August 20 – Our Patriotic Music is Their Patriotic Music

Posted on August 20, 2015

 On this date in 1882, Tchaikovsky's “1812 Overture” debuted in Moscow.

Here in the U.S., we talk in our history books about the War of 1812 between the United States and the United Kingdom and British colonies and Native American allies – but over in Russia, kids learn about an entirely different War of 1812. (Actually, they call it the Patriotic War of 1812. But, you know, in the Russian language.) In that year, the Russians were able to chase Napoleon's invading army out of Russia...but the Russian soldiers and people suffered great miseries and losses while doing it.

Before attacking Russia, Napoleon and his French Grande Armée had able to conquer Egypt, Belgium, Holland, Austria, Poland, Spain, and much of both Italy and Germany. But the long, hard, and very cold Russian campaign decimated Napoleon's army and soon led to the destruction of his empire and his own exile from France.

The amazing Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote this festival overture to celebrate Russia's victory in driving back Napoleon. There are military-sounding rat-a-tat drums, cannons firing, a clamor of clashing chimes, and a brass fanfare at the end of the piece!

Because of this fiery finale, this piece of music is used in some fireworks displays. Americans may listen to the end of the overture and think, “Oh, Fourth of July!” It sounds to us like patriotic-to-America music, but it was written to be patriotic-to-Russia music.

Except, of course, that's the thing about music: it tends to be pretty universal!

Here's the whole 1812 Overture, if you are patient enough to listen to fifteen minutes, and here's just the famous finale, which is only four minutes long. 

If you don't even have four minutes to spare, fast forward the latter to the 3:00 mark and listen to just the very last minute of the piece.

Or you can just go with the Boston Pops orchestra, and U.S. troops on cannons, and fireworks in the sky. This is a super short clip—but it's exciting!

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