192 years ago, on the fateful September 7th 1812, savage conflicts were taking place. Napoleon’s armies had penetrated deep into Russia and that very day fought the Russians bitterly at Borodino, driving them out of Moscow. However, the Russians were not to be defeated and charged back into the city, driving Napoleon out – with fire – thus marking the start of the long and disastrous retreat that destroyed the once proud “grande armée”.
Hence, in 1880, the Russian composer Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write a festive and patriotic piece to immortalize Napoleon’s defeat and celebrate the liberation of the Russians. Cannons would have been used during the actual conflict, hence their significance in the piece. Its first performance was in Moscow in 1882.
Tchaikovsky was well-suited to his task, with his typically Russian sensitivity and excitable temperament, so freely expressed in his music. By the age of 23, he had devoted himself entirely to music. Living in poverty, he worked so hard that he suffered greatly from disordered nerves, depression and insomnia, with frequent nightmares about sharps and flats. His great gift for melody, brilliant orchestral colour and strong emotional expression quickly captured the ear of audiences. He led a curious life. For example, he never actually met his wife (although they did pass once on the street). He hankered after “a quiet country life” playing ‘Patience’ card games and watching flowers grow. He died during an epidemic of cholera after drinking unboiled water, despite friends who were present begging him not to, and within a week he was dead.
The Structure of ‘1812’:
The solemn mood is set at the opening, with divided cellos and strings intoning the quiet, even mournful hymn “God Preserve Thy People”. Then follows the exciting central passage, evocative of a savage conflict, with fragments of the “Marseillaise” and lyrics from Russian folk songs. The coda introduces a mighty crescendo, based on the “Marseillaise”, building up to its explosive climax using the utmost power of brass and percussion, at which point the cannons add their voices to the score. A long cadenza for the full string section paves the way for the turning of the tide, wherein the full orchestra, brass band and pealing church bells sound forth in solemn triumph “God Preserve Thy People”. Then comes the Russian quickstep theme in counterpoint to “God Preserve The Czar”, with cannon providing rhythmic accentuation – the whole culminating in a final peal of bells and fanfare of augmented brass and full orchestra.
On a personal note, I find the ‘1812’ a very satisfying piece to play with its expressive opening and exciting central passages – a real challenge to the fingers!!