Friday, 27 August 2010

1812: it's all about you

Here's a (quite) interesting popular misconception. Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture has become one of the standard pieces played in the United States as part of the Independence Day celebrations on the 4th of July. I've just discovered that the title of  Tchaikovsky's rousing composition for orchestra and heavy artillery routinely confuses many people in the USA, who mistakenly believe that the work's title refers to the War of 1812 between the USA and the forces of the British Empire, then including Canada.

I can see why the 1812 Overture got adopted in the States - it's the sort of uplifting, celebratory piece that would go well with a massive firework party. Once the piece became established as a 4th of July standard, attributing the title to the wrong war would be an excusable error - after all, the US national Anthem, which also gets played quite a lot on July 4th, really was a product of the 1812 scrap between the USA and the British Empire. And it would be a little unfair to criticise the US populace for their ignorance of Russia's 1812 victory over Napoleon's Grande Armée, given that Tchaikovsky himself committed a few anachronistic howlers when choosing the tunes that went into his composition:

Although La Marseillaise was chosen as the French National Anthem in 1795, it was banned by Napoleon in 1805 and could not have been heard during the approach of Moscow. However, it was reinstated as the French Anthem in 1879—the year before the commission of the overture—which can explain its use by Tchaikovsky in the overture:
Although God Save The Tsar! was the Russian national anthem in Tchaikovsky's time, it was not the anthem in 1812. There was no official Russian anthem until 1815, from which time until 1833 the anthem was Molitva russkikh, Prayer of the Russians, sung to the tune of God Save the King.

I just think this is an interesting example of how cultures can appropriate, adopt and assimilate stuff from other cultures (just as England -and Russia - adopted the Middle Eastern St George as a national patron saint). It isn't is a childish opportunity to tease the people of the USA for general ignorance of history and anything outside their national borders. Although, if I really did want to tease the good folk in the Land of the Free, I'd suggest that they take a listen to this song, which really is about the American War of 1812...

Hee, hee!