When Napoleon’s Grande Armée entered Moscow after the bloody Battle of Borodino in September 1812, they expected to settle victoriously into a restful winter. Instead, they found a city of ruins, from which nearly the entire population had fled, taking with them any food and supplies with which to survive the winter. The Russian Army had burned much of it to the ground, and so robbed of victory, the Grande Armée began the disastrous retreat which left it decimated before reaching Poland.
The events are remembered with pride by Russians, who call the French invasion the Patriotic War of 1812. Twenty years later, Tsar Alexander I (he who had once said of Napoleon, “He or I, I or he: We cannot reign together!”) commission the construction of the Cathedral of the Savior to commemorate the triumph over the French. Decades later, its completion coincided with the 25th anniversary of Alexander II’s coronation and the 1862 Moscow Arts and Industry Exhibition — the greatest of all Russian composers, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, was asked to compose a work for the festivity. In six short weeks he had completed a score and a most ambitious plan.
Having learned his work would be performed in the open square before the cathedral, and that a brass band would be made available to him, Tchaikovsky approached the opportunity with uncharacteristic flamboyance. He arranged for the cathedral’s bells to accompany his orchestra as well, and for those of every church within earshot to join in his triumphant finale. Most remarkable of all, he arranged for the use of several cannons, which were to be wired to an electrical panel at his conductor’s stand, so that he himself could time their explosive contribution.
Yet as we have learned from Robert Burns, “the best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley.” Why Tchaikovsky’s magnificent plan went unrealized has been described by the New York Time‘s music critic Robert Sherman as “a minor Russian mystery.” It may likely have been the assasination of Alexander II in St. Petersburg, or a collapse of the composer’s enormous house of cards. The cause is lost to the past, and when Tchaikovsky was finally able to debut his Year 1812 Festival Overture in E♭ major, in a tent beside the incomplete Cathedral, it was in a simpler arrangement un-augmented by brass, bells or artillery. He would never hear his original score performed.
Tchaikovsky himself conducted the Overture at the official opening of Carnegie Hall on May 5th, 1881. He attempted to reproduce the original spectacle as planned in Berlin, but was not given permission. The earliest known recordings of the work were made in England two decades after Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893, and follow his second scoring. We are most proud to inform you that it was the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra which created the first faithful production of Tchaikovsky’s original score.
In 1954, Mercury Records’ “Living Presence” imprint recorded the Minneapolis Symphony inside Northrop Auditorium with the accompaniment of the University of Minnesota Brass Band. Upon this recording they added authentic recordings of Napoleonic single muzzle-loading cannons, recorded with the help of the Museum of the US Military Academy of West Point. A stereo version in 1958 added recordings from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon at Riverside Church in Manhattan, which includes the single largest tuned bell in the world (twenty tons!). The album is a classic and one of the finest accomplishments of the Minneapolis Symphony during the Antal Dorati period.
In 1990 the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra celebrated the 150th anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s birth by producing the Overture with the live accompaniment of cannons for perhaps the first time. Sentimental readers may be moved to learn the performance was made within earshot of the composer’s grave.
Tchaikovsky’s Year 1812 Festival Overture in E♭ major, performed by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra with Antal Dorati conducting.
The 1812 Overture, as it is commonly known, rarely exceeds fifteen minutes — and while its production may be complex, the score follows a straightforward narrative using familiar themes. Tchaikovsky chose to use the Russian and French national anthems to represent the opposing armies as he describes the Battle of Borodino and the failed French occupation of Moscow. The celebratory climax is the celebration after the fleeing French must abandon their artillery as it becomes stuck in the freezing soil and the cannons are turned against them. The Russian anthem, “God Save the Tsar,” is played triumphantly with the tolling of the bells.Film fans might recall the moving scene in Casablanca in which Paul Henreid inspires the patrons of Rick’s Cabaret by asking the band to play La Marseillaise in response to a chorus of Nazi officers. The French national anthem became a symbol of the underground resistance during the German occupation, although in Napoleon’s day it had been banned (La Marseillaise had only a few years earlier been re-instated as the national anthem when Tchaikovsky used it in his Overture). Likewise, his use of “God Save the Tsar” falls into the classical composition equivalent of IMDB’s Goofs category. It was the national anthem when Tchaikovsky wrote the Overture in 1881, but it had been chosen in a competition held in 1833.
Another anachronism of Tchaikovsky’s score is the Russian bells themselves, which are different from cathedral bells elsewhere. Until the savage destruction of Churches under Soviet atheism, Russian bells were tolled in a manner known then as zvon. A zvonnar, or bell-toller, would move a mallet within a stationary bell, rather than the moving bells we are familiar with in here the west. The construction of the bells themselves is different: each western bells has an octave range, while each traditional Russian bell has one of a seventh, but greater subtlety in the scales of sounds produced. Most Russian bells in the zvon tradition were destroyed by the Soviets in the early 30s.
In fact, the Cathedral of the Savior was destroyed by dynamite on December 5th, 1931. It took more than a year to remove the rubble which had been a Cathedral constructed over decades. The Palace of Soviets, proposed to take its place, was never completed. For a period of time the location was the world’s largest swimming pool.A second Cathedral of the Savior was built beginning in 1990, and consecrated in the year 2000. It was where Boris Yeltsin lied in state, and where Pussy Riot performed the “Punk Prayer” protest which led to their arrest and imprisonment in 2012. Theirs are rung simply moving a mallet within a stationary bell,