« Weekend in review: Jonathan Carney and Lura Johnson; Viardot's 'Cendrillon' | Main | A grateful nod to Bernard Herrmann and his Wagnerian 'Vertigo' score »

June 29, 2010

Wanted: An '1812 Overture' to call our own for the Fourth of July

Is it just me, or are you likewise confounded by the fact that Americans celebrate their Independence Day every year by thrilling to music that actually commemorates Czarist Russia's defeat of the invading imperialist army of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1812? Don't people remember that we had our own battles in 1812, including one right here in dear old Baltimore that gave birth to our national anthem?

This weekend, there will be innumerable performances of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," complete with cannons (real or on tape) for the grandly pealing finale that leads into the inevitable fireworks display, just as on every Fourth of July. But souldn't we be listening to music that has a more American stamp on it?

I know it's a little late for a composer to create a stirring orchestral evocation of the bombardment of Fort McHenry -- or, even more appropriately, the Battle of Yorktown. But I'd like to propose a relatively easy solution, and I think it would be exceedingly appropriate for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to run with it. Here's the pitch:

Somewhere back in the dark, dank Soviet era, the state ordered changes made to Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" so that people wouldn't hear the quotations of the former Russian national anthem in the score; the yucky USSR one was substituted. (I heard a recording of that weird version once, but can't find one now.)

That, of course, was reprehensible on artistic grounds, but it does provide a precedent, of sorts, and has given me the inspiration for my bold, brilliant, path-breaking scheme. Let the BSO hold a competition for the best re-working of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" so that the structure and length stay the same, along with as much as the original musical material as possible, but all French and Russian allusions are transformed into appropriate British and American counterparts. No more "Marseillaise." No more Russian hymns.

The BSO would premiere the new version in a splashy manner, perhaps on the grounds of Fort McHenry, and the whole country would soon want to perform it. (The BSO would get a cut of the royalties, of course, allowing the long-delayed salary advances for the musicians.)

Imagine the extra thrill of having the big build-up in the piece lead not to the Czarist anthem, but to "The Star-Spangled Banner" instead, bringing lumps to throats and audiences to their feet. If you listen carefully near the very end of Tchaikovsky's work, you'll notice that he unintentionally outlines some of the opening notes of "The Star-Spangled Banner," so maybe that's a sign that he would approve. You'll hear that allusion at 05:48" to 05-52" on the fabulous Swingle Singers version I've attached here, just for the fun of it.

So there you have it. A challenge to create a new, more American tradition for the Fourth of July. (If anyone has already tried something like this, hey, I'm sorry, but it must not have been too successful.) Seems to me that everyone would benefit from an alternative "1812 Overture" we could call our own.

Meanwhile, here's that great Swingle Singers version:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:05 AM | | Comments (5)


Wouldn't it be simpler just to add cannons and bells to Dudley Buck's variations on "The Star-Spangled Banner"?

Simpler, maybe, but not quite the substitute I had in mind. TS

I hate to say this, but that video clip is cool.

Hey, no need to feel guilty. That performance is exceedingly cool. TIM

Peter Schickele gave us an American barn-burner similar to the one you request in his 1712 Overture. It follows Tchaikovsky turn for turn while using 'Yankee Doodle' and Dvorak's 'New World' Symphony as theme sources. (And isn't that the Baltimore Symphony playing for the Telarc recording, incognito?)

I meant to mention that PDQ Bach piece. Thanks for reminding me of it (and I'll have to check into the possible BSO connection). But I don't think a comic number would have quite the desired effect at a typical July Fourth concert. TIM

Meanwhile, for anyone who wants to hear the "Soviet 1812 Overture", I recommend the Nikolai Golovanov version. The ultimate party recording, if there was one (and btw, I am an admirer of Golovanov's art in small quantities - that's because I can only take so much russian brass playing, though I understand that there are those who disagree with that.)

Thanks for the recommendation. TIM

I have written a piece called "David and Old Ironsides" that not only includes cannon fire, but it is all based on the Star Spangled Banner. It was written for the Boston Landmarks Orchestra and first commissioned by Charles Ahnsbacherm, the orchestra's founder and conductor.

Post a comment

All comments must be approved by the blog author. Please do not resubmit comments if they do not immediately appear. You are not required to use your full name when posting, but you should use a real e-mail address. Comments may be republished in print, but we will not publish your e-mail address. Our full Terms of Service are available here.

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
View the Artsmash blog

Baltimore Sun coverage
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop
Famous faces in classical music
Sign up for FREE entertainment alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for nightlife text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Weekend Watch newsletter
Plan your weekend with's best events, restaurant and movie reviews, TV picks and more delivered to you every Thursday for free.
See a sample | Sign up

Most Recent Comments
Stay connected