1812 Overture and Independence Day

Ever wonder why the 1812 Overture is performed on the 4th of July?  Most classical musicians roll their eyes around this time of year, dust off their “1812 Overture chops,” and make some extra cash by performing the work everywhere across the country. The overture is one of those pieces that I have known about for quite sometime, but never stopped to consider why we perform it on the 4th of July.  It’s a great work, but it is far from American.

It was written by Russian composer, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, depicting Napoleon’s retreat from Russia in 1812.  It is a far cry from an American patriotic anthem to celebrate Independence Day.  Tchaikovsky worked on the overture from October 12 to November 19, 1880.  The commission was to mark the 1882 Moscow Exhibition, and specifically the consecration of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior which was built there to give thanks for the Russian victory during the Napoleonic Wars.

The 1812 Overture is one the few musical works where cannons are written into the score; a perfect match to perform on Independence Day to match a fireworks show.  The overture had been performed by a various orchestras across the US, but 1974 seems to be the year the work came into its own as an American tradition.

That July 4, famed Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler decided to perform the overture with fireworks, real cannons and a coordinated steeple-bell choir to increase attendance at the Pops’ summer concerts on the Esplanade, says Bridget Carr, archivist of the Boston Symphony.

The crowd loved it so much, that the Boston Pops made into an annual tradition.  Since then other orchestras across the country duplicated the Pops program making it into the tradition it is today with families eating  BBQ, listening to good music, and watching fireworks to celebrate the day the US freed itself from Britains rule.

I wish everyone a Happy 4th of July!!

Sources: PostGazette, ClassicalNet; Photo Source: Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton

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2 comments on “1812 Overture and Independence Day
  1. Every time I hear it I’m reminded of a (possibly apocryphal) story : An orchestra was going to perform it in a gym but had no access to cannons, so had hired a few hunters with shotguns instead. When the appropriate moment came, the hunters fired their shotguns, and someone let fall a duck from where it had been rigged near the ceiling.

    Now you’ll never be able to keep a straight face again, either!

  2. It also helps that 1812 was the year of “The Second War of Independence” — and that the War of 1812 provided the backdrop for Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It also helps that Tchaikovsky is wicked awesome.

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