IN 1880, Tchaikovsky’s friend, Nikolai Rubinstein, suggested that he should compose a grand work to use at a number of upcoming events. These included the completion of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. This was built to commemorate the failure of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812.
Other notable events were the 25th anniversary of Emperor Alexander II’s coronation and the Moscow Arts and Industry Exhibition of 1882. So in October that same year, Tchaikovsky began composing the work and he completed it a mere six weeks later.
Big plans were made for the overture’s first performance and concert organisers envisioned the performance taking place in the square just outside the newly completed cathedral with a large brass ensemble supplementing the orchestra.
The cathedral’s bells as well as the bells of other downtown Moscow churches would ring on cue with the overture and cannons with electronically wired ignition switches were planned to fire on cue.
However, this grand concert never materialised due to its overambitious production, and the assassination of Emperor Alexander II in 1881. The overture was eventually first performed in 1882 during the Moscow Arts and Industry Exhibition but had to be played in a tent outside the cathedral because the building would not be finished until the following year.
Tchaikovsky’s score is an account of events that transpired during Napoleon’s invasion and the Battle of Borodino in 1812, which Russia lost to the French emperor.
When over 500,000 French soldiers with their 1,000 cannons and artillery began marching towards Moscow, Russia’s Holy Synod called its people to pray for safety, peace, and deliverance, knowing full well that Russia’s Imperial Army was only a fraction of the size and ill-equipped for battle.
Russians gathered in churches across the country and offered their prayers. Tchaikovsky represents this in the overture’s opening by scoring the Eastern Orthodox Troparion – a short, one stanza hymn – of the Holy Cross (“O Lord, Save Thy People”) for four cellos and two violas.
As the tensions of the battle increase, Tchaikovsky employs a combination of pastoral and martial themes, with the French National Anthem being heard more prominently as French forces approach and it seems the French are invincible as their anthem begins to overwhelm the orchestra.
However, as Russia’s Tsar calls upon his people to venture out to defend their country, the Russian people begin to join their fellow soldiers and Russian folk melodies are increasingly voiced as the French and Russian themes go back and forth and five cannon shots ring out.
Despite emerging from the Battle of Borodino victorious, the French over-stretched themselves and could not find the supplies and resources they were anticipating when they finally reached and conquered the burnt and abandoned Moscow.
They were forced to retreat, represented by Tchaikovsky as a series of descending melodies, as the French army were further depleted by famine, disease and brutal low temperatures.
Despite winning because France’s supplies ran out, rather than their own superior combat abilities, Russia’s victory celebrations are represented by a grandiose reiteration of O Lord, Save Thy People with bells of all kinds ringing out and 11 more cannon blasts.
Tchaikovsky supposedly disliked the work, calling it “very loud and noisy and completely without artistic merit, obviously written without warmth or love”, but it remains one of his most played and recorded works.
Vicky Moran, 2nd violin