The 1812 Overture and fireworks, as American as ... waitaminute
July 3, 2014 11:11 PM   Subscribe

Every Fourth of July, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture is heard all over the United States, timed to the burst of fireworks. How did this Russian composition, celebrating the Russian victory over the French in that War of 1812 (not the war between England and the US), become a staple of the United States' Independence Day celebrations? We can thank the Boston Pops.

After conductor Walter Damrosch convinced Andrew Carnegie to build what would become the famed Music Hall (renamed Carnegie Hall in 1894), he needed a big name draw for the Hall's opening festivities. At the time, there were certainly very few names bigger than Tchaikovsky's.He noted that "people in the United States know my work better than they do in Russia, in my own home."

The Russian composer's 1812 Overture debuted in 1882, and he conducted the composition for the debut of Carnegie's Music Hall in 1891. Even though Tchaikovsky intended for his "very noisy" composition to be played outdoors, with church bells, sixteen cannons, and even fireworks (Google books preview), and the composition was performed in the early 20th century as part of Independence Day fireworks shows, the pairing of the Overture with fireworks wasn't a Fourth of July tradition until the mid 1970s. It came about thanks to a quirky friendship between two men: Arthur Fiedler, the late, legendary, curmudgeonly conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, and David Mugar, a millionaire Boston businessman who has sponsored all Boston's Fourth of July concerts since they took on this explosive form 40 years ago.

Given the duration of this paring, it might not be surprising that it's popularity is waning a bit. A few years ago, Macy's fireworks display over the Hudson Bay featured 50 songs voted on by people on Facebook, where the 1812 Overture didn't get selected, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic's performance at the Hollywood Bowl also excluded the Overture.

If you want to relive some of the past excitement with the pairing of cannons and chrysanthemums, or other prior Fourth of July shows, you may enjoy the Boston Pops bicentennial celebration, with Arthur Fiedler conducting (television coverage), or the 2011 performance of the 1812 Overture (decent audience recording), or enjoy the extended coverage of Macy's Fourth of July celebration (televised, with various special guests).
posted by filthy light thief (29 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
But last night, Thursday the 3rd, the Boston Pops, the Beach Boys and fireworks happened; tonight, Friday the 4th a hurricane is scheduled...
posted by Anitanola at 11:24 PM on July 3, 2014

How on earth does the popularity of a piece that calls for artillery in the percussion section become unpopular in America?
posted by figurant at 11:26 PM on July 3, 2014 [7 favorites]

Sorry to folks whose local fireworks shows were re-scheduled or cut short (and I wish you all stay safe in the oncoming weather events). This post was in no way inspired by such news, but rather my mother-in-law who was bemoaning the lack of 1812 Overture in upcoming fireworks programs on TV this year.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:33 PM on July 3, 2014

I am glad for your post; in order to properly observe the 4th, I shall click your link to the 2011 performance at the appropriate time!
posted by Anitanola at 11:37 PM on July 3, 2014

From what I've read Brits consider the war of 1812 to be a blip in the Napoleonic wars. It's the most big a deal in Canada, even though it produced the US National anthem. Canadian bookstores have an 1812 part of their history section, but they are nowhere to be found in the states.
posted by brujita at 11:57 PM on July 3, 2014

My father was a member of the United States Army Band (Pershing's Own), and stationed at Fort Myer for the duration of his enlistment.

Every summer, the United States Army Band (with the Herald Trumpets) perform The 1812 Overture With the cannons from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) also known as the 3rd Herd (but only if you know them).

I spent my entire youth seeing this performed, many times right next to the Washington Monument.

Frankly, nothing compares to having a Howitzer as part of the percussion section. And by percussion, I mean your ears will be ringing, even though they are half a mile away from the audience.

Anyway, end of story.
posted by daq at 11:59 PM on July 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

A pox on those who say the Pops should change the 1812.. Never got to hear it as daq did with actual artillery, but listening to it up high with those concussive fireworks timed to the piece is still pretty damn impressive live.
posted by drewbage1847 at 12:09 AM on July 4, 2014

As a violinist, playing the 1812 with actual artillery and a frickin' motivated bell ringin' percussionist is an experience like no other. I've watched the Boston Pops perform it at the Hatch Shell but being right in the middle producing all that sound is even better.
posted by girlhacker at 1:05 AM on July 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

'...the war between England and the US' should read 'the war between Britain and the US'.

Scotland will continue to take responsibility for it's part in Britain's imperialistic past... at least until we celebrate our own independence day soon. ;)
posted by redskythinking at 3:49 AM on July 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Having spent many Fourth of July's catching the last bit of the Boston Pops concert on television, the 1812 Overture just doesn't feel right unless it's immediately followed by Sousa's "The Stars and Stripes Forever" which is a fun, lighthearted, and raucous counterpoint to the the previous piece's seriousness and artillery fire.

I think in recent years they've messed with this formula to accommodate national broadcasts, which is mostly why I've stopped bothering with the concert. Also, it just isn't the same now that I'm older and there's no adult calling us kids inside because "the Boston fireworks are starting"
posted by RonButNotStupid at 4:38 AM on July 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Over the last year I've noticed a lot of classic music aficionados (I hesitate to say "snobs" because I could easily fall into this category) dissing the 1812 Overture for a number of factors... being "too loud" and "in your face", too "popular", etc. Fie on them all. It may be those things but it's also damn thrilling, and one of the pieces that got me listening to other types of classical music. More 1812, please!
posted by cvp at 4:39 AM on July 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

(I'll also add that if you're looking for a great 1812 Overture experience you could do worse than Rome, NY's "Honor America Days", which I believe typically take place in late July. The Syracuse Symphony—which is now called "Symphoria" since reorganising a year or so ago—plays on the banks of Fort Stanwix, a beautiful colonial fort in the center of the city. There's cannon fire, fireworks, church bells, and yeah it doesn't hurt that you're right next to a frickin' Revolutionary-era fort. Patriotic pageantry at its finest.)
posted by cvp at 4:45 AM on July 4, 2014

Many years ago, I was stationed at Ft. Devens, MA, when the annual celebrations rolled around, my roommate happened to be a cannon-cocker (gun-grunt, artilleryman) who was tapped to go fire one of the guns at the 4th celeb with the Pops.

He was complaining about having to go get dressed up and work on the 4th. I volunteered to take his place.

"Why would you do that?" he asked.

I thought on how to phrase the answer. "Because, when I tell people I was a soloist with the Boston Pops, they're going to ask what instrument I played. How much fun is it going to be to look them in the face and say "Howitzer""

He went and did his thing. I often wonder if he tells the story as I framed it.
posted by pjern at 5:43 AM on July 4, 2014 [14 favorites]

"It is one of the few pieces with good musical content that has cannons exploding," says Leon Botstein, president of Bard College and a conductor and music scholar who has written about Tchaikovsky. (From the the composition was performed in the early 20th century as part of Independence Day fireworks shows link)

So what are the others?
posted by TedW at 6:10 AM on July 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

How on earth can somebody listen to the 1812 Overture and link it with 4 July? Or even any US war? The music's structure is very specific and recalls the war itself, with numerous Russian motifs spread throughout.

From what I've read Brits consider the war of 1812 to be a blip in the Napoleonic wars.

I would say this is fairly accurate. The War of 1812 is a known fact but bears no importance next to Napoleon. The only things people could likely tell you is "burnt the White House" and "over before it began".
posted by Thing at 6:19 AM on July 4, 2014

Bring from Boston but having lived in many other places, it feels just a bit shocking and wrong when I see July 4th fireworks displays that aren't set to the 1812 Overture and Stars and Stripes Forever. In some cities, they actually use pop songs. Pop songs!
posted by lunasol at 6:33 AM on July 4, 2014

They use pop songs here too, lunasol. Katy Perry and Lady Gaga both work really well. They just start with the 1812.
posted by maryr at 6:42 AM on July 4, 2014

I was going to babble about how much I love the Boston 4th of July celebrations, but I'm going to try to spare you. Instead, some shameless self links

1812 Overture fireworks from Boston side (2006).

1812 Overture fireworks from Cambridge side (a rainy 2007).
1812 Overture fireworks from MIT Sailing Pavilion (2008)
and possibly video?
1812 Overture fireworks from MIT Sailing Pavilion (2010) and video of grand finale from the same year
1812 Overture from Cambridge side (2011).

My 4th of July crowd has dwindled over the past couple of years, which makes me sad. Last year, my friends couldn't be bother to walk from Cambridgeport to MIT to watch the fireworks, so I watched by myself. This year, my town's fireworks were the same night, so I stayed close to home which kept me dry. I've always enjoyed the day long camp out (or evening long picnic) for July 4th. I hope I get to resume the tradition soon.
posted by maryr at 6:51 AM on July 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, and if you ever get a chance to see the fireworks from the MIT Sailing Pavilion? RUN don't walk. I can't imagine a better view is possible and I'm including those apartments on Storrow I'm always jealous of as I bake in the midday Esplanade sun.
posted by maryr at 6:53 AM on July 4, 2014

I was in the high school marching band. Having moved to the US that summer and never being exposed to marching bands before, I pretty much sucked at it but the rest of the band and the band leader were pretty cool about it and the bus rides were lots of fun.

For the Homecoming game everything had to be perfect. A couple weeks before the band leader came up to me and said 'Runes, I got a special part I want you to play', and pulled out a fire extinguisher. Yup, I was the 'smoke' when the band formed into a cannon for 1812. Every 'Boom', I hit that fire extinguisher right on cue. It was awesome, and for weeks later I was 'that dude who played the fire extinguisher in the band'.
posted by Runes at 7:00 AM on July 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thing: "How on earth can somebody listen to the 1812 Overture and link it with 4 July? Or even any US war? The music's structure is very specific and recalls the war itself, with numerous Russian motifs spread throughout."


(I am willing to bet that 90% of Americans who know what it's called know it's about the Russo-French part of the Napoleonic Wars; everybody else is like "OH YEAH THAT SONG WITH CANNONS THAT I KNOW FROM BUGS BUNNY.")

I was actually wondering the other day whether it's a popular song in France, considering how the Russian themes gradually smother and defeat the French ones. Probably they're like, "Yeah, whatever, it's a fun song and there's cannons," but it'd be interesting if there were a cultural dislike of it because the French lose in the song.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:11 AM on July 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

The wikipedia page on Beethoven Wellington's Victory is cool.

"What I shit (scheisse) is better than anything you could ever think up!"[3]

Also see Menard's graphics.
posted by bukvich at 8:16 AM on July 4, 2014

I don't get what people are talking about here. The 1812 Overture is as American and Apple Pie. Or hamburgers. Or hot dogs.
posted by happyroach at 12:16 PM on July 4, 2014

Someone may have already mentioned this and I just missed it, but this was the first year the Boston Pops concert was livestreamed. Even with them turning the dress rehearsal into the real thing and not being able to play the 1812, it was great. Starting sometime today, it'll be available to view for 24 days.
posted by worldswalker at 12:47 PM on July 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

At a slight tangent, here's what the gunfire in the 1812 Overture reminded me of today.
posted by bryon at 9:48 PM on July 4, 2014

Thing: " The only things people could likely tell you is "burnt the White House" and "over before it began"."

Well, it *did* last two and a half years....
posted by Chrysostom at 6:13 PM on July 26, 2014

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