Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Meaning Behind the Bangs

Well, yet another dream has come true since my relocating to the Land of the Rising Sun:

I finally got to conduct Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture".

Sure, it was only a rehearsal rather than a performance, and the Kashima Philharmonic is only just starting out on the thing (read "with a little imagination the tune is almost recognizable"), but it's still a dream I've had since I was really little. It was exciting enough finally to get a chance to play the tune, but to pick up the baton and try to shape the thing into an image that has been in my mind for almost all of my life is, well...amazing!

What's even more amazing is that I managed to keep my tears in my head and thus didn't embarrass myself.

Yes, it's a pretty shameful thing for a heterosexual adult male to admit, but there are certain musical works that tend to seize hold of my midbrain, yank it out of my tenuous control, and leave me with soggy cheeks. Depending on the tune and the circumstances under which I hear it, sometimes my throat even catches, leaving me unable to speak. It's something I've had to deal with for as long as I can remember. Sometimes I'm not really sure why a particular tune moves me so much. In the case of the "1812 Overture", however, I think I have a pretty good idea.

Tchaikovsky himself toured the U.S.A. with a Russian orchestra in 1891. The "1812 Overture" was a featured tune in his program. Hearing the piece for the first time, the Americans had little if any idea of its significance or what it commemorated; all they knew was that it was a really cool musical extravaganza with lots of pops, bangs, and screaming fanfares. In other words, it went straight to the American heart. It was an American favorite from that time onward. Its place in American culture was elevated even further in the late 1930s when orchestras began performing it as a festival piece. By the mid to late 20th century it had become a regular fixture of American culture. Irony of ironies, since the Reagan 80s, the height of the Cold War, it has been a regular tradition of American Independance Day celebrations. In other words, in a span of a century, the "1812 Overture" went from a piece written for a Russian historical commemoration to an officially adopted part of Americana.

And yet most Americans still have little if any idea what the tune really means. Ask them, and if they don't simply shrug their shoulders or dismiss it with a curt, "Who cares," you're liable to hear something about the war between the U.S. and Britain that took place in 1812. Those with a bit more savvy might mention Napoleon, but there's a good chance they'll say it's about the Battle of Waterloo. Most will probably only look at you funny if you mention the name "Borodino" or even "Moscow". To them it is an American tune; written by a Russian composer (if they even know that), perhaps, but still an American tune.

Thus it was when, a chronically music-loving, little boy from the Oregon Coast fell totally in love with the "1812 Overture". He requested it so often, and, when he was old enough to operate the record player himself, played it so often that the record wound up scratched into oblivion. His mother then bought another one, a different (and more famous) version directed by a Russian conductor. When he heard that version he was surprised; it was so much deeper, more heartfelt, even melancholy...not quite the wild bang and brass fest he expected. Then he read the detailed description of the work on the back of the album cover. And when he did, he wept bitterly. (And I'm starting to get teary-eyed at the memory, damn it all! I really wish my midbrain came with an off switch!)

The "1812 Overture" begins with a Russian church hymn, the title of which is traditionally translated as "God Preserve Thy People". In the most common version it is played by a chorus of violas and cellos, but many if not most Russian conductors prefer to use a choir with a pipe organ coming in later instead of the usual woodwind flourishes. It is hauntingly beautiful, and when sung by a Russian choir it sounds particularly melancholy. It is, in fact, a solemn prayer for deliverance. (There is a very good reason for this, as I'll explain later.) Then, still at a slow largo tempo, the orchestra comes in with a bang followed by a high tension piece. Napolean has invaded Russia, and he is driving his foes before him like a bulldozer. The Russian people are in grave danger.

The 1812 theme then comes in out of nowhere. The Russian Army, under General Kutuzov, is preparing to make a brave stand on the Plains of Borodino. They know they are facing long odds, but there is a strong feeling of excitement and anticipation. This is soon followed by a high-tension fugue threaded around the French National Anthem, La Marseillaise, which gains in prominence as it goes. Napoleon is on the move, and nothing can stop him.

Cut to a strangely serene melody. It's like a film or TV program in which the scene has just cut to Moscow, where life is going on as usual. The War is still far away. However, the Russian folk dance that starts up a little later has an air of anxiety. The people know that Napoleon is coming. They know that only General Kutuzov and his forces stand between them and total defeat. Then the fugue comes back even tenser than before, and when the serene melody and folk dance are reprised they, too, sound far more filled with stress and uncertainty than before. Napoleon is drawing nearer. The people are filled with fear.

Then we hear La Marseillaise. Napoleon has arrived. He draws nearer, nearer, inexorably nearer, until, when La Marseillaise finally sounds in an aggressively triumphant fanfare answered with cannon fire, he engages General Kutuzov on the Plains of Borodino.

Even by modern standards, it was a horribly brutal battle. Over a hundred thousand men lost their lives. The Russian Army made a valiant stand, but Napoleon hit them with everything he had, and victory began to seem well nigh impossible. It was then that General Kutuzov made a painful yet critical decision. He sounded the retreat and fell back to Moscow, leading the French forces in behind him.

Napoleon's apparent victory shows in the music as it takes a triumphant turn. But then, suddenly, there begins a long series of falling eighth notes that just goes on and on and on, slowing and building as it does. It has a double meaning. It is the sound of Moscow burning. Even as the French march victorious into the city, they find only an inferno. The Russians themselves have put it to the torch. (Strangely, in an NHK [Japanese state broadcasting] documentary I once watched, they claimed the French burned Moscow in order to drive out Kutuzov's army, but if so, it was Napoleon's biggest strategic blunder ever. Every other historical source I've seen says the Russians did it themselves, which makes a lot more sense.) For the French it is a grave disaster. They used all their strength on the Plains of Borodino, and they are exhausted and empty of supplies. Moreover, the brutal Russian winter is fast approaching. They need Moscow, but it has been reduced to ashes. Napoleon's victory has turned into crisis, and there is nothing for him to do but sound the retreat. The French tide, inexorable until now, quickly recedes.

And from the ruins of Moscow comes a great cry, not of sorrow, but of rejoicing. The solemn hymn heard at the beginning, "God Preserve Thy People", is reprised, but now it is a rousing hymn of triumph. Meanwhile, bells are clanging. They are church bells, pealing with joy from the scorched stone steeples...all that is left of the once-great city! The people of Moscow are dancing and celebrating amongst the charred rubble that was once their homes, their livelihoods, everything.

It all ends with the 1812 theme coming back at full throttle, superimposed over what was the Russian National Anthem in Tchaikovsky's day (but not in 1812. Russia didn't yet have a national anthem then). The Russian reinforcements have finally arrived, and they are hounding the tattered remnants of the French Army all the way back to Poland...from which they later proceeded to ultimate defeat at Waterloo at the hands of the British.

So the next time you listen to the "1812 Overture", think about what it really means. This is NOT a tune about rockets' red glare or bombs bursting in air. It describes how the Russian people turned a military defeat into a patriotic victory. They won, not with cannons and bayonets, but with sacrifice. They were willing to give everything they had in defense of their country, and in so doing they sent a hitherto unstoppable conqueror limping home with his tail between his legs. That, my friends, is true patriotism, and it is indeed a force to be reckoned with. It is also something to be celebrated not only with joy, but also with sorrow and prayer. Remember that if you will.

Meanwhile, I'll play and/or conduct the piece to the best of my ability...and try to keep my tears in my head.

For your listening pleasure, here is Seiji Ozawa conducting the Berlin Philharmonic:


  • It is shameful that our (the male end of our) society cannot recognize when tears are appropriate. For you, it is difficult but certainly not shameful. (Though I think keeping them in your head is appropriate while wielding your baton).

    That is a wonderful synopsis of that musical work. It will be interesting to listen to with the full weight of history instead of the window dressing after the Independence day BBQ.

    (discogic = the logic of the 70s that resulted in Saturday Night Fever)

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 1:35 AM  

  • Wow, thank you for this walk through. As you described it, I could hear all the appropriate segments in my head.

    In addition to Snabulus' comment that men need to know when it is appropriate to cry, I add that men also need to know all the significant historical events of their country - once upon a time they were the repository of such, but now nobody knows anything.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 3:48 AM  

  • For some reason I kept thinking of the William Tell overture and the Lone Ranger. Good thing you had a recording of it.

    munkies - A Russian tv show with rock music

    By Anonymous Dave, at 4:14 AM  

  • An incredible post, MM. Like the average Americans you quoted, I've only heard the 1812 at the Hollywood Bowl around July 4th and accompanied by strategically timed fireworks. I appreciate your play-by-play narrative of the music and look forward to listening to the overture again with its history in mind.

    By Anonymous nikkipolani, at 4:48 AM  

  • Great to see dreams come true

    By Blogger QUASAR9, at 5:56 AM  

  • PS - My brother did ask me if I had officialy changed my name to Quasarnine Blogspot before joining facebook. - lol!

    By Blogger QUASAR9, at 5:57 AM  

  • Nice write-up. Of course you forgot the part of the story where V blows up parliament. ;-)

    By Anonymous The Intrepid Adventurer, at 1:02 PM  

  • There's nothing more exciting than to have a dream materialize. Awesome! You'd do great, MM.

    Thanks for the history lesson. It gives more meaning to the listen.

    By Blogger HappySurfer, at 5:04 PM  

  • I really loved Tschaikovsky when I was young, played some of it enthusiastically, but these days I reckon he is rather campy. Don't you think so?
    Of course his melodies are to die for!

    By Blogger Peceli and Wendy's Blog, at 4:13 PM  

  • Brilliant description of the piece. I love it.

    The 1812 Overture was the first music recording that I ever bought. At the time, it was the theme for Quaker Puffed Rice (shot from guns!) and for a couple of box tops and two bits I received a 45 rpm record of it with excellent liner notes.

    Let the tears flow - as long as they don't fog up your glasses.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 8:48 PM  

  • i'm trying to raise naief to know that crying is ok.... i think it's a pity that many a man feels like it's inappropriate.

    this piece doesn't bring tears to my eyes... but there's some songs that do... one is Imagine by John Lennon. and.. that song What a Beautiful World. always makes me cry.

    By Blogger Um Naief, at 9:24 PM  

  • Just linked in from Olivia's blog. An excellent description. I knew it was about the Napoleonic Wars, but didn't know the details, except from what I remember from a public television dramatization of War and Peace. Yes, Americans, especially of my generation, remember it as the "Cereal Shot from Guns Overture," just as "Vesti la Giubba" (sp?) from I Pagliacci is the "We're out of Rice Krispies" aria.

    It's funny that Beethoven's "Wellington's Victory," which has more cannons along with musket fire, has never been as popular as "1812." It's not great Beethoven, for sure, but the little ditty,

    "Tommy rattled his baton, and shouted, 'Louder, boys!'

    The English don't like music much,
    But how they love the noise."

    suerly applies to a lot of Americans.

    By Blogger steve on the slow train, at 12:31 PM  

  • Who knows where to download XRumer 5.0 Palladium?
    Help, please. All recommend this program to effectively advertise on the Internet, this is the best program!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:13 AM  

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