Sunday, 15 July 2012

Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture – Is it an awful piece of music?

This month’s Gramophone magazine (August 2012) surprised me with a feature on Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture with a picture of the composer surrounded by canons and explosions on the front cover. Inside is a four page article about the Overture.

Why was I surprised? I suppose that I thought that there was nothing much that could be said about a work that probably everybody knows but few want to admit that they like.

Tchaikovsky was not keen to write the piece as he didn’t like working to commissions. It was commissioned in 1880 by Nickolai Rubinstein, Director of the Moscow Conservatoire, for the forthcoming Exhibition of Industry and the Arts.

Rubinstein suggested that the piece should take on one of three forms. It should either be an overture to be played when the exhibition was opened, or one to celebrate Tsar Alexander II’s silver jubilee or it should be a cantata to mark the opening of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour built over quite a number of years to commemorate Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in the winter of 1812.

With these options you would not have thought that Tchaikovsky would have too much difficulty in coming up with something but he complained bitterly saying to his publisher, Jurgenson ‘…it seems that you think writing ceremonial pieces for an exhibition is some sort of ultimate bliss of which I shall hasten to avail myself…’

Further he demanded 100 roubles in advance before he would write a note. But still he complained saying that he did not want to ‘…set about composing music which is destined for the glorification of what…delights me not at all…’ He went on saying that he was not inspired by ‘a high ranking person who has always been fairly antipathetic to me’ nor by a cathedral that he did not like.

From this we might reasonably gather that Tchaikovsky didn’t want to write the music so it took Rimsky Korsakov to finally persuade him, though how he managed to do I cannot imagine.

It was left to Tchaikovsky to decide what form of music to compose so he took ideas from two of the suggested forms, that of an overture and a work to mark the consecration of the new cathedral built to commemorate the events of the year 1812.

It is now 200 years since the events Tchaikovsky’s Overture commemorates

Tchaikovsky began work on the overture in October 1880 and, despite the feelings that he had about the composition, he worked very fast and completed it by the middle of November.

Tchaikovsky used a number of French and Russian themes to depict the two sides in the conflict including ‘God Save the Tsar’ and the ‘Marseillaise’. A folk tune used in Rimsky Korsakov’s Overture on Russian Themes, from the Novgorod region was also used, not to mention, of course, the bells and cannons.

In a letter to his patroness, Madame Nadezhda von Meck, he continued to complain saying that ‘it will be very loud and noisy…’ and that it would ‘have no artistic merit…’ and that it had been written ‘without warmth and without love’.

Other omens were not good as the exhibition which was due to take place in 1881, was postponed until 1882, then Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, the event ironically leading to the construction of another church, the Church of the Spilled Blood, in St Petersburg, on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in March 1881.

Finally even Nickolai Rubinstein himself died before the first performance which took place in August 1882 conducted by Ippolit Altani in the hall specially built for the exhibition.

The drum part is said to have been performed by a company of the artillery and this sounds quite probable.

So is Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture good or bad? I tried listening to it again in a performance on EMI Eminence (not currently available from EMI but obtainable via Amazon ) by Sian Edwards and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, a fine performance that also gives you an equally fine Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, March Slave and Francesca da Rimini.

CD EMX 2152

To start with I found myself enjoying all the Russian melodies beautifully woven into the work but then, part way through,  the Marseillaise comes in and from then on, to my mind, the work goes downhill rapidly ending in what can only be described charitably as a noisy and  trite ending. Yet for all this, the opportunity to give my audio system a good work out was quite thrilling.

Playing this work might be described as a guilty pleasure if it wasn’t for the fact that I don’t tend to have any qualms about listening to works that others often deride even if they aren’t the greatest works in the world. The occasional outing in my CD player can still be good fun.

I wonder how many other people also have such ‘guilty pleasures’ in their classical listening choices?

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