July 4th! Yaay! What’s With The 1812 Overture?

A repost for the 4th of July!  Happy 4th!!

Tsar Alexander I

So Fourth of July is here and we all will be hearing both the Capitol Fourth celebration and the Boston Pops play the final themes of the 1812 Overture on national television just prior to the fireworks.

Why the 1812?

Well it’s got cannon blasts – great for outdoors!

Hearing this particular piece on the 4th of July and, knowing the current state of our educational system, just makes me wonder how many of those millenials celebrating realize that the Overture has nothing to do with the War of 1812. Yes we fought the Brits in 1812 but the Overture does not lionize Dolly Madison fleeing the White House with George Washington’s portrait.  You knew that, right?

Come on – tell me you knew that.

The Overture written by Tchaikovsky is as thoroughly a Russian piece of music as there is – written by a Russian, commemorating the Russian victory over Napoleon’s Grand Armee commencing at the Battle of Borodino in 1812, first performed in Moscow and finishing up with  “God Save the Tsar”, the Tsarist anthem to the Romanovs.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I like the 1812 and my cranky objection to playing it at our July 4 celebrations is not based on the fact that it was written by a Russian. We’re Americans here and will happily play anyone’s music.

The Overture however commemorates a Russian historical event and more importantly is a kiss-up to Tsarism – a fault I find decidedly undemocratic for July 4 celebrations.   Tchaikovsky was a notorious kiss-up to royalty.  It’s how he made his living.

In 1812, Russia was ruled by Tsar Alexander I,  Autocrat of all the Russians.

Serfs, the landless peasants, were not free – they belonged to the estate on which they were born.  Flight was a criminal offense.  Russian landowners eventually gained almost unlimited ownership over Russian serfs.   The landowner could transfer the serf without land to another landowner while keeping the serf’s personal property and family; however the landowner had no right to kill the serf.  Yippee.

About four-fifths of Russian peasants were serfs.

“As a whole, serfdom both came and remained in Russia much later than in other European countries. Slavery remained a major institution in Russia until 1723, when Peter the Great converted the household slaves into house serfs.  Russian agricultural slaves were formally converted into serfs in 1679.  So theoretically it was possible to maintain the fiction that there was no slavery in Russia.  Only serfdom.

Formal conversion to serf status did not stop the trade in household slaves. In fact, this trade in landless serfs, regarded as a mere chattel, flourished all the way up until the total abolition of serfdom, although the loose framework of the Russian legal system and a lack of law enforcement meant that slave trade in some remote Russian provinces survived until much later.

The official estimate is that 10.5 millions Russians were privately owned, 9.5 million were in state ownership and another 900 thousand serfs were under the Tsar’s “patronage” before the Great Emancipation of 1861.

Russian private serfdom was regarded by the European contemporaries as a far worse form of slavery than the American one only because  because the Russian slaves were Orthodox Christians as well as their landowners.  The ownership, abuse and trade of Christians by other Christians was viewed as particularly barbaric and wicked.   Secondly, the vast expanses of Russian land and poor communications with the capital meant the private landowners were the true masters of their domains and dealt pretty much as they pleased with their privately owned serfs.

There were many cases of horrendous physical, emotional and sexual abuse of serfs by landowners. As a result, the whole Russian Empire was regarded as backward, bigoted and a cruel backwater of Europe.

Famously, the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, being himself a great grandson of an African slave fathered an illegitimate child with his own serf girl and then sent her and her child off to his friend’s estate together with an apologetic letter.”

Alexander I did little to alleviate the suffering of serfs at the hands of the nobility due to the political reaction to French Republicanism.   Napoleon may have called himself an Emperor but he brought with him the Napoleonic Code where ever his armies triumphed against European kings and princes.  He abolished the ghetto for Jews in Italy for example – which was reinstated after his defeats.  The princes of Europe were terrified at the thought of the spread of republicanism.

European philosophers during the Age of Enlightenment criticized serfdom and compared it to medieval labor practices which were almost non-existent in the rest of continent. Most Russian nobles were not interested in change toward western labor practices.  Instead they preferred to mortgage serfs for profit.  In 1820, 20% of all serfs were mortgaged to state credit institutions by their owners. This was increased to 66% in 1859.  Mortgaged – like your house!

The bourgeois were also allowed to own serfs to encourage industrialization.

Alexander’s  primary objective in the defeat of Napoleon was saving Russia and the rest of Europe from republicanism and re-establishing the French monarchy.

So why do we play the “God Save the Tsar” portion of the 1812  Overture on July 4th?    Because it has cannons!

Next time you hear the cannons and see the fireworks go off and you hear that theme you love so much don’t think about Independence Day – think of the Tsar:  I’m sure he would be laughing his ass off to hear his “Hail to the Chief” at our July 4 celebration!

Yes I know.  I’m an old crank.



About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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13 Responses to July 4th! Yaay! What’s With The 1812 Overture?

  1. sojourner says:

    I never think about this, knowing that Tchaikovsky’s piece was written about the Czar’s war with Napoleon. Among most classically trained musicians, The 1812 is looked on as rather a commercial joke, because it is overplayed and for ridiculous purposes like this coming Saturday.

    It still gives me chills, especially performances of it in Russia and Europe, where it is also held out of doors, and the church bells toll away near the ending. This country has done to the 1812 what it has also done to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue: it has chopped up and overused its themes so much that the piece itself has almost been destroyed to the ear.

    I just wonder how many even know who Napoleon was, beyond a pastry?

    Ludwig Van Beethoven was an admirer of Bonaparte, by the way. If I’m not mistaken, thinking back to my music history days, the seventh symphony is based on Wellington’s victory.



    • toritto says:

      Sojourner – I can imagine a performance of the 1812 outdoors, in Russia, could be quite moving. After all, it is their victory. As for our kids knowing about it…I’m afraid too many don’t have a clue. Regards.


  2. weggieboy says:

    Not only have you explained why it is a poor choice, you did it in the most thorough way!

    The irony is there are hours and hours of John Philip Sousa marches (patriotic and appropriate as heck for Americans) available to orchestras and bands, and many of them have lots of bombast and crashing, booming cymbals and drums galore.

    In addition, there are many historic marches and songs from the 19th Century that fit the holiday mood, though a march honoring some lesser-known President might need an explanation for most people today.

    At the risk of making you feel less a curmudgeon, I think this is a very good history of the “1812 Overture” and its meaning, and I have to agree with you it isn’t the most appropriate piece to play at an American celebration of Freedom and Independence, no matter how loud and bombastic it is!


  3. weggieboy says:

    Reblogged this on weggieboy's blog and commented:
    What do you think? The “1812 Overture” is a crowd pleaser, but it honors all the wrong things. Read this history of the piece and the Russia that inspired it and see if you agree.


  4. weggieboy says:

    I reblogged this, toritto. I liked the piece when I was a grade schooler and as a school kid playing trombone in the junior and high bands, but it never made sense to me to play it on the biggest American patriotic holiday of the year. The older I got, too, the less I enjoyed the bombast and loudness of the piece.


    • toritto says:

      Hi Weggie – Yes well, I have been listening to the 1812 for decades on July 4 and unfortunately most young people today don’t have a clue. Many thanks for the re-blog. Regards.


  5. beetleypete says:

    Frank, are you telling me that Americans seriously think that this has anything to do with the war of 1812 against Britain? Is the history teaching over there so poor, that they don’t know about Napoleon, and his disastrous Russian campaign? I used to think that my view of American education was biased, and had no basis in fact. I am now beginning to wonder…
    If you teach a nation that history is only about that nation, and their participation in events, you risk having an isolationist country, with an unbalanced view of the world.
    Oh, I forgot, you already do have that…
    Take heart Frank. Some of us know the truth.
    Best wishes, Pete.


    • toritto says:

      Heehee. Hi Pete. I think if you asked 100 young people celebrating this Saturday in the park about the 1812 Overture, a majority would think it is related to the War of 1812. Most young people don’t know squat about Napoleon, the invasion of Russia, the Tsar or the fact that the piece is totally unrelated to our history. Not a clue.

      They know all about Beyonce and Iggy Azalea however.




  6. cat9984 says:

    Hello – I have come over here from Weggieboys’s blog. I have an MA in Russian Studies and agree with everything you have said about the 1812 Overture and Russian history. That said, I like to think of it as a “gateway drug” to the rest of Tchaikovsky’s music. He was a talented composer, regardless of his politics. And you are correct – the cannons and other booming drums go well with the fireworks. I think you may be overestimating the knowledge of history in general. Are you certain people know what our War of 1812 was about? Or that there was one?


  7. toritto says:

    Hi Cat – thanks so much for coming by. I’m pleased that some one with credentials finds my post reasonably accurate.. As for Tchaikovsky’s music – don’t get me wrong. I like his music and am not concerned at all with his politics. The 1812 is played on July 4 because it is rousing outdoor music. I guess it bugs this old crank that so few have any idea of what they are listening to – and you are probably correct that too many have no idea there was a War of 1812 let alone connecting it with the overture.

    I wrote a couple of other pieces pertaining to Russia which you might enjoy given your background –



    and a “short story”


    Thanks and regards. Come back anytime.


  8. sunsetdragon says:

    Oh my. Do you have plans for the 4th? I am going to a car show over the hill and try to get some photos if it is not to hot.


  9. jfwknifton says:

    The landowners owned everything about their serfs including their souls. The Russian for souls is “dooshi” and this is also the Russian for serfs.


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