1812 Overture and 4th of July fireworks: why?

4th of july fireworks 1812 overtureThe U.S. and Great Britain fought the War of 1812. Tchaikovsky composed the 1812 Overture, but it commemorates a different war.

The 4th of July celebration has nothing to do with the War of 1812, either. So why does the 1812 Overture so often accompany the 4th of July fireworks display?

Not many worthwhile pieces include cannon fire, which it makes such an excellent companion to fireworks. Music history is littered with justly forgotten battle music. Such pieces are difficult to write effectively. Even Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory did not succeed as well as the 1812 Overture.

It had to jump through one more hoop before it could fit with Independence Day. American popular culture had to wrest the piece from association with Russia.

The Wars of 1812

1812 French retreat, commemorated in 1812 overture

A scene depicting the French retreat from Russia in 1812, painting by Illarion Pryanishnikov (1874)

Revolutionary France and the rest of Europe were at war from the arrest of King Louis XVI in 1791 until Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815. Napoleon’s unsuccessful invasion of Russia in 1812 marked a major turning point.

According to the Russian view, the Russian army defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Borodino and saved the nation. Actually, historians usually count the battle as a French victory. But the French suffered great loss of life.

The French occupied Moscow, but Tsar Alexander I deliberately set fire to much of the city. Napoleon retreated too late. The long Russian winter killed most of his troops who had survived the battle.

The American War of 1812 is not completely unrelated. Britain led the European coalition against France. Napoleon suffered a staggering set-back in Russia, but his enemies didn’t succeed in deposing him until three years later.

The United States took no sides in the conflict. It attempted to carry out trade with both the British and French. The British wanted to prevent American trade with France. Its navy boarded American merchant vessels, seized American sailors, and forced them to become part of British navy. Americans also believed the British encouraged their Indian allies to attack American frontier settlements.

The Jefferson and Madison administrations tried to protect American interests with legislation. They came up short. Finally, President Madison asked Congress to declare of war against Great Britain. The British, occupied on the continent fighting Napoleon, could not send their full military might to deal with the Americans. The two sides fought to a draw.

A festive commemoration; Tchaikovsky disliked it

Tchakovsky, 1812 Overture

Tchaikovsky in 1874

Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture commemorated Napoleon’s failure to conquer Russia. If he or his associates even knew about the American war, it had nothing to do with their plans.

Tchaikovsky’s friend Nikolai Rubinstein suggested that he compose a large-scale work suitable for use at three upcoming commemorations in 1882:

  • the Moscow Arts and Industry Exhibition
  • the 25th anniversary of Tsar Alexander II’s coronation
  • the completion of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, a memorial built to commemorate Russia’s victory over France in 1812

Organizers had ambitious plans for the premiere. They intended for the performance to take place just outside the new cathedral. It would end with cannon fire and all the other nearby churches ringing their bells.

The ambitious plans never came to fruition. The Tsar’s assassination in 1881 ended any possibility of such a grand celebration. The cathedral remained unfinished until 1883. Only the exhibition took place as planned. The 1812 Overture received its premiere in a tent outside the unfinished cathedral. Without cannons or church bells.

Tchaikovsky didn’t respect this piece of occasional music. In a letter, he dismissed it as “very loud and noisy and completely without artistic merit, obviously written without warmth or love.” It nonetheless became popular.

Even though he later despised it, Tchaikovsky poured all his skill into the composition of the 1812 Overture.

It begins quietly with a traditional Orthodox hymn played on four violas and eight cellos. With quiet dignity, the opening portrays the Russian mindset and a culture at peace. Trumpets join with the Russian folk dance “At the door, at the door.”

Napoleon’s invasion, signaled by the French national anthem “La Marseillaise” shatters the peace. For most of the rest of the piece, it struggles against the Russian national anthem “God save the Tsar.” Eventually the Russian anthem drives the French from the field. The opening chant returns triumphantly with full orchestra, cannons, and bells.

Abbado / Bpo / Tchaikovsky – Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture; Romeo and Juliet; more

Mere occasional music becomes a megahit

4th of july concert, 1812 overture

4th of July concert with Boston Pops Orchestra, Boston 2008

A few years after the overture’s premiere, Walter Damrosch persuaded Andrew Carnegie to build the concert hall in New York that later bore his name. Then he cast about for a suitably big name to conduct the first concert.

Few if any composers had a greater reputation in the US than Tchaikovsky. He noted, “people in the United States know my work better than they do in Russia, in my own home.”

Tchaikovsky conducted the hall’s inaugural concert. He selected the 1812 Overture as part of the program.

The audience responded to it with enthusiasm. Americans have loved it ever since. Even though Chicago’s Grant Park Symphony Orchestra programmed it for its 4th of July concert in 1935, the association with fireworks was still long in the future.

It started in 1974, to be exact. The Cold War was at its height. How did a piece written to commemorate a Russian military victory become such a ubiquitous feature of the American Independence Day? It probably would not have happened if the American public thought of Russian history when they heard the piece.

American popular culture redefines the 1812 Overture

Arthur Fiedler statue

Arthur Fiedler statue

In 1962, the Quaker Oats Company began to advertise Quaker Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice as “the cereal shot from guns.” The finale of the 1812 overture blared in the background as the guns fired.

In 1967, British comedian Charlie Drake incorporated it into one of his routines. He pretended to perform performed all the instrumental parts and then collapsed in an exhausted heap.

Woody Allen used it in the soundtrack of his 1971 comedy Bananas.

All these uses took the piece farther and farther from its roots and original associations.

Since 1974, it has also appeared on the Muppets, the Simpsons, and V for Vendetta.  The Swingle Singers released a vocal version with air-raid sirens and machine guns. You can also get it as a ringtone for your cell phone.

In 1974, Fiedler had noticed that the audience for the Boston Pops Orchestra’s outdoor Esplanade concerts had begun to dwindle. He confided his concerns to one of his friends, Boston millionaire David Mugar.

Mugar suggested Fiedler offer the 1812 Overture complete with cannons and coordinated tolling of church bells. He promised to pay for it. Fiedler decided to use it for the 4th of July celebration so it could end with fireworks.

Mugar doubted that it would be possible to coordinate so much. Fiedler replied, “Oh, don’t worry about it. Just let all hell break loose at the end of the piece.”

As Fielder had suspected, the public loved it. Two years later, at the Bicentennial celebration, 400,000 people attended the Boston Pops 4th of July concert to hear a repeat of the 1812 Overture with all the explosions. The Guinness Book of World Records recognized it as the world’s best-attended classical concert.

In 1976, other orchestras wanted something especially celebratory for the American bicentennial. Fiedler’s precedent provided the inspiration.

Why not an American piece?

No American composer had written anything any more appropriate. “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America” both steal British tunes. “America the Beautiful” does not lend itself to bombast.” Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man could work, but it is perhaps too dignified and doesn’t call for cannon fire.

Aside from the use of Russian and French patriotic tunes Tchaikovsky’s music catches the excitement and drama of any battle. The audience gets to experience the home team’s victory.

The American War of 1812 inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner,” with its reference to “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air.” The 1812 Overture provides the same sense relief in music.

Tchaikovsky’s original score calls for 16 carefully timed cannon blasts. For a modern outdoor performance with cannons, orchestras must obtain a pyrotechnics permit and a trained cannoneer.

Someone with the score must cue the cannoneer when to fire the cannons. The Houston Symphony Orchestra uses a battery of eight cannons, each fired twice. It also requires the festive tolling of church bells.

Orchestras usually use either their percussion instruments or recorded sounds to substitute for the cannons, but where audiences are used to hearing real cannons, they complain if the orchestra dares to omit them.

Will there be a band or orchestra concert at your town’s 4th of July fireworks? It will probably end with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Borodino / Kennedy Hickman. About Education. Updated March 11, 2015.
The War of 1812 101: an overview / Kennedy Hickman. About Education. Updated March 16, 2016.
Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture / Aaron Green. About Entertainment. Updated January 18, 2016.
The 1812 Overture: the hit that Tchaikovsky hated / Classic FM
A revolution in Fourth of July concerts also started in Boston / Carey Goldberg. New York Times, July 4, 1998
How a rousing Russian tune took over our July 4th / Andrew Druckenbrod. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. July 4, 2003.
How did the 1812 Overture become a Fourth tradition? / Everett Evans. Houston Chronicle July 29, 2012.

Photo sources:
Independence Day fireworks. from Pixabay.
1812 French retreat. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Tchaikovsky portrait. Source unknown.
4th of July concert. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Arthur Fiedler statue. By David Smith, from Wikimedia Commons.

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