Thursday, July 1, 2010

Why 1812?

Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture is as traditional to the 4th of July as picnics and fireworks. This has always seemed very strange to me for several reasons. Tchaikovsky was Russian and while he did visit the United States, there is nothing stylistically American about this piece. It was written not for the American war of 1812, but to commemorate Russia's victory over Napoleon.

I did a little digging and found a Newsweek article about the origins of the practice of performing the 1812 Overture on the 4th of July. In short, we can blame the Boston Pops. In the mid 1970's, then conductor Arthur Fiedler was looking for a flashy piece to draw an audience to the Boston Pops' July 4th concert. With canons, church bells and a virtuosic score for the orchestra, the 1812 Overture fit the bill. The crowd went wild over the piece and so it was decided to repeat the performance the next year, and then the next, and the next. Now, several years later, the piece has become synonymous with the 4th of July and American patriotism.

Over the years there have been several small movements to try squelch this tradition. This year a facebook group was formed to try to influence orchestras to remove the piece from their 4th of July programs. With membership numbering only in the double digits, they haven't garnered much support. I find the whole thing a bit silly. Hot dogs originated in Germany, fireworks in China. Why not listen to Russian music on the 4th of July?

You can hear the KSO play Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture as well as many other festive pieces this Sunday at 8:00 as part of the cities Festival on the 4th in World's Fair Park.

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