Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: The Year 1812, festival overture in E♭ major, Op. 49

"All the good music has already been written by people with wigs and stuff."
~Frank Zappa  

"Every now and then we have to let the general public know that we can still blow shit up."
~Captain Diel from Rush Hour 

In the late 1700's France was experiencing some pretty significant growing pains which historians have termed, the "French Revolution".  There's a lot of loose ends and rabbit holes to be uncovered when discussing this, but the gist is the regular schmucks got pretty tired of the nobility being famous just because their daddy's had money and went berserk on most of Europe for the better part of ten to fifteen years because why not?  Fortunately, Americans have no frame of reference here.

"Liberté, égalité, fraternité!"

So in the process of this overthrow of Feudalism and creation of a republic comes a guy named Napoléon Bonaparte who it turns out is like the Michael Jordan of warfare and creates an empire the likes of Europe hadn't seen since Rome fell.   Russia had eventually become pretty cool on most of this as they had generated a peace accord with the French from 1807 when Tsar Alexander I of Russia and Napoleon signed the Treaty of Tilsit which concluded with France absorbing most of Prussia and Russia agreeing to help France dominate Europe if they would help Russia defeat the Ottomans.  

"I will never let go, Boney."

Previously, Russia had been allied with Britain and Sweden in telling France the calm the hell down, but with the power of Napoleon's Grande Armée (which we can only assume was made up of pirate jedis) the Russians felt the greater hope for remaining undisturbed lay with such an alliance.  

As this woodcut shows Johnny Depp fighting Prussians at the Battle of Auerstadt

So with the treaty in place, peace was achieved between Russia and France for a whopping four years because in 1811, Russian nobility were getting pretty uncomfortable with the whole French thing about "equality" and "being pissed off at the rich people who are rich just because they were the inbred spawn of other rich people" and encouraged Tsar Alex to put the brakes on the Franco lovefest.  As a precautionary measure, the Tsar began to explore the possibility of an invasion of France through Poland.  This was accidentally leaked and as a result Napoleon beefed up his army to about 450,000 men and tore, thunder and blazes, across Europe straight towards Moscow beginning in June of 1812.  

Now, Napoleon's army was really good at entering a theatre of war and gobbling up resources in short order on a scale of magnitude that was massive enough to satisfy the needs of the ever-enlarging army.  Well-fed troops fight harder and longer and depriving the enemy of rations would frequently tip the scale in the French favor.  The Russians knew from the outset that they were no match for the French army, which at this point was as hench as the Incredible Hulk, so the Ruskies began to retreat towards Moscow, dodging fights and destroying their own resources which was using a page out of the military tactics book known as:  

The Russians finally held a line in Borodino (after Russian nobility understandly completely freaked out) where a vastly overpowered Russian force valiantly got their butts kicked, but landed a definitive "you shoulda seen the other guy,"-esque blow on the French.  Following the defeat, the Russians retreated beyond Moscow and left Napoleon to only assume that he could waltz in and force Alexander to capitulate, but the Russians would be having none of that and proceeded to burn their capital to the ground.  

So at this point, a confused and exhausted Napoleon noticed that it had started snowing, the prize he sought was smoldering away and he had a few hundred thousand hungry soldiers who had about 1,700 miles to walk back to France.  Meanwhile, the Russians were all like-

One of the most bitter Siberian winters had begun to set in and literally began freezing Napoleon's army to the ground.  Thousands after thousands of men began dying from exposure and starvation as they began their retreat back to the homeland, leaving Russia to celebrate victory on account of their polar bear ancestry.  

"Is elixir of the bourgeois." 
So at this point you might be given to wonder when (if ever) we might be listening to something. Well, here's the tie-in.  In 1880 the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was almost finished being built, which was good timing as it had been 25 years since Alexander II was coronated and about 40 years since Alexander I asked them to build it in the first place.  The church was actually built to commemorate the Russian victory, and patriotism was maxed as everything seemed to push towards a blow-out spectacular where they had planned to have Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) compose a fitting piece of music to honor such an auspicious occasion.  Someone (probably in Russian marketing) thought it would be a grand idea to have live artillery and bells and people shouting while the music played to simulate the absolute joy the Russian people experienced when nature liberated them from French occupation. Tchaikovsky thought it sounded like a bunch of crap and quickly and dispassionately composed the piece that would make his family wealthy beyond belief for generations to come.

The original festival ended up being canceled on account of the insane amount of money necessary to do all that cool stuff and that Alexander II was assassinated by members of a Russian liberation movement, thus making a such a celebration a bit superfluous. Despite all this, the piece was premiered on August 20th, 1882 in a tent in front of the unfinished cathedral.

The piece is sort of a mixtape of the entire conflict.  Tchaikovsky employs a Russian Orthadox hymn, O Lord Save Thy People to symbolize his fleeing countrymen as the advancing French army is symbolized by the (eventual) French anthem,  La Marseillaise, and as the conflict escalates toward Moscow you hear cannon fire (presumably the Russians firing the French guns that were left frozen in the tundra) punctuating the anthem as numerous bells ring out over the top of the orchestra.  The bells symbolize the churches ringing their "zvons" loudly as many of the Russian citizenry had resorted to praying to God that they be delivered from the invading army.  "Zvons" were Russian-style cathedral bells that unlike the Hunchback of Notre Dame, used fixed ropes attached to their clappers so that to play them one only had to press down on each rope to sound the corresponding bell.  

Cool hat is sold separately
Now the art of performing the zvons had been mostly lost in the years following the Russian revolution as many of the bell towers were destroyed, so it has proven difficult to authentically replicate the sound Tchaikovsky may have been hoping to achieve.  Not to mention the difficulty of firing off explosives in close proximity to musicians.  Too close everyone dies, too far away and the sound delay causes a miscue as the cannon fire is in fact in the score.  

Drop the bass, Pachelbel
The version I've found for today is, from what I can determine, a performance by the Leningrad Philharmonic on the occasion of Tchaikovsky's 150th birthday, which would put this recording somewhere in the year 1990.  Cannons are used and the bells performed look very similar to what our Orthodox friend up there seems to be playing on.  The other neat part about this work is that in the finale portion a brass band (who had up until this point been hanging out) is used to make it as loud as humanly possible as the Russians finally have a reason to be thankful they lived in the Earth's ice box.  

The overture, a bit paradoxically, is now a frequent staple of the celebration of American independence following Arthur Fiedler programming it during the Boston Pop's annual "Pops goes the Fourth" in 1974.  One could look at the present-day circumstances surrounding the Russian-US relationship and scoff at such use of what is traditionally a Russian anthem of freedom and independence.  One could even make a swift (and truthful) judgement that the Russian people are in many ways still fighting for that freedom.  

But I say look past the differences in our cultures.  Put aside the injustices that still plague our modern societies.  And just pause for a moment and appreciate what Mr. Tchaikovsky has done for young music listeners the world over:

See you next Friday.



John Newton, William Walker, arr. Victor Wooten: Amazing Grace

"...sometimes there's a man... I won't say a hero, 'cause, what's a hero? But sometimes, there's a man. And I'm talkin' about the Dude here. Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that's the Dude, in Los Angeles. And even if he's a lazy man - and the Dude was most certainly that. Quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin' for laziest worldwide. But sometimes there's a man, sometimes, there's a man. Aw. I lost my train of thought here. But... aw, hell. I've done introduced him enough."
The Stranger, The Big Lebowski (1998)

Recalcitrant insubordination could be a phrase that might appear in the vast cumulative folders of many students throughout history.  Often when browsing Wikipedia, one is given to attempt to stay coherent through the drawling sentences, written to emulate and perhaps propagate a tone befitting a most verbose tome of the world's knowledge.  It can get a bit dry.  But every so often someone will throw out a certain combination of words that will catch my attention.  In this case it was in an article regarding the brain child of John Newton (1725–1807) who was responsible for creating the combination of words known to many people as "Amazing Grace".  

The article touched on the fact that Mr. Newton had an issue with people who were in a position to tell him what to do.  In schools today, it might be called "Oppositional Defiant Disorder".  You might notice a theme here, that I'm fairly certain has no correlation whatsover, but is interesting none-the-less.  "Recalcitrant" describes an individual who possesses a difficulty when confronted with authority and particularly with following the instructions given by such authority.  Uncooperative is a word that is associated with it, while insubordination is the act of willful disobedience, occasionally with an axe to grind.  Both words are similar enough ways of describing the same trait or personality. It's almost like saying a color is "red red", but with more letters involved.  

By the same token "Oppositional Defiant" is a similar concept, but with- what I feel anyway- is less flowery.  It sounds like something you'd hear in an office as a supervisor is going over employee #2458's personnel file.  "Well, you didn't share the copier with Pete last week, and then you proceeded to staple his tie to the door as you kicked over the water cooler.  I'm sensing some oppositional defiance from you this quarter, Greg."

So the story goes that John Newton was a bit of a renegade and had led a life (as so described by Wikipedia) of recalcitrant insubordination.  Now, in the mid-1700's when Mr. Newton lived, England had a very equitable way of guaranteeing that they had a strong, well-manned Navy.  Each time in port when they needed to acquire more sailors (because the other ones had either run off or died from boredom or malaria) they would task a highly skilled militia with encouraging young men of age to come live a care-free life of ease on the open seas.  This often involved threatening one's life with big sticks and frequently employed blunt force trauma to the head to initiate unconsciousness which would put a prospective sailor in no frame of mind to debate the merits of what was tantamount to indentured servitude.   

Mr. Newton was one such sailor and following his career in the Queen's navy he began working for the Atlantic Slave Trade which meant Newton would be helping to transport actual indentured servants to work unendingly in the English colonies.  As fate would have it, his ship was struck by a fearful storm and like a college student who promises never to drink again whilst in the throes of alcohol-induced vomiting, Newton vowed to take up a life of Christianity should God grant him mercy.  Now, unlike most college drunkards, Newton remained affected and as his ship was in for repairs following the storm he wrote the first verse to the tune we know now as "Amazing Grace".

Eventually, he would be ordained in the Anglican Church and become a curate, working alongside William Cowper who was a fellow poet and hymnodist in Olney which is about 60 miles from London.  The pair were responsible for publishing a number of hymns, but Amazing Grace was written for New Year's sermon in 1773 and quietly forgotten for some time.  We don't rightly know if the text was set to music at this point, but it was eventually published in 1779 and would remain under the radar until the Second Great Awakening in the US around the beginning of the 19th century.  It wasn't until 1835 when it was set to the tune "New Britain" by William Walker (1809-1875).  Now Walker was a composer, but he was not responsible for "New Britain", only setting the words to the melody.  That tune was part of the British oral tradition and while there are a few possible leads from similar folk music, the original author cannot be satisfactorily verified.  

William Walker was the author of a choral education book called "Southern Harmony", in which this incarnation of "Amazing Grace" first appeared.  The early 1800's in the burgeoning United States, music education was being handled most apparently by the churches, and in the southern US particularly the Baptist church.  Walker used the tradition of shape notes, which was a simplified notation system used to indicate a note's pitch (flat, natural, sharp) by changing the shape of the notehead.  

American churches are often considered the soil in which music education flourished in our country, and as a result these songs tend to occupy a place in the American psyche to this day.  Now "Amazing Grace" originally was set to a number of different melodies, and since Mr. Walker's pairing with "New Britain" it has been arranged into what I can only guess is an insane amount of different pieces of music.  Searching YouTube for various versions of the tune would fill an afternoon, but today I will share just one version that is uniquely special to me as it is performed on one of my favorite instruments and by one of my favorite musicians.  

We have discussed Victor Wooten before in the context of his band, the Flecktones.  But the man is an amazing solo musician as well, being the preeminent virtuosic bassists alive today.  He has an understanding and a capacity to the instrument that can be often emulated and observed, but infrequently duplicated.  Victor holds an annual summer music and nature camp where he teaches lessons about playing electric bass to students of all ages and also shares his philosophy about nature and his Zen outlook on life.  

My favorite part about watching any virtuoso perform is the transformation that occurs in their countenance as they practice their art.  Victor Wooten is certainly no exception.  He takes on a new persona as he works the melody from his instrument, stretching its musicality to the zenith as he crafts something that cannot be adequately expressed through word alone.  

I identify with John Newton.  I never liked being told what to do, particularly when I thought what I was told to do was stupid or pointless.  I regularly found myself in predicaments based off those choices that made life more challenging as a result, and I think we all have a taste of that at one time or another.  

He chose...poorly.
But I think the journey to redemption is, if nothing else, as important as the destination itself. Without the cause, there is no effect and without John Newton's "recalcitrant insubordination", we might not have ever had a wretch to be saved in the first place.  

See you next Friday.