Open main menu

A performance of the Overture, complete with cannon fire, performed at the 2005 Classical Spectacular in Melbourne, Australia

The Year 1812 Solemn Overture, festival overture in E major, Op. 49, popularly known as the 1812 Overture,[1] is a concert overture written in 1880 by Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to commemorate the successful Russian defence against Napoleon's invading Grande Armée in 1812.

The overture debuted in Moscow on August 20, 1882,[2] conducted by Ippolit Al'tani under a tent near the then-unfinished Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which also memorialized the 1812 defence of Russia.[3] Tchaikovsky himself conducted another performance at the dedication of Carnegie Hall in New York City.[4] That was one of the first times a major European composer visited the United States.[5]

The 15 minute overture is best known for its climactic volley of cannon fire, ringing chimes, and brass fanfare finale. It has also become a common accompaniment to fireworks displays on the United States' Independence Day. The 1812 Overture went on to become one of Tchaikovsky's most popular works, along with his ballet scores to The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake.[6]


The 1812 Overture is scored for an orchestra that consists of the following:[7]

The carillon is sometimes replaced with tubular bells or recordings of carillons, or even church bells. In the sections that contain cannon shots, actual cannons are sometimes replaced by recorded cannons or played on a piece of staging, usually with a large wooden mallet or sledgehammer as in the Mahler 6th. The bass drum and gong/tam-tam are also regularly used as cannon substitutes or adjuncts in indoor performances.


Historical background: Napoleon's invasion of RussiaEdit

A scene depicting the French retreat from Russia in 1812, painting by Illarion Pryanishnikov (1874)

On September 7, 1812, at Borodino, 120 km (75 mi) west of Moscow, Napoleon's forces met those of General Mikhail Kutuzov in a concerted stand made by Russia against the seemingly invincible French Army. The Battle of Borodino saw casualties estimated as high as 100,000 and the French were masters of the field. It was, however, ultimately a pyrrhic victory for the French invasion.[8]

With resources depleted and supply lines overextended, Napoleon's weakened forces moved into Moscow, which they occupied with little resistance. Expecting capitulation from the displaced Tsar Alexander I, the French instead found themselves in a barren and desolate city, parts of which the retreating Russian Army had burned to the ground.[citation needed]

Deprived of winter stores, Napoleon had to retreat. Beginning on October 19 and lasting well into December, the French Army faced several overwhelming obstacles on its long retreat: famine, typhus, frigid temperatures, harassing cossacks, and Russian forces barring the way out of the country. Abandoned by Napoleon in November, the Grande Armée was reduced to one-tenth of its original size by the time it reached Poland and relative safety.[9]


In 1880, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, commissioned in 1812 by Tsar Alexander I to commemorate the Russian victory, was nearing completion in Moscow; the 25th anniversary of the coronation of Alexander II would be at hand in 1881; and the 1882 All-Russia Arts and Industry Exhibition at Moscow was in the planning stage. Tchaikovsky's friend and mentor Nikolai Rubinstein suggested that he write a grand commemorative piece for use in related festivities. Tchaikovsky began work on the project on October 12, 1880, finishing it six weeks later.[citation needed]

Organizers planned to have the overture performed in the square before the cathedral, with a brass band to reinforce the orchestra, the bells of the cathedral, and all the others in downtown Moscow playing "zvons" (pealing bells) on cue—and cannons, fired from an electric switch panel to achieve the precision the musical score required. However, this performance did not take place, possibly due in part to the over-ambitious plan. Regardless, the assassination of Alexander II that March deflated much of the impetus for the project. In 1882, during the All-Russia Arts and Industry Exhibition, the Overture was performed in a tent next to the unfinished cathedral.[3] The cathedral was completed on May 26, 1883.[10]

Meanwhile, Tchaikovsky complained to his patron Nadezhda von Meck that he was "... not a conductor of festival pieces," and that the Overture would be "... very loud and noisy, but [without] artistic merit, because I wrote it without warmth and without love." He put it together in six weeks. It is this work that would make the Tchaikovsky estate exceptionally wealthy, as it is one of the most performed and recorded works from his catalog.[11][12][13]

In Russia during the Communist era, the Tsar's anthem melody was replaced with the chorus "Glory, Glory to you, holy Rus'!" (Славься, славься, святая Русь!) from the finale of Mikhail Glinka's opéra A Life for the Tsar; a historical drama about a patriotic commoner, Ivan Susanin. With the end of the Soviet Union, the original score returned.[14]

Adaptation in other contextsEdit

As a rousing patriotic hymn, the Overture has subsequently been adapted into and associated with other contexts than that of the Russian fighting. The 1812 Overture is popularly known[15] in the United States as a symbol of the United States Independence Day, a tradition that dates to a 1974 choice made by Arthur Fiedler for a performance of July 4 of the Boston Pops.[16][17]

The piece was parodied by composer Malcolm Arnold in A Grand, Grand Overture which features 4 rifles, three Hoover vacuum cleaners (two uprights in B♭and one horizontal with detachable sucker in C), and an electric floor polisher in E♭; it is dedicated to President Hoover.[18]


U Vorot, Vorot is a folk song brought up in the piece representing the Russian people

The piece begins with the simple, plaintive Russian melody of the Eastern Orthodox Troparion of the Holy Cross (also known as "O Lord, Save Thy People") played by four cellos and two violas.[19] This represents the Russian people praying for a swift conclusion to the invasion. Then, the French National anthem, La Marseillaise, is heard, representing the invading French army.[20] Then, the melody of the Marseillaise is heard competing against Russian folk music, representing the two armies fighting each other as the French got closer and closer to Moscow. At this point, five cannon shots are heard, representing the Battle of Borodino. This is where the Marseillaise is most prominent, and seems to be winning. After this, a long descending run represents the French army retreating out of Moscow. At the end of this run the hymn that the piece begins with is repeated. This can be interpreted as prayers being answered. The grand finale culminates with eleven more cannon shots and the melody of God Save the Tsar!.[21]

Anachronism of nationalist motifsEdit

Although La Marseillaise was chosen as the French national anthem in 1795, it was banned by Napoleon in 1805 and would not have been played during the Russian campaign. It was reinstated as the French Anthem in 1879—the year before the commission of the overture—which can explain its use by Tchaikovsky in the overture.[22] Veillons au salut de l'Empire, which served as the unofficial anthem of Napoleon I's regime, had been largely forgotten by 1882, while educated Russians of the time were likely to be familiar with the tune of La Marseillaise and recognize its significance.[original research?]

Although God Save the Tsar! was the Russian national anthem in Tchaikovsky's time, it had not been written in 1812. There was no official Russian anthem until 1815, from which time until 1833 the anthem was Molitva russkikh, "The Prayer of the Russians," sung to the tune of God Save the King.[23]



O Lord, Save thy People represents the praying for deliverance from the invading army. A part of this hymn translates to "Grant victory to all Orthodox Christians over their enemies."[24] By including this hymn in the piece, Tchaikovsky is suggesting that God granted the Orthodox Russians victory over the French imperial troops. Later in the piece when La Marseillaise is played, it seems as though the Russians will lose the battle. Then O Lord, Save thy People, along with God Save the Tsar!, is played powerfully in the brass section with a strong display of chimes in the background. The ringing chimes are written to represent the bells of Moscow.[25] The Bells of Moscow hold significance, because in the Russian Orthodox religion, the bells symbolize the voice of God.[26]

Performance practiceEdit


In a live performance, the logistics of safety and precision in placement of the shots require either well-drilled military crews using modern cannon, or the use of sixteen pieces of muzzle-loading artillery, since any reloading schemes, to attain the sixteen shots, or even a semblance of them, in the two-minute time span involved, makes safety and precision impossible with 1800s artillery. Time lag alone precludes implementation of cues for the shots for fewer than sixteen 1812-era field pieces.[27]

Fidelity to the original scoreEdit

Musicologists[who?] questioned across the last third of a century[when?] have given no indication that the composer ever heard the Overture performed in authentic accordance with the 1880 plan. It is reported[according to whom?] that he asked permission to perform the piece as planned in Berlin, but was denied it. Performances he conducted on U.S. and European tours were apparently done with simulated or at best inexact shots, if with shots at all, a custom universal until recent years.[citation needed]

Antal Doráti and Erich Kunzel are the first conductors to have encouraged exact fidelity of the shots to the written score in live performances,[failed verification] beginning in New York and Connecticut as part of Doráti's recording, and Kunzel in Cincinnati in 1967 with assistance from J. Paul Barnett, of South Bend, Indiana.[28] Doráti uses an actual carillon called for in the score and the bells are rung about as close to a zvon as then known. The art of zvon ringing was almost lost because of the Russian Revolution, when many of the bells were destroyed.[29]

Recording historyEdit

The earliest traceable orchestral recording, which does not include the shots and features no percussion apart from bells, was by the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra conducted by Landon Ronald, was issued by His Master’s Voice on three 12-inch 78rpm sides in 1916.[30] A Royal Opera Orchestra recording of about the same time similarly contains no shots at all.[31]

Antal Doráti's 1954 Mercury Records recording with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, partially recorded at West Point, and using the Yale Memorial Carillon in New Haven, Connecticut, uses a Napoleonic French single muzzleloading cannon shot dubbed in 16 times as written. On the first edition of the recording, one side played the Overture and the other side played a narrative by Deems Taylor about how the cannon and bell effects were accomplished. (Later editions placed the commentary after the performance on side 1 and the Capriccio Italien on side 2.) A stereophonic version was recorded on April 5, 1958, using the bells of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon, at Riverside Church. On this Mercury Living Presence Stereo recording, the spoken commentary was also given by Deems Taylor and the 1812 was coupled with Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien. Later editions coupled the 1812 Overture with Dorati's recording of Beethoven's Wellington's Victory, which featured the London Symphony Orchestra and real cannon.[32]

Kenneth Alwyn's early stereo recording for Decca used a recording of slowed-down gunfire instead of cannon fire. Robert Sharples and the London Festival Orchestra released a recording in 1963, later remastered in quadrophony by Decca.[citation needed]

The Black Dyke Band has recorded a brass band arrangement of the piece. This recording on their album Symphonic Brass includes the cannon shots as originally written.[33]

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Herbert Von Karajan, and the Don Cossacks Choir recorded the piece in 1967 for Deutsche Grammophon.[34]

In 1971, CBS released a recording[35] with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy, also featuring the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Valley Forge Military Academy band and real artillery shots. British rock drummer Cozy Powell sampled the overture at the end of the track "Over The Top" in his eponymous 1979 studio album. The first digital recording occurred in 1979 by Telarc of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. High-definition cannon shots using full-sized 19th century military cannons were also recorded. In addition to becoming Telarc's best-selling record and establishing them as a company, the record soon became a popular and well-known method for testing hifi record-playing equipment and related setups. Only the best and most fine-tuned allowed the cannon shots to be played properly (an accompanying warning for users not to destroy their audio equipment was included with the record).[36][37][38] In 1989, the Swingle Singers recorded an a cappella version of the overture as part of an album whose title is 1812.[39]

In 1990, during a worldwide celebration of the 150th anniversary of Tchaikovsky's birth, the Overture was recorded in the city of his youth by the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra using 16 muzzleloading cannons fired live as written in the 1880 score. That recording was done within earshot of the composer's grave. The festival was televised for the first time in USA on March 9, 1991.[40][41] The Texan band "The Invincible Czars" released a rock version of 1812 Overture for the bicentennial of the Battle of Borodino in September 2012.[42] The band had already debuted their arrangement of the piece at the 20th annual OK Mozart classical music festival at Bartlesville, Oklahoma, with professional orchestra musicians, in June 2009, complete with fireworks at the finale.[43]

In popular cultureEdit

The overture is the title screen music for the 2000 PC game Risk II[citation needed]. It is also the in-game music of the 1982 video game Astro Chase.

In the sci-fi fantasy show Farscape, John Crichton converts a DRD to belt out the overture in order to ground him and help maintain his focus. He even paints the French flag on the droid and labels it "1812".[citation needed]

The piece is featured a couple of times throughout the 1994 film Blown Away starring Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones, most notably in one of the closing scenes of the movie where Jim Dove's fiancée is performing the song as part of an orchestra.[44]

The piece is featured prominently in the film V for Vendetta.[45]

The melody of Dan Fogelberg's top ten hit "Same Old Lang Syne" is drawn from the distinctive leitmotif that represents the Russian forces in the piece.[46]

In Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time, the RYNO V weapon plays the 1812 Overture while firing.[citation needed]

In Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, part of the overture's finale plays when the Claptrap character enters Pirate Ship Mode.[citation needed]

Tommy Wiseau's 2015 sitcom The Neighbors uses the overture as its intro theme.[citation needed]

The Band of the Fighting Irish perform the song at the end of the 3rd quarter during Notre Dame Football games.[47][citation needed]

The riff of The Move's 1966 hit single "Night of Fear" was adapted from 1812 Overture.[48]

In the film Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, a piece similar to this is played, but is called "1812 Ofarture", in which the piece is played with sounds of whoopee cushions, bloating, nose picking, mucus shooting, and flatulence.


  1. ^ "Tchaikovsky Research : The Year 1812, Op. 49 (TH 49)". Retrieved June 21, 2015.
  2. ^ Lax, Roger; Frederick Smith (1989). The Great Song Thesaurus. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 230. ISBN 978-0-19-505408-8.
  3. ^ a b Felsenfeld, Daniel. Tchaikovsky: A Listener's Guide, p. 54. Amadeus Press, 2006.
  4. ^ Cross, Milton (1969). The Milton Cross New Encyclopedia of the Great Composers and Their Music, Volume 2. Doubleday. p. 1034.
  5. ^ Ewen, David (1978). Musicians since nineteen hundred: performers in concert and opera. Hw Wilson Company. p. 186. ISBN 0-8242-0565-0.
  6. ^ Robinson, Harlow (2012). Rzhevsky, Nicholas (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Modern Russian Culture. Cambridge University Press. p. 268. ISBN 978-1-107-00252-4.
  7. ^ Tchaikovsky, Piotr Ilyich (1996). 1812 overture: Marche slave, and ; Francesca da Rimini. Courier Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-29069-7. Retrieved December 29, 2009.
  8. ^ "Battle of Borodino". Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Archived from the original on January 21, 2010. Retrieved January 6, 2010.
  9. ^ Zamoyski, Adam (2004). Moscow 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March. London: Harper Collins. ISBN 0-00-712375-2.
  10. ^ "Cathedral of Christ the Saviour: History". Archived from the original on May 15, 2011. Retrieved September 26, 2010.
  11. ^ "Official website of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour". Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Archived from the original on April 1, 2015. Retrieved January 10, 2010.
  12. ^ "Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow: A Russian Allegory". Retrieved January 10, 2010.
  13. ^ "Churches Around the World Archive". Retrieved January 10, 2010.
  14. ^ Russian national anthem "God Save the Tsar" in Tchaikovsky's music Archived July 10, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ Andrew Druckenbrod. "How a rousing Russian tune took over our July 4th". Post-Gazette. Retrieved July 4, 2015.
  16. ^ Everett Evans (June 29, 2012). "How did the '1812 Overture,' become a Fourth tradition?". Hearst Newspapers.
  17. ^ Matthew Linder. "Independence Day Staple, the "1812 Overture" is a Story of God's Sovereignty Over Human History". Christ and Pop Culture. Retrieved July 4, 2015.
  18. ^ "Malcolm Arnold – A Life in Symphonies". September 23, 2016.
  19. ^ "Lord Save Thy People and the 1812 Overture". orthodoxwoman. September 14, 2012. Retrieved June 18, 2018.
  20. ^ In Napoleon's time, the Marseillaise was not the national anthem of France, but audiences were more familiar with La Marseillaise, so that is what Tchaikovsky wrote
  21. ^ Green, Aaron (January 30, 2018). "The History of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture". ThoughtCo. Retrieved April 13, 2018.
  22. ^ Ross, Stewart (2002). The French Revolution Events and outcomes. Evans Brothers, p. 69. ISBN 0-237-52292-6.
  23. ^ Bohlman, Philip Vilas (August 2004). The Music of European Nationalism: Cultural Identity and Modern History. ABC-CLIO. p. 157. ISBN 978-1-85109-363-2. Retrieved September 13, 2011.
  24. ^ Micholic, Peter. "Aftershocks of 1812: Nationalism and Censorship in Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture". Adventures in Music History and Literature at St. Olaf. Retrieved December 12, 2014.[full citation needed]
  25. ^ Starmer, W. (1916). "The Great Bell of Moscow". The Musical Times. 57 (887): 442.
  26. ^ Batuman, Elif. "The Bells". The New Yorker.[full citation needed]
  27. ^ Mordden, Ethan (1986). A guide to orchestral music: the handbook for non-musicians (Reprint, illustrated ed.). Oxford University Press US. ISBN 978-0-19-504041-8.
  28. ^ "Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture: The New Recording". Telarc International. Archived from the original on March 27, 2008. Retrieved July 20, 2008.
  29. ^ "Rescued Russian bells leave Harvard for home". Harvard University Gazette. July 7, 2008. Archived from the original on October 17, 2017. Retrieved January 13, 2010.
  30. ^ "Landon Ronald" at Archived November 5, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  31. ^ Smith, Alfred Emanuel (1927). "New Outlook-Volume 145". Outlook Publishing Company, Inc. p. 24. Retrieved January 17, 2010.
  32. ^ Kozinn, Allan (September 24, 2009). "Wilma Cozart Fine, Classical Music Record Producer, Dies at 82". New York Times. Retrieved January 17, 2010.
  33. ^ "Symphonic Brass". Retrieved August 19, 2017.
  34. ^ "Peter Tchaikovsky*, Don Cossack Choir Serge Jaroff*, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra*, Herbert von Karajan – Overture 1812 • Marche Slave • Romeo And Juliet". Discogs. Retrieved September 26, 2017.
  35. ^ "Eugene Ormandy, Philadelphia Orchestra*, Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Valley Forge Military Academy Band – Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture". Discogs. Retrieved August 15, 2016.
  36. ^ Robert Woods (October 5, 2018). "Bob Woods on Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture and the History of Telarc". Youtube.
  37. ^ Margaret Graham, J. Gordon Holt (August 29, 2017). "Recording of October 1979: The Telarc 1812 Overture". Stereophile.
  38. ^ Erich Kunzel, (Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra conductor). "Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture LP 180g Vinyl Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Erich Kunzel Telarc Records USA". Vinylgourmet. Retrieved October 30, 2019.
  39. ^ "1812 – The Swingle Singers".
  40. ^ Americans Do Tchaikovsky in Russia by Daniel Cariaga
  41. ^ Review/Television; Soviet Concert Honors a Favorite Son By James R. Oestreich
  42. ^ Napoleon's 1812 Bicentennial Indoor Picnic Archived September 27, 2013, at the Wayback Machine
  43. ^ OKMozart! Archived August 7, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  44. ^ Blown Away (1994) – IMDb, retrieved October 23, 2019
  45. ^ "SoundtrackINFO: V for Vendetta Soundtrack". Retrieved August 15, 2015.
  46. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions". Dan Fogelberg. 2003. Retrieved June 14, 2011.
  47. ^ "Traditions // Notre Dame Stadium // Preserving the Traditions // University of Notre Dame". Retrieved October 10, 2019.
  48. ^ "Night of Fear – The Move | Song Info". AllMusic. Retrieved November 3, 2019.

External linksEdit