My good friend and colleague, Robert Fertitta – organist, music teacher, choral director, et al, has for some time asked me to write a post on the premiere of a musical piece. So as a sop to his request I present to you “The Year 1812, festival overture in E♭ major,” Op. 49, popularly known as the “1812 Overture,” an overture written in 1880 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to commemorate Russia’s defense of the motherland against Napoleon’s invading Grande Armée in 1812. The overture debuted in Moscow on 20 August 1882, conducted by Ippolit Al’tani under a tent near the then unfinished Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer, which also memorialized the 1812 defense of Russia. My apologies Robert, for my choice of works to honor your request with a piece I suspect you abhor. If so you are in good company. As a young boy I enjoyed the piece for no other reason than that I loved the novelty of live cannon (something which makes the piece an eternal favorite with audiences). Now with greater musical knowledge I consign it to my category “harmless spectacles.”
There is no question that Tchaikovsky himself disliked it. 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 organizing 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.
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.’
The 1812 Overture is scored for an orchestra that consists of:
Brass band (finale only)
Woodwinds: 1 piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets in B♭ and 2 bassoons
Brass: 4 horns in F, 2 cornets in B♭, 2 trumpets in E♭, 3 trombones (2 tenor, 1 bass) and 1 tuba
Percussion: timpani, an orchestral bass drum, a snare drum, cymbals, a tambourine, a triangle, a carillon and cannon
Strings: first and second violins, violas, violoncellos, and double basses
The music can be interpreted as a fairly literal depiction of the campaign: in June 1812, the previously undefeated French Allied Army of over half a million battle-hardened soldiers and almost 1,200 state-of-the-art guns (cannons, artillery pieces) crossed the Niemen River into Lithuania on its way to Moscow. The Russian Orthodox Patriarch of All the Russias, aware that the Russian Imperial Army could field a force only a fraction of this size, inexperienced and poorly equipped, called on the people to pray for deliverance and peace. The Russian people responded en masse, gathering in churches all across the Empire and offering their heartfelt prayers for divine intervention (the opening hymn). Next we hear the ominous notes of approaching conflict and preparation for battle with a hint of desperation but great enthusiasm, followed by the distant strains of La Marseillaise, the French National Anthem, as the French approach. Skirmishes follow, and the battle goes back and forth, but the French continue to advance and La Marseillaise becomes more prominent and victorious – almost invincible. The Tsar desperately appeals to the spirit of the Russian people in an eloquent plea to come forward and defend the Rodina (Motherland). As the people in their villages consider his impassioned plea, we hear traditional Russian folk music. La Marseillaise returns in force with great sounds of battle as the French approach Moscow. The Russian people now begin to stream out of their villages and towns toward Moscow to the increasing strains of folk music and, as they gather together, there is even a hint of celebration. Now, La Marseillaise is heard in counterpoint to the folk music as the great armies clash on the plains west of Moscow, and Moscow burns. Just at the moment that Moscow is occupied and all seems hopeless, the hymn O Lord, Save Thy People that opens the piece is heard again as God intervenes, bringing an unprecedented deep freeze the French cannot bear (the winter winds blow in the music). The French attempt to retreat, but their guns, stuck in the freezing ground, are captured by the Russians and turned against them. Finally, the guns are fired in celebration and church bells all across the land peal in grateful honor of their deliverance from their treacherous and cruel enemies.
It’s all highly contrived and sentimental, of course. For example, La Marseillaise was banned under Napoleon, and did not become the French national anthem until the 1870’s. But the tune evokes the right tone of French patriotic militarism. Make of the piece what you will. Here’s a decent rendition of the full work with live cannon:
Tchaikovsky frequently mentions kulebiaka in his correspondence as a favorite dish. It was created by French chefs in Russia, shortly after the War of 1812, and henceforth served to the gentry and nobility. It is complicated and time consuming to make, and so I give you a recipe (edited) from a Russian cook from this site:
4 cups all-purpose flour.
½ lb chilled unsalted butter, cut into bits.
6 tbs chilled vegetable shortening.
1 tsp salt.
10-12 tbs milk.
½ cup whole milk.
1 cup coarsely chopped onions.
½ cup coarsely chopped celery.
1 cup scraped, coarsely chopped carrots.
2 ½ lbs fresh salmon.
8 tbs unsalted butter.
½ lb fresh mushrooms, thinly sliced.
3 hard-cooked eggs, finely chopped.
salt and pepper.
1 tbs fresh dill, chopped.
1 cup sour cream.
½ cup unconverted, long-grain white rice.
In a large, chilled bowl, combine the flour, butter, shortening and salt. Working quickly, use your fingertips to rub the flour and fat together until they blend and resemble flakes of coarse meal. Pour 10 tablespoons of water over the mixture all at once, toss together lightly and gather into a ball. If the dough seems crumbly, add up to 2 tablespoons more ice water by drops. Divide the dough in half, dust each half with flour, and wrap them separately in wax paper. Refrigerate 3 hours, or until firm.
Combine 3 quarts of water, the milk, the coarsely chopped onion, celery, carrots, peppercorns, and 3 teaspoons of the salt in a 4-to 6-quart enameled or stainless steel casserole. Bring to a boil over high heat, then lower the salmon into the liquid and reduce the heat to low. Simmer 8 to 10 minutes, or until the fish is firm to the touch. With a slotted spatula, transfer the fish to a large bowl and separate it into small flakes with your fingers or a fork. Melt two tablespoons of butter in a heavy 10- to 12- inch skillet set over high heat. Add the mushrooms, reduce the heat to moderate and, stirring occasionally, cook for 3 -5 minutes, or until the mushrooms are soft. With a slotted spoon, transfer the mushrooms to a small bowl and toss them with lemon juice, ½ teaspoon of salt and a few grindings of pepper. Melt 4 more tablespoons of butter on the skillet over high heat and drop in all but 1 tablespoon of finely chopped onions. Reduce the heat to moderate and, stirring occasionally, cook 3-5 minutes, or until the onions are soft but not brown. Stir in the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt and ¼ teaspoon of pepper and with a rubber spatula, scrape into the mushrooms. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in the skillet over high heat. Drop in the remaining tablespoon of chopped onion, reduce the heat to moderate and stirring frequently, cook for 2-3 minutes, or until soft but not brown. Stir in the rice and cook 2-3 minutes, stirring almost constantly, until each grain is coated with butter. Pour in the chicken stock, bring to a boil, and cover the pan tightly. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 12 minutes, or until the water is completely absorbed and the rice is tender and fluffy. Off the heat, stir in the dill with a fork. Add the cooked mushrooms and onions, rice and the chopped hard-cooked eggs to the bowl of salmon and toss together lightly but thoroughly. Taste for seasoning.
Preheat oven to 400˚F. Place one ball of dough on a floured surface and roll it into a rough rectangle about 1-inch thick. Dust with flour and roll until the dough is about 1/8 inch thick, then trim it to a rectangle 7 inches wide and 16 inches long. Coat a large cookie sheet with 2 tablespoons of butter, drape the pastry over the rolling pin and unroll it over the cookie sheet. Place the filling along the length of the pastry, leaving a 1-inch border of dough exposed around it. With a pastry brush, brush the exposed rim of dough with the egg-yolk and cream mixture. Roll the other half of the dough into a rectangle about 9-inches wide and 18-inches long, drape over the pin and unroll over the filling. Seal the edges by pressing down hard with the back of a fork. Or use the fingertips or a pastry crimper to pinch the edges into narrow pleats. Cut out a 1-inch circle from the center of the dough. You may also gather the remaining pastry scraps into a ball, roll them out again, and with a cookie cutter or a small sharp knife, cut out decorative shapes such as leaves or triangles and decorate the top of the loaf. Coat the entire surface of the pastry with the remaining egg-yolk and cream mixture, place any pastry shapes on top, and refrigerate for 20-minutes. Pour 1 tablespoon melted butter into the opening of the loaf and bake the kulebiaka in the center of the oven for 1 hour, or until golden brown.
Serve at once, accompanied with a pitcher of melted butter or sour cream.