherwise serious and sophisticated listeners consider it THE premier fun piece of concert music.