Monday, June 27, 2011

1812 Overture

Ft. McHenry is one of the few places where I can feel patriotic. Although it was used to imprison Maryland legislators suspected of favoring secession, it was also where the Battle of Baltimore was fought and won. The War of 1812 may have been a silly war, but at least here in Maryland it wasn't for the sake of American expansion. Here, it was about freedom from British control, plain and simple. Our clippers harried British ships, and when we came under full-scale attack, our well-prepared defenses won the day. The Star Spangled Banner may be our national anthem, but its home is in Baltimore.

While poking around online for information about the War of 1812, I came across a reference to the 1812 Overture. I knew about it, of course--a popular tune at Independence Day celebrations, during fireworks displays, and the music to which V set his explosions in V for Vendetta. If I'd had to guess, I would have supposed it to have some connection with our War of 1812. Not only would I have been wrong, but I would have had twice the reason to be embarrassed.

The same series of Napoleonic Wars that led Britain to blockade American ports also saw the invasion of Russia. But Napoleon stretched his army too far, and he was forced to retreat, losing most of his men along the way. Tsar Alexander I commissioned the building of Christ the Savior Cathedral as a thank-offering, and it was completed 68 years later amid festivities. It was at that point that Tchaikovsky wrote the Overture to commemorate the battle. The piece includes two renditions of the troparion of the Holy Cross, which had been something like the Byzantine national anthem and was often used in times of great distress as a corporate prayer for deliverance. It's a familiar tune to me--my local parish is dedicated to the Holy Cross, so we sing the troparion pretty much every Sunday.

Apparently Tchaikovsky was very popular in America during his lifetime, and his composition was just so well-suited to the 4th of July! It's one of the few classical pieces written for cannons. So despite Cold War concerns about all things Russian, its popularity has survived the 20th c. largely intact. I suspect that most Americans have no idea where it originated or what it's about. (At least, it makes me feel better to think that I'm not the only one.) It's just another selection in our patriotic repertoire.

Which is fine with me. I'll quietly look forward each year to hearing the former Byzantine and Russian national anthems played prominently for American Independence Day.