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Triumph is the order of the day in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The work’s official title is The Year 1812, a Festival Overture to Mark the Consecration of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which was in Moscow. Tchaikovsky wrote the occasional piece in less than a week – his capacity to compose quickly was legendary. Anton Rubinstein, his teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, remembered one instance when the young Tchaikovsky, asked to submit a few contrapuntal variations, turned in over 200.
The commission for the Overture came from Nikolai Rubinstein, who was in charge of organizing music for an exhibition that took place in 1882 (after a year’s postponement). The Overture’s first performance took place on August 20, not outside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior as is often assumed, but in a concert hall expressly built for the exhibition. The cathedral was built to commemorate the Russian defeat of Napoleon in 1812, and Tchaikovsky crafted a suitably patriotic work for the occasion. He used the Russian Empire’s national anthem, “God Save the Tsar,” to open and usher in the close of the work, also incorporating a folk melody borrowed from his forgotten opera The Voyevoda and the French national anthem, “La marseillaise.” What most remember about the Overture, however, is its use of cannons, first to mark the French defeat, then during the final, celebratory dance that follows the second, triumphant statement of “God Save the Tsar.”
— J. M.