Tchaikovsky Hated The '1812 Overture,' Which Sucks Because He Also Wrote It

Image: The United States Army Band

This is the edition of this column that will come before the Fourth of July, and so I would like to present you with a piece you are almost certainly going to hear this weekend if you are an American reader and that is Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. I know. I know. I wrote about Tchaikovsky only two weeks ago. Look, I’m well aware. And I didn’t intend for it to be this way, but it’s what I’m doing. If you want to read about something else, you can start Classical Music Hour with, I don’t know, Robert or whatever your name is, and be very happy. That’s fine.

We think of the 1812 Overture as this very American piece and we play it on the Fourth of July for whatever reason, which is just nutso for so many reasons. Last year, I watched a very grown man cry to this piece of music and I was like, “Are you sure?” Do you even know what it’s about? Have you just been assuming the 1812 Overture is about the American War of 1812. Guess what? It’s not!! I distinctly recall reading about the history of the 1812 Overture at the end of last year when I was reading my gigantic Tchaikovsky book (the Anthony Holden biography), and making a mental note to ruin everyone’s Fourth of July so here we fucking go.

In 1881, Tchaikovsky was commissioned by his old friend and mentor Nikolay Rubenstein to write a piece for an occasion commemorating a new church known as the Cathedral of Christ the Savior that had been commissioned to be built in 1812. So, I guess that’s how long it took back then to make a big cathedral. In addition, the piece also had to commemorate the silver jubilee of the Tsar (that’s 25 years). So, it was one of those classic “happy about a big church” + “congrats to the Tsar,” kill-two-birds-with-one-festive-overture-types of situations. But Tchaikovsky, who does not care about the church and does not care about the Tsar, bitches and moans and groans but eventually commits to the piece which he writes in one week, nearly four months after first being asked.

Tchaikovsky hated this piece!! He hated it so much. That’s nuts. We (Americans) love it. He thought music written for and to commemorate occasions was “banal with a lot of noise.” Honestly that’s true! When he finally turned it in, Tchaikovsky wrote: “I don’t think the piece has any serious merits, and I shan’t be the slightest bit surprised or offended if you find it unsuitable for concert performance.” AHHH. This is truly something he wrote for the paycheck. Truly, if he knew how often this piece is played now I think he would be livid.

The other thing to know is that the thing the Cathedral of Christ the Savior was commemorating (things in the past were always commemorating each other) was the Russian military defeat of Napoleon. This is why La Marseillaise (the French national anthem) comes in and out of the piece throughout but perhaps most notably at the 11:53 mark (this week we’re listening to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 1996 version conducted by Daniel Barenboim), only to be totally, finally, and aggressively overtaken by the melody at the end, meant to represent the glory and strength of the Russian military anthem. I’m not saying we shouldn’t commemorate the strength of the Russian military every Fourth of July but it is kind of a [collar pull] these days, you know?

Which raises the question, how did this piece become so heavily associated with American culture anyway? The short answer is: pops orchestras. Arthur Fielder, of the Boston Pops, “the big Pops,” as we say (we don’t), added it to his 1974 televised Fourth of July special and everyone was like, “what the!!!!” and now it’s history. But hey. You can cry to it if it makes you feel good. It is a cool piece. It was in V For Vendetta! There are cannons! It is such a fun piece to listen to while sitting on a big picnic blanket and with a cannon and some berries and playing cards with your family and maybe there are fireworks too. What I’m trying to say is, you can kind of see why this is the sort of thing Tchaikovsky just absolutely fucking hated, which rules.

Fran Hoepfner is a writer from Chicago. You can find a corresponding playlist for all of the pieces discussed in this column here.