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.