1812 Overture (arr Whitcomb)

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Peter I. Tchaikovsky

Peter I Tchaikovsky (arr. Whitcomb)

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General Info

Year: 1880/1973
Duration: c. 6:30
Difficulty: III (see Ratings for explanation)
Publisher: J.W. Pepper
Cost: Score and Parts - $50.00   |   Score Only - $7:50


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None discovered thus far.

Program Notes

Written in 1880, this overture is intended to be descriptive of the invasion of Russia in 1812, by the French under Napoleon, and their final defeat. After his victory of Borodino, the army of Napoleon marched into Moscow and took possession of the Kremlin. Thereupon the patriotic Russians set fire to their city, forcing the French to retreat.

The theme of the introduction is drawn from a Russian hymn, God, Preserve Thy People, and this is soon succeeded by the vividly picturesque "battle music." The fight begins, and the French at first have matters all their own way. High above the tumult are heard fragments of the Marseillaise, but soon a theme of obvious Russian extraction appears, a folk song from the government of Novgorod, the two motifs alternating as the fight gives advantage, first on one side and then on the other. As time goes on, the Russian theme become more and more predominant, and the Marseillaise dies gradually away. Napoleon is beaten, and his army is in retreat. The victorious Russians give themselves up to rejoicing, the famous bells of Moscow peal forth gloriously in honor of Russian victory, and the fine rhythmic melody of the national hymn is heard triumphantly thundered out.

-Program Note by Richard Franko Goldman, in Program Notes for Band

It's safe to say that almost everyone knows the flashier aspects of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture: cannons, church bells, brass bands. The solemn overture is undoubtedly one of the most surefire crowd pleasers to resound through the concert all (although it was originally intended for outdoor performances). Tchaikovsky was at the height of his career when he was commissioned in 1880 to compose a feature piece for performance at the All-Russian Exhibition of arts and Crafts in 1882. His first four symphonies, the First Piano Concerto and several celebrated orchestral showpieces had firmly established his international reputation as the current grand master if Russian composers. For the exhibition, he wrote a tribute to one of the most triumphal moments in Russian history, the defeat of Napoleon's invading army near the beginning of the century.

Most of Tchaikovsky's music is at least somewhat programmatic, but in no other piece is the program quite so transparent. The overture begins with a Novgorod peasant tune, played first by the strings, then augmented by woodwinds, representing the simple purity of Mother Russian. One can almost imagine the land itself as a slumbering giant, secure in its own strength. Suddenly, the serene atmosphere is broken by a stormy passage heralding the incipient war. It was as if a messenger burst through the doors into a church service announcing "We've been invaded."

A single snare drum signals the march of Napoleon's army onto the scene, announced by the horns. The Russian Imperial Army defends its territory in a fierce clash, by the invader prevails as bits of the French national anthem Le Marseillaise periodically rises above the clamor. The Russians retreat.

In quiet retrospect, the people mourn the desecration of their homeland by invaders and prepare to rise against the French. Battle is resumed, but once again Le Marseillaise is heard, as the French prevail, and once again the people mourn. Yet a third time the Russian troops attack, and this time the land itself – the sleeping giant – rises up to join with its people and throw off the invaders' yoke. (Coincidentally, this is historically accurate, for it was the Russian winter that actually defeated Napoleon's far superior military forces.)

The victorious third conflict leads to a celebration unprecedented in orchestral music: a salute of cannons, pealing of church bells, the Czarist national anthem, along with the solemn melody that opened the work. Tchaikovsky even throws in snatches of the march that originally heralded the arrival of the French, but Le Marseillaise is nowhere to be heard. Mother Russian has prevailed, and joy is everywhere.

- Program Note by California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, Wind Ensemble concert program, 6 December 2015


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  • 1812 Overture. Wikipedia. Accessed 29 June 2018
  • Smith, Norman E. (2002). Program Notes for Band. Chicago: GIA Publications. pp. 583.
  • Tchaikovsky, P.; Whitcomb, K. (1973). 1812 Overture [score]. Heritage Music Press: Dayton, Ohio.