Best Song Ever? The 1812 Overture (Tchaikovsky)

Maybe the most in-depth “best song ever?” review…ever

Only in the US could a song written by a gay Russian guy to celebrate a Russian military victory become a cornerstone of its patriotic celebrations. Sure, the whole “1812” in the title makes it sound like it could’ve been written in relation to the little discussed War of 1812 (USA! USA! USA!). Sure the whole name, Festival Overture “The Year 1812” has exactly no ring to it, and the French Ouverture solennelle 1812 is, well, French, but had it been named something like “Glorious Song Celebrating Russian Victory,” maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t be a staple of barbecues, Budweiser, and bottlerockets. In lieu of the anti-septic “yes, no, conclusion” form of previous “Best Song Ever?” reviews, I’m going to really tear this one up. Like most everything, Wikipedia has a detailed, thorough write-up of it, so here’s a quick background: 1) commissioned to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Napoleon’s defeat at Moscow in (wait for it) 1812 2) actually from the “Romantic” time period, what with the aggressive dynamic range and being written in a patriotic state of mind (see Finlandia, and the Moldau, both from about the same time period).

I’ll assume that everyone knows the end of the 1812 Overture (du-duh-du-duh-duh-duh-duh-du-duh-duh-CANNON EXPLOSION!! du-duh … [repeat]), so I’ll be focusing more on the rest of the ~15-17 minutes of wretched Slavic excess.

First things first, there are a number of orchestral variations that exist: some have a choir at the beginning singing the opening hymn, others have it played by the strings, some even have the choir sing at the end as well, some versions have cannon, some versions don’t. (I prefer sans cannon – the reverberations tend to lose the finer details of the conclusion, that being said, points are earned for incorporating firearms into music. I don’t think Creedence ever had the guts to do that.) Also, there are a number of sonically inferior recordings of the 1812 Overture. The blaring trumpets of the “best part” (see below) will overwhelm low-quality mixes, leaving it painful to listen to, much less “appreciate.” Likewise, in the interest of not clipping during recording, if the opening choir is included, they’re frequently gained way, way down, creating one of those wonderful experiences where your speakers (and ears) are left in pieces when the cannon shots start. After both of these almost technical aspects are taken care of, we’re left at the whims of the conductor – should the opening be minor key Christmas Carol slow or old lady playing the organ slow? (answer: minor key Christmas Carol slow) – should the high end of the orchestra bring it back a few notches when the low end completes the final run? (answer: absolutely) Should the ringing trumpets of “the good part” be included in the arrangement? (answer: yes, but Mr. Conductor had best keep them from blowing the notes out of tune).

Let’s call the “definitive” arrangement the recording by the Tchaikovsky Large Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Fedoseyev (1995).

From 0:00 – 01:08 we hear the opening hymn – sung in this version, frequently played by the string section in other recordings. The hymn is actually “God Save the Tsar,” not a new creation of Tchaikovsky’s. Let’s call this the first good part.

01:08 – 03:12 Lots of building – starting small, getting large at 02:50. Look out for the tubas to rock your world, speakers, and sense of decency at 2:32. Maybe some “mystery” with the forgotten member of the strings, the double bass being played with a bow, creating “uncertainty and dread.” Maybe.

03:12 – 03:40 Section played by the upper and middle brass (French horns, the upper range of the trombones). What with the whole “celebrating victory over the French” thing, this is actually a play on La Marseillaise, the French National Anthem. Finally, “musical allusions” I agree with. Remember this ditty for later.

03:41 – The strings rock out before the brass comes back in at 4:40 playing more variations on La Marseillaise as the strings add flourishes – notice that the flourishes aren’t all by the violins and violas, the cellos and double basses add just as much. The melody is thrown all around the brass department: french horns and trombones, then trumpets, back to trombones, then trumpets again as at 05:03 – the violins flourish with an upwards run, the cellos and basses match it, but in reverse (for you music people out there, that’s called “inversion” …. or “retrograde.”) At 5:07 the string section’s cat and mouse game ends as they’re given the melody for a time as the section begins to wind down at 05:40.

05:57 – The section begins – woodwinds and strings are left alone to introduce this middle theme. At 6:40 the oboe and English horn get a slight countermelody which at 7:00 is picked up by the flutes who begin their take on the theme at 07:06. Notice the continual tambourine and the bassoon player’s mom standing up during the concert and saying “THAT’S MY SON!!!” because he’s the featured instrument from 7:21 until 7:26. Heck, it might be only 5 seconds, but to a bassoon player, that’s like being TIME’s person of the year. The French national anthem continues to be played with like a cat with a gimpy mouse until the brass add exclamation marks at 08:05, with the tubas even getting in on the French-bashing at 08:45. Uh-oh, I smell segue (08:50 – 09:02).

Same file as above, to avoid excess scrolling.

09:02 – 10:17 – I think this is the part where pretentious war movies start and they talk about the “beauty of combat, the man on man, the country vs. country.” At 9:42 the double bass proves why it Le Stinks compared to the tuba, with it barely being able to be heard (9:48 specifically). 09:49 – French Horn Solo! Well, two measures at a time, at least. 10:05 building to what will be the second good part.

10:18 – 11:10 The second good part. Timpani is played in place of cannon (good move), the trumpets take guff from no man. I assume this is supposed to be the whole “cannonballs wrecking stuff” section as we get blaring, blaring, blaring, then it’s the long, long (long, long) run down the orchestra starting with violins, viola, cello, then double-bass, then (to the chagrin of double-bass players everywhere), the tubas join in around 10:58 and totally drown them out. As it should be.

11:10 – 12:23 The third good part – also called, “the best part” I’ll be honest, the conductor takes it a bit fast for more liking, but it’s made up for in the fact that this version includes the chorus. This section’s all top-quality; generally the structure is “choir and brass play the role of cannon” then the strings play the part of “stuff blown up and floating through the air after explosion.” Remember the opening hymn, well, this is it all over again. Notice the “ringing” trumpets accenting the melody 1 and 2 octaves up, playing in unison but a 5th above the melody in the low brass. Wait a minute…isn’t root-5th the same thing as a power chord? Indeed it is. Take that rock and roll. 11:42 rocks my world (and makes purple acceptable to wear), so turn your speakers up. Notice the tuba player almost duff the first note of his mini-feature at 11:49, then redeem himself until he takes a slightly too long breath at 11:53/11:54. The chorus and brass do their thing, as the strings begin to wrap up the section at 12:16. Oh yeah, and the bells that start at ~11:06 and don’t stop until the whole song’s over? Someone needs to tell them not to overdo it. Supposedly, the original score calls for “carillon,” but most versions use tubular bells in place of the carillon. Notice the MP3 compression have a major coronary as it tries to compress this section with the bells, the brass, chorus, cymbals, and the strings all playing at FF. What’s a carillon you may ask? Well, if you’ve been to Musikfest, this guy plays a carillon.

Same file as above, to avoid excess scrolling.

12:23 – END – You know it, you may love it, you may hate it, but no matter what you think of it, to most people, this is the 1812 Overture. It’s the fourth good part if only by popular vote. It’s actually kind of ho-hum when you listen to it: the drums go bum-bum over and over again, the cymbal player is phoning it in, the cannoneers are waiting for their cue, the violin players are developing carpal tunnel, Clarinet 2 is wondering to himself, “I spent how much money on a music degree, and all I’m doing is playing second Clarinet in this commercial waste of time?!,” but its one saving grace is that the brass is about to get back in and bring it home. This version even includes the closing chorus, so if you ever see it performed live or even on TV (almost never with the chorus), remember this, so you realize what you’re missing. 12:32 The tubas double the chorus, the trumpets assist the violins and woodwinds, the cannon do their thing, and the double-bass and bassoon are apparently in absentia (as it should be). On your second listen-through, notice the trumpet players triple-tonguing the opening of each phrase (listen at 12:36, that’s not one note, that’s 3 super-quick ones, in a row). 12:49 This is a tricky section for most recordings. Frequently, the chromatic run of triplets, which begins at the top of the orchestra’s range with the flutes and violins, gets lost in the soundfield when it gets handed to the low brass (at 12:52) but not in this version. In this one, the notes are even accented on the way down and the tempo is slowed ever so slightly, drawing it out. Making this version even more definitive is that (pay attention), normally, when the chorus sits this section out as the low brass is doing the triplet run, the higher instruments ascend the major scale on each downbeat two octaves above the low brass. In this version, the men’s chorus is singing one octave above the brass, drawing more tension between the simultaneous ascending and descending lines compared to having two whole octaves between each.

After that, it’s just bombast – nothing extraordinary, though there’s something to be said for throwing the final melody down each member of the brass section, the high trumpets at 13:04, the lower trumpets at 13:05, the french horns and baritone at 13:06 (listen for the sour note during their turn around 13:07), then finally the trombones and tuba bring up the rear. All that’s left now is to wait for the darn thing to end for the next 18 seconds. It’s kind of like watching a dog after it’s let out to go to the bathroom. It runs around the whole yard waiting for a nice spot to take care of its business. It takes a while, but it does eventually end.

An alternate version (USSR State Symphony Orchestra – Evgeny Svetlanov – 1974):
No choir (beginning, middle, or end)
The strings are played in place of the chorus – eh, it’s okay, but he takes them a bit too slowly. At this tempo, they come off more as “emotive” than “expressive.” I’m not sure what that means, but feel free to quote me. It does sound like the instruments are about to cry. Also, I think you can hear the musician’s breath between musical phrases. I’d assume this was someone’s artsy-fartsy idea to “make the instruments sound more like people.”
Listen (opening only – turn it up a bit):

More notably, this version includes an alternate ending. Apparently the change has to do with Soviet Russia not liking things praising the Tsar (for some reason). More here.
Listen:

At 0:12 – right when you expect the brass entrance, you get…whuh?! Actually, it’s another hymn, but at least you get back in time (0:35) for the epic final run (which is drawn out and even accented by the tubas).

Here’s the whole thing – it’s pretty much the typical performance. The sound quality is a bit lacking, but it’s certainly passable:
Listen:

Another Sample
Not sure the pedigree of this one, but it shows why that final run (0:04) needs to be recorded and mixed carefully. The bottom half gets completely lost in the explosions and strings.
Listen:

One Last Example
Finally, this is what happens when the end is played too fast. Not only are the trumpets out of sync, they’re blowing the notes out of tune. Also, one of the trumpet players seems to left the building from 0:23-0:27.
Listen:

I have a few more renditions if anyone’s interested, but I covered the good ones and the notable differences between variations….and, I’m sure most of you stopped reading after the title.

****½

The 1812 Overture gets four-and-half stars for longevity, effect, and who-cares-if-it’s-“popular” awesomeness. It makes fun of the French, incorporates military equipment, and has been co-opted by the US; really, what else is there? Half-a-star is deducted for that middle section. It’s good, but unfortunately doesn’t compare. It is not the best song ever, but it’s definitely breathing rarefied air.

16 Replies to “Best Song Ever? The 1812 Overture (Tchaikovsky)”

  1. ooh, ooh..is it me? Please say it’s me!

    Actually in pretentious classical music circles, a positive review of the 1812 Overture would probably be one of the most pedestrian writings I could do. (assuming that pretentious and pedestrian are somewhat opposites).

  2. Interesting dissection. The reality is that the piece would be SO MUCH better if it DID NOT include the stupid bells and cannon explosions during the climax. Is their a rendition that eliminates these ridiculous elements?

  3. There are a number of versions without the cannon, but I don’t think you’ll find one without bells at the end. Even if they’re not using true carillon, they’ll still use bells of some sort.

  4. THOSE WERE THE MOST RIDICULOUS RECORDINGS OF 1812 I HAVE EVER HEARD!!!!!!!!!!!!! AND PLUS THIS ENTIRE WEBSITE WAS COMPLETELY INCORRECT ABOUT 1812 OVERTURE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! THE ORIGINAL PREFORMANCE WAS W/ BELLS AND CANONS AT THE END, NO CHOIR IN THE BEGINNING ONLY AT END, FASTER TEMPO IN MOST OF THE “FAST” PARTS IN THE SONG ESPECIALLY AT THE END – END!!! THE THEME IS NOT BASED OFF OF THE FRENCH NATIONAL ANTHEM, AND THE PART WHERE THEY HAVE THE THEME W/ CANONS AT THE VERY VERY END, THAT COUNTER MELODY IS GOD SAVE THE TSAR!!! TCHAIKOVSKY WAS NOT GAY!!! HE HAD 3 WIVES (NOT AT THE SAME TIME!!) AND NO, SOMETIMES THEY DON’T EVEN GET BELLS!! WHY? BECAUSE THEY SUCK LIKE THAT!!!!!!!!!!

  5. im sorry, i just have to… i dont speak russian but the opening part is always The troparion (a troparion is like an eastern orthodox hymnn) of the holy cross, not God Save the Tsar. It was supposed to represent the prayers that the russian orthodox…i think they call them patriarchs over there?…anyways it was supposed to represent the prayer of the Patriarch praying for divine intervention. The “God save the Tsar” part is at 12:31ish where the brass come in is “God Save the Tsar”, which is why the Soviets changed that part in their version to that dumb thing with the upper brass. Finally if you wanna no one more of the many songs intertwined in this at the best part (11:10) that is a hymnn called “God Preserve thy people otherwise good analysis

  6. It’s no the best song ever but it’s close. In terms of classical, I consider this one the best. I prefer the version with no chorus and the cannons.

    The best version for is one from 1958, with Kenneth Alwyn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and the Band of H.M. Grenadier Guards. It has the right tempo, not too fast nor slow, and is so powerfull that give me the chill every time I listen to it, mainly the final part.

    I have this version in vinyl and You can find it on Youtube – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPIrUGM7ESg

  7. Rock on, Paulo! I’ve listened to a variety of versions of the 1812; I even own a few. None compare to Kenneth Alwyn’s version. As to how good it is and whether it should be listened to at all – ignore all the classical snobs on the web and put it on the turntable, shove it in the cd player, load it from the nas or whatever it is you do these days, and enjoy 15 minutes of pleasure. Then get back to the serious stuff. Better still, turn the record over, and thrill to side two – Capriccio Italian and Marche Slave.

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