Even if you are not familiar with Tchaikovsky, you've probably listened to the 1812 overture before, especially the climactic finale. In the US, it is commonly performed on the Independence Day, usually accompanied by a firework. In this dynamic piece of music, Tchaikovsky forms an effective narrative structure using a collection of distinctively Russian themes.
Oddly enough, playing this Russian music on the Independence Day has become an American tradition. This is because of the British invasion in 1812 (the War of 1812). The British forced into the nation's capital during the Madison's presidency, burning down multiple buildings including the White House.
Tchaikovsky wrote this piece fairly quickly, "without warmth and without love," as a commemorative piece to mark the silver jubilee (25th anniversary) of Tsar Alexander II and the Russian victory over the French invasion in 1812. Though it is now a well known piece, the composer didn't like the commercial nature of the music and marked that it lacks "artistic merit."
The most notable aspect of the piece is how Tchaikovsky organized the sounds intimate to the Russian people (certain rhythms, folk songs, orthodox church music, etc.) to form a narrative. As you follow the chronologically arranged themes, you can follow along the story.
A peaceful beginning
The overture opens with a peaceful viola and cello soli playing the God Preserve Thy People (Спаси, Господи, люди Твоя), a well known Russian Orthodox troparion. This symbolizes the Russian people’s earnest prayer affirming their faith in God. The theme is exchanged and developed between the strings and the winds. Suddenly a piercingly disarraying sound appears with constantly increasing volume and tempo, portending an impending turmoil. The sharply pitching up strings forge an alarming atmosphere.
Mobilization of the Russian army
After a brief pause, the softly struck snare drums and timpani initiate the mobilization of the Russian army, and the punctual and confident trumpets in andante (walking pace) symbolize the marching soldiers. At the same time, a hopeful or rather wishful melody by the strings is overlaid to symbolize the Russian people’s commitment and hope for a positive outcome.
The battle begins: the French are coming
After the march, the tempo changes to allegro giusto and the key to E♭ minor. The strings intensify and give a sense of urgency, rapidly building up a suspenseful state before the big battle.
Suddenly at measure 119, after a loud timpani strike, the theme from the La Marseillaise (the French national anthem) appears, revealing the identity of the intruder and signaling that the French attack is imminent.
The Russians fight back
At measure 163, a joyful folk dance music from Novgorod, firmly played by the string, represents the Russian force.
Another folk music, At the Gate, at my Gate (У ворот, ворот), is softly played and joins the counterattack. As the two great forces meet and begin the battle, the dizzying strings paint a disarray and the puncturing percussions symbolize canon fires.
At measure 307, the French theme appears again. And each time right after a French advance, the Russian themes, played by the strings, quickly follow up. As the battle continues and escalates, the two national motifs are directly overlaid and juxtaposed. The gentle timpani in the background sustain the underlying tension. As the fight intensifies with increasing pace and volume, an actual canon firing, as an instrumentation, is used to make the battlefield atmosphere more concrete. Eventually the French theme is overtaken by the strings, which begin to slow down and diminish ever gradually.
The score employs some unusual instruments such as carillon (church bells) and cannon fire.
The Russian victory
From measure 358, the earlier largo theme from God Preserve Thy People (Спаси, Господи, люди Твоя) reprises to solidify the Russian victory—this time with a more powerful and ample voice. The cathedral bells ring loudly and lusciously in the background, adding a sense of relief and benediction. The bells also symbolize God’s answer to the people’s earnest prayer.
Beginning measure 380, the tempo changes to faster allegro vivace, and the triumphal procession begins to celebrate the Russian victory against the seemingly undefeatable Napoleonic invasion.
As the grand victory march continues, God Save the Tsar (Боже, Царя храни!), the national anthem of Russia at that time, firmly emerges, restoring the Tsar’s dignity and entrusting the fate of the nation to him. The canon firing appears again, this time symbolizing a salute instead of the chaotic battlefield. The cathedral bells run generously throughout, and the grand finale proudly and resolutely establishes a brighter future for Russia.
Now you're familiar with the sequence of events in the piece and the quoted themes, it's time to enjoy the overture.
My personal favorite recording is by Yuri Temirkanov, the Leningrad Philharmonic and the Leningrad Military Orchestra, recorded for the Tchaikovsky's 150th birthday gala in 1990. It does a great job reproducing all the excitement, heat, and liveliness of a grand battlefield victory.
For this year's July 4th, due to the pandemic, the US Navy presented a virtual performance of the overture.