Backyard barbecues, beach parties, fireworks, and concerts featuring the 1812 Overture – all traditional parts of the holiday celebrating the independence of our nation. What’s wrong with this picture? Why, the 1812 Overture, of course.
This marquee finale by Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, and many of us look forward to its annual performance. It has Russian Orthodox music, Russian folk tunes, cannons, church bells and, as our spirits go higher, fireworks.
But let’s face it. It was composed by Tchaikovsky to commemorate the success of Russia against Napoleon. Isn’t it time to commission a piece of distinctly American sounds for arguably America’s most important holiday? Think about a concert grand finale that honors American folk tunes, ballads, Negro spirituals and jazz. Think about homages to the likes of Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Arlo Guthrie, John Philip Sousa, Julia Ward Howe and John Williams. The piece should have plenty of brass and fanfare, including the popular cannons and bells, and other audio pyrotechnics, all leading to a spectacular fireworks display.
More than a decade ago, my husband tried to interest composer and Boston Symphony Laureate Conductor John Williams, celebrated for some of the most memorable music in decades of American films, to take on such a project. Williams demurred, saying the 1812 was too baked into 4th July celebrations to replace. My husband responded that concerts, if programmers wanted, could still include the shortened version of the 1812 overture as a penultimate piece, but that the grand finale should be a new Independence Day anthem. Williams and others he approached were unmoved.
I, too, doubted the value of flouting such a popular tradition. But, in this year of reassessment, in which we once again will not have a live July Fourth concert on the Esplanade, I’ve softened my opposition. Aside from the fact that the 1812 overture has nothing to do with American history, six years of disclosures of Russian efforts to disrupt the foundations of our democracy make our national celebration’s use of a Russian composer’s ahistorical paean to the Russian “victory” at Borodino seem ironic if not obscene. We love Tchaikovsky’s music and the full version of the 1812 Festival Overture (even if Tchaikovsky reportedly said it was “loud and noisy and without artistic merit.” ), and don’t want to cancel it from orchestral programs. Just not on July 4th .
In my past life as WCVB-TV Editorial Director, I regularly editorialized about how contradictory it is that our national anthem, the unsingable Star-Spangled Banner is set to the tune of Anacreon in Heaven, an old English drinking song. And “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” borrows from the British national anthem, “God Save the Queen.” Far better to use “America the Beautiful” by Katherine Lee Bates or even Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Changing those will never happen, but let’s rethink the 1812 Overture as a signature of our Independence Day annual celebration.
It’s our understanding that far from having any august patriotic patrimony, the inclusion of the 1812 Overture was simply a 1974 marketing strategy by two pyrotechnic-fascinated “sparkies,” philanthropist and television executive David Mugar and BSO Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler, to revive flagging audience interest in the annual Esplanade event. They certainly succeeded, and Mugar’s generous financial support of the annual fireworks concert became an enormous tourist attraction, bringing significant revenues to the city. Some worry that, over the years, the fireworks with canned music came to dominate the live performance. I am not necessarily among those critics.
While the BSO, our first choice, has not been receptive to the idea, another orchestra could extend its international brand by commissioning, performing and promoting an original American-centric Fourth of July piece that could, over time, possibly rise to the level of a competing national anthem. Somewhere in this great land there must be the perfect composer to embrace our own historical themes and celebrate our people, their struggles, victories, independence, resilience, diversity, cherished freedoms, civil liberties and bedrock democratic republic and build to a fireworks/ sound and light show worthy of John Adams’s vision that Independence Day be celebrated with pomp, parades, “guns, bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
Clearly this is something that could, in a deeply divided America, attract bipartisan support.
I welcome your feedback in the comments section below. To be alerted when a new blog is posted, click on “Follow’ on the home page on marjoriearonsbarron.com.
9 thoughts on “Time to Replace the 1812 on the Fourth”
Margie- Your true anti- tsarist colors are showing . How could you? I am in shock. Hrmph… btw, did you mean to write Arlo or Woody? Happy 4 days after the 4th….ah, poor mother russia.
if there’s a true american anthem it’s copland’s ‘fanfare for the common man’. america is about the rejection of aristocracy . . . no monarchs, no earls or dukes or princes, no house of lords. the constitution requires all members of congress be actual inhabitants of the states from which they are elected, neighbors representing neighbors. the constitution’s first branch is congress, the representatives of the people. it’s nice that america is beautiful but lots of countries have majestic mountains and fields of grain. this is the citizens’ country: aaron copland nailed it.
Great comment. I love that piece.
Marjie: How about Elliot Goldenthal. He is Julie Taymor’s long term partner. He won an Academy Award for is musical score for the movie Frida that Julie directed. Linda
Interesting commentary, Margie, and definitel
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While your piece is, as always, quite thoughtful, I can’t agree. There are times when a work of art cannot be separated from its maker or its historical setting. But clearly there are many other times when such a work can and should be appreciated solely for itself. Without that an awful lot can be lost. Can we not read the poem “If” without contemplating that Kipling was an imperialist? Can we not enjoy looking at the White House without worrying that the government hired enslaved people from their owners to work on it? Can we not rejoice in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony without focusing on religion? Or, can we not appreciate the art of Benvenuto Cellini without recalling that he got away with murder? In the words attributed to Freud, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” In that spirit, and as you stated, the Overture is “a guaranteed crowd pleaser” and “a tradition.” And even if we cannot divorce the Overture from the theme of war, in general, isn’t that what July 4th is at least in meaningful part, about – a pronouncement of independence from Britain by means of warfare?
I’m not questioning the intrinsic appeal of the 1812 overture and even said in the blog that it could still be included as part of the program, just not the grand finale. Your comparisons to Cellini, the White House, Kipling etc. miss my point. I simply think that, on this one special day of the year, we deserve a distinctly American grand finale for the showpiece celebration of Independence Day. I can well appreciate the cleverness of the gimmick to attract more bodies to the Esplanade in 1974 and afterwards, but I think that a more American musical idiom, using similar crowd-appealing brass fanfare, artillery and carillons, can create a new tradition worth embracing. Have a good 4th.
I think it is a misguided woke idea. It is time we started living in present. Acknowledging history (or herstory) is one thing, but trying to correct it is another. Why can we not enjoy 1812 for its musical genius instead of getting obsessed with its meaning and what it represents.
1. Should we return the statue of liberty because it was cast be a foreign government?
2. Should we change the Star Spangled Banner because its composer owned slaves?
Instead of obsessing about sins of past, maybe its time to focus on today. Eating chicken or consuming products like cars and electricity that are essentially fueled by Appalachian coal represent support for modern day colonialism. Want to do something today – Cancel your Amazon membership – their abuse of workers and resulting carnage of local retail is well documented.
Live in today. Do something about today. Such symbolic gestures are utterly meaningless.
PS – I always have loved your column and thinking.
I think the idea is great but having some black/ American Indian ( include women! ) composers would be good.