Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture: the complete guide

Geoffrey Norris
Tuesday, January 3, 2023

A complete guide to Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, including how audiences, performers and the composer himself have responded to this iconic and surprisingly controversial work

As a favoured festival spectacle, the 1812 Overture has long been ranked among the most adored, and also the most abhorred, works in the entire orchestral repertoire. Tchaikovsky himself was dismissive about the piece, written to commemorate Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. When a female friend owned up to liking it, Tchaikovsky retorted, ‘But what do you see in it? The thing was written to order.’ Nevertheless, he could scarcely fail to notice, on his travels throughout Russia, Europe and the United States, that the 1812, rather like Rachmaninov and his C sharp minor Prelude, was a work that audiences particularly hankered after. In America it has become a staple of Independence Day celebrations on July 4. It is still a crowd-puller worldwide. Whether we like it or not, the 1812 has survived for 130 years since its first performance and it is not going to go away.

Did Tchaikovsky like the 1812 Overture?

Tchaikovsky’s own reaction to the work could well be interpreted as modest self-deprecation or a manifestation of one of those moods of insecurity in which he so often indulged. When musing on much more substantial works than the 1812 – some of the symphonies, for example – he could quite often veer from wondering whether his talent had deserted him to suggesting that the music might after all have merits. But he didn’t have a single good word to say about the1812. He expressed blank lack of enthusiasm on receipt of the original commission, which came to him in the summer of 1880 via his publisher, Jurgenson. In the following year, Jurgenson told him, there was to be an Arts and Industry Exhibition in Moscow, and Nikolai Rubinstein had been put in charge of organising the music. Since Tchaikovsky was the most celebrated Russian composer of the day, it was natural that he should be approached to write something.

Rubinstein gave him three options. It could be an overture to inaugurate the actual exhibition. It could be an overture to celebrate the silver jubilee of the tsar, Alexander II, who had acceded to the Russian throne in 1855. Or it could be a cantata to dignify the opening of the gigantic Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer, a project that had been underway for decades but which was finally coming to fruition during the 1880s. This cathedral, incidentally, still towers up into the Moscow skyline – but no thanks to Stalin. He ordered it to be blown up in 1931, and for a long time the site was a popular, if rather down-at-heel, open-air swimming pool, which in the 1990s was filled in again and formed the foundations for the new Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer, reconstructed at phenomenal cost to the old grandiose design.

An offer Tchaikovsky couldn't refuse

The original 19th-century cathedral project had been instigated as a commemoration of, and thanksgiving for, the 1812 Russian rout of Napoleon and the hungry, humiliated French army’s retreat from Moscow, a factor that seems at least to have put an idea into Tchaikovsky’s head. But he responded with open disdain to the notion that he should take it any further. ‘It is impossible to tackle without repugnance this sort of music which is destined for the glorification of something that, in essence, delights me not at all,’ he wrote to Jurgenson in July 1880. ‘Neither in the jubilee of the high-ranking person (who has always been quite antipathetic towards me), nor in the cathedral, which again I don’t like at all, is there anything that could stir my imagination.’ He continued to grumble about it throughout the year, writing to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck in the autumn, ‘There is nothing more antipathetic to me than composing for the sake of some festivities or other. What, for instance, might one write on the occasion of the opening of an exhibition apart from banalities and generally noisy passages?’ He added, however, ‘I do not have it in my heart to refuse such a request,’ reporting later that he had ‘diligently set about’ composing. He completed the 1812 in only a week. ‘I wrote it without any warm and loving feelings, and so it will probably be lacking in artistic merit,’ he told Mme von Meck in October 1880, although 18 months later he showed signs that a bit of characteristic equivocation was setting in. ‘I’m undecided’, he wrote to Jurgenson, ‘as to whether my overture is good or bad, but it is probably (without any false modesty) the latter.’

Thereafter Tchaikovsky scarcely mentions the 1812 at all, not even in respect of its first performance, given under Ippolit Altani on August 8/20, 1882, at the Arts and Industry Exhibition, which had been postponed by a year. In the interim, Tchaikovsky had cheekily asked the conductor Eduard Nápravník to perform it in St Petersburg, but Nápravník was more alert to protocol and replied that the exhibition that had commissioned the overture ought to have the opportunity to premiere it as well. Both in Moscow and in St Petersburg, where the1812 was first eventually performed in 1883 under Anton Rubinstein, it enjoyed instant success. As early as 1916 it was recorded on 78s by the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra under Landon Ronald, and the catalogue has long been generously stocked with versions of it.

1812 on record

Not that the recording history of the 1812 has been entirely straightforward. The demands of Tchaikovsky’s orchestration have been a subject for discussion and divergence of approach, particularly in relation to the synchronisation (or not) of the cannon shots, the availability of the right sort of bells and the feasibility of deploying the optional military band. In addition, and notably in one special instance in 20th-century Soviet Russia, Tchaikovsky’s thematic material created its own problems. In compiling his musical picture of the Battle of Borodino and of Russia’s triumph over the French invaders, he drew on a variety of themes that his 1880s audiences would have recognised as French or Russian (plus a melody he borrowed from his own first opera, The Voyevoda), manipulating them cunningly in a structure that melds aspects of sonata form with free fantasy, and with a famously over-the-top coda.

The overture starts with the lower strings intoning the Russian Orthodox chant ‘Spasi, Gospodi, lyudi Tvoya’ (‘God, Preserve Thy People’). Later on, Tchaikovsky cites a sprightly Russian folk tune, ‘U vorot’ (‘By the Gates’). These are clear indicators of Russianness, uniting the country’s timeless religious traditions with the joys of the simple, sunny life before Napoleon and his troops turned up to cloud things. To represent the French we have the Marseillaise. Purists have jumped on this fact as a glaring anachronism, since the Marseillaise was not in use during Napoleon’s time. In fact he banned it, and it was not restored as France’s national anthem until the 1870s.


But at least nobody has suggested replacing the Marseillaise in the 1812 with something else. The Soviets, on the other hand, had no compunction about meddling. In the final pages of the 1812 Tchaikovsky quotes from the Russian imperial national anthem, ‘Bozhe, tsarya khrani’ (‘God, Save the Tsar’), blasted out by horns in an affirmation of Russian victory. The fact that ‘God, Save the Tsar’ was not in use during Napoleonic times, any more than the Marseillaise was, did not in itself raise hackles in the Soviet hierarchy. The trouble was that, during the Communist era, ideological paranoia could not tolerate a reference to Russia’s tsarist past. So, what did the authorities do? They simply cut out the offending 10 bars and replaced them with the tune of the ‘Slavsya!’ (‘Glory!’) chorus from the epilogue of Glinka’s opera Ivan Susanin (later called A Life for the Tsar). To appreciate what it sounds like, we can turn to Nikolai Golovanov’s 1948 recording of the 1812 with the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra (EMI/IMG CZS5 75112-2, 6/02). There is no other reason to listen to this chaotic performance, but it is worth seeking out just to hear how the politically uncontroversial snippet of Glinka, a paean to Russia rather than to the tsar, is slotted into Tchaikovsky’s scheme: it’s on track seven at 13'40", or from bar 388 in the printed score.

Over the years, some other practitioners have taken the opportunity to embellish Tchaikovsky’s ideas rather than blue-pencil them. Herbert von Karajan was an admirer of the Don Cossack Choir, particularly its capacity for power and attack, and on his 1966 recording for DG he decided to capitalise on the ensemble’s qualities and obvious Russian credentials by recasting the first 02'43" (or 36 bars) of the 1812 for voices instead of the lower strings at the start and the subsequent dialogue between strings and woodwind. With the orchestra entering at bar 34 to emphasise the C minor cadence, this is an atmospheric and effective device, not specially difficult to organise since it only involved adding the ‘God, Preserve Thy People’ text to the melody and slightly rearranging the texture to suit voices rather than instruments. The American conductor Igor Buketoff, son of a Russian Orthodox priest, went a stage further on his 1960s RCA Victrola recording with the New Philharmonia Orchestra, a disc long since deleted but still available from some dealers. Not only did he deploy voices for the opening chant but he also had a children’s chorus to sing the folk tune ‘By the Gates’ and brought the choir back to bolster the chant and the Russian national anthem at the end. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Tchaikovsky would have approved of these extras, because at one stage during the brief time he thought anything at all about the 1812 he had it in mind to compose a work with chorus.

Canons and bells

Early recordings of the 1812 found that the 16 cannon shots near the end presented an acoustical and logistical snag: the solution was either to leave them out or to put in something that sounded more like a harmless air rifle. By the 1960s, stereo technology and editing procedures made it possible for proper explosive booms to be recorded elsewhere and then integrated into the performance in the studio, a fact of which Karajan takes full advantage on his 1966 recording, timing the shots precisely as Tchaikovsky notated them in the score. But the breakthrough had come a decade earlier with the 1954 stereo recording that Antal Dorati made with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, using a muzzle-loaded bronze French cannon of 1775 from the US Military Academy at West Point, New York, and, moreover, the 74-bell carillon at Riverside Church. The cannon shots were recorded – with ambulance crew on hand – in the grounds of West Point, and when the carillon was taped three times on a spring day in New York it provoked a deluge of phone calls from local residents enquiring whether such an unanticipated clamour signified some occurrence of joy or tragedy. The effort and disturbance were worth it because, with cannon and carillon edited in, Dorati’s recording became a landmark in terms of realising the effects that the score of the 1812 requires. As a performance, too, it remains a yardstick even after almost 60 years.

If Tchaikovsky himself only reluctantly acknowledged the popularity of the 1812, it has perennially triggered caustic criticism from commentators, one of whom, Ralph W Wood in Tchaikovsky: A Symposium of 1945, described it as ‘one of the most dreary and repulsive works in the whole of music’, ‘noisy, vulgar and empty’. Tchaikovsky might have agreed, but in the right festive circumstances or on a recording of the calibre of a Karajan or Dorati there is no harm in admitting that it might give us an innocent thrill.

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