Music has the power of isolating a particular moment in time. Recently I was getting ready to head out and the radio was playing on the kitchen bench. A familiar melody caught my attention, and I had to linger until the song was over.
It was the 1812 Overture. This recognisable piece of music is one of the classical songs that many people are familiar with, and excerpts are used in advertising and elsewhere. The most popular section is probably the climax, with various instruments – and sometimes more unusual items – played to replicate a volley of cannon fire.
The piece was originally written to commemorate the Russian defence against the invasion led by Napoleon in 1812. Although the French were victorious at the Battle of Borodino, Napoleon and his army eventually had to retreat from Moscow in the midst of a bitter winter as supplies ran out and expected Russian surrender never arrived.
There were a number of events and anniversaries approaching when Tchaikovsky began to compose the overture in October 1880. It took him six weeks to write the music which would then be used at various events. The overture ended up being one of Tchaikovsky’s most performed and recorded works, although he described it as ‘very loud and nasty’, lacking ‘artistic merit’, having been written ‘without warmth and without love’.
Within the overture there are samples or echoes of other music, beginning with an Eastern Orthodox hymn before the arrival of the French Army as depicted by the melody of La Marseillaise. Russian folk music engages in a musical battle of sorts with La Marseillaise before the cannon shots are followed with the French melody rising to the fore. Then the melody, like the French Army, retreats before the piece moves to the cannon climax of victory, and the Russian national anthem plays amidst ringing cathedral bells.
There is an interesting article on the overture here, which includes a link to the finale being played by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra with improvised cannon fire. There is a collection of five ‘explosive’ performances on this link, including a flash mob and fireworks. A full version including cannon fire can be found here.
For me, this piece of music takes me back to primary school. I was about ten years old, and it was a rainy afternoon. The lesson was about creative writing, although I doubt it was called that at the time. A stereo had been pulled into the classroom on a trolley (it was old-fashioned and too large to carry) and it had a record player. We were instructed to pull out an exercise book and a pen and to write something inspired by the music.
If I close my eyes, I can still hear the hiss and crackle of the record player as the piece begins, softly, quietly, before the different instruments join the fray. The class was quiet, listening intently until inspiration struck and pens began to scratch on paper. I wrote a poem which of course is now lost to the mists of time, but it began with women farewelling their men as they head off to war. In my memory, it went something like:
The women are saying farewell
To the men they love so well
Every now and then I will seek out this music and immerse myself, back in the memory of a moment in time.
When was the last time you lost yourself in a musical moment?
[Photo: Hyde Park, Sydney, with St Anne’s Cathedral in the background (the version I heard on the radio was by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and the radio announcer thought that the bells may have been the bells of St Anne’s)]