Its society offers infinite variety

Happy Independence Day! I love the fact that our nation commemorates the anniversary of the day we decided we were mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore, rather than the day we actually won the war, or ratified the Constitution, or any of that practical stuff. Very American. Here’s a holiday rerun: a ramble I wrote a couple summers ago for Geoff Edgers’ “Exhibitionist” blog at the Boston Globe on the subject of that seemingly incongruous 4th of July favorite, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, which holds up better than many of my rambles.

I think the 1812 Overture has to be the most underrated-because-overplayed piece in the classical canon; it is, in fact, a remarkably subversive piece in terms of musical form. Tchaikovsky fashions almost the rhetorical inverse of sonata-allegro: instead of generating drama by making us wait for the expected recapitulation, he generates drama by covering up any sense of structure at all. Themes come and go without transition, key relationships deliberately avoid the navigable points of tonic and dominant (mediants abound), and the scraps of La Marseillaise are used almost as a magician’s misdirection. The lead-in to the return of the hymn goes on for so long that the hymn’s actual return is a surprise in spite of itself, as is the cannon-blaring coda—on a theme that the normally prolix Tchaikovsky has only established for a fragmentary sixteen bars.

It’s almost as if Tchaikovsky has managed with a bit of a temporal warp, the near-ametrical hymn and tentative tattoo at the beginning literally showing up too soon; the satisfaction of the ending comes less from the thematic recapitulation than from a sense that time is no longer out of joint. I guess that sort of clean-slate ingenuity is something else America has claimed for itself as time goes on; no wonder Pyotr Ilyich is a perennial honored guest. Give that Russian another burger!


  1. It's true that the coda theme is only minimally presented earlier – perhaps Tchaikovsky saw ahead to a future in which that theme would be so well-known that it doesn't really need to be presented at all. For me, I believe, its exposition came in commercials for the first “The Bad News Bears” movie – when I first heard 1812, I was ready to go. That's a nice strategy. You can always tell the Esplanade crowd gets excited at that first little presentation of the theme, but then they're forced to wait some time for the big finish.

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