Tchaikovsky`s 1812 Overture
Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture
• Pyotr Tchaikovsky was a Russian Romantic
composer who lived 1840-1893. His music
combines elements of traditional Russian
folk music with mainstream Western styles
and harmonies. He was the first Russian
composer to become popular in the rest
• Tchaikovsky has a number of works that
are still quite popular today including piano and violin
concertos, 7 symphonies, his operas Eugene Onegin and The Queen
of Spades, and of course his ballets Romeo & Juliet, Swan Lake,
and The Nutcracker.
• Tchaikovsky wrote The 1812
Overture in 1880 to commemorate
Russia’s repulsion of Napoleon’s
invading army in 1812.
• It was performed outside in
Moscow by a symphony joined by
a brass band, cannons, and the
bells of the nearby cathedral.
• The 1812 Overture pretty accurately
retells the story of the invasion and ultimate defeat of
Napoleon, and uses several pre-existing songs to do so.
NAPOLEON’S INVASION OF
• In the midst of a series of confusing alliances, forced treaties,
and opposing coalitions in Europe, Napoleon invaded Russia
in 1812 with a previously-undefeated force of 650,000 battlehardened men and state-of-the-art artillery.
• Realizing that they were severely unprepared for such a
conflict, the Russian church authorities declared a day of
prayer for the fate of the country. Russians all over the empire
offered up heart-felt prayers in the Russian Orthodox churches
for divine intervention to save them from the French.
• On the outskirts of the empire the Imperial Russian Army
engaged Napoleon in skirmishes, but his army continued to
move steadily towards the heart of Russia.
NAPOLEON’S INVASION OF
• Desperately, Tsar Alexander I pleaded with the people of Russia
to support the army and save their land. Thousands, from
peasants to aristocracy, joined in the cause.
• Still, Napoleon’s invincible army pushed forward with victory
after victory and eventually captured the heart of Russia, the
great city of Moscow.
• But just at Napoleon’s triumph, the tides turned. The Russians
chose to abandon and burn their greatest city rather than accept
French rule. The peasants refused to bring in food from the
fields. An early winter came that made food and supplies
scarce. This was seen as an answer to the Russian prayers.
NAPOLEON’S INVASION OF
• Napoleon found that he had no choice but to abandon the
deserted and burned Moscow and retreat back to France.
• The remaining Russian armies scorched the earth before the
French to make sure they could not forage. They hounded and
picked off the many stragglers who suffered from hunger,
fatigue, disease, and frostbite. The infamous French cannons’
wheels froze in the snow and were turned by the Russians to
fire upon the retreating French. Of the 650,00 originally in his
army, Napoleon returned home with only 27,000. (4%)
• The Russians celebrated and thanked God for their miraculous
victory over Napoleon’s army.
THEME # 1
“O LORD, SAVE THY PEOPLE”
• Tchaikovsky begins the piece with
the orchestra softly quoting a
sacred church song all Russians
would know, The Troparion of the
Holy Cross, which is a prayer for
Russia and the Tsar. At the end of
the overture, this song returns in
• What did Tchaikovsky mean by
using this song at the beginning
and end of this work?
O Lord, save Thy people,
And bless Thine inheritance!
Grant victory to the righteous Tsar
Over his enemies,
And by virtue of Thy cross,
Preserve Thy habitation.
THE RUSSIAN ARMY THEME
• The most famous theme of
The 1812 Overture represents
the brave Russian Army.
• Though they were terribly
outnumbered and out
gunned by Napoleon’s army
of over half a million, they
dutifully and even gleefully
enlisted and prepared to
defend the motherland.
• The 1812 Overture quotes
France’s national anthem “La
Marseillaise” to represent the
• Napoleon’s army had
superior numbers, discipline,
and weapons. After
conquering essentially all of
Europe (including the Austrian-Hungarian Empire), there was
little hope that the Russians could prevent their country from
being absorbed into Napoleon’s ever-growing French Empire.
“AT THE GATE”
• The 1812 Overture also
quotes a traditional Russian
folk song, “At the Gate”
that was sung in villages by
• What do you think
Tchaikovsky meant by
quoting a folk song?
At the gate, the gate, the gate,
gate to father's dear house,
Ai, dunai, my dunai, ai,
Sing we all dunai
CANNONS & BELLS
• The most unique and recognizable
feature of The 1812 Overture is its
use of real cannons and city bells.
• The cannons, of course, represent
the force of the battle. The bells,
wildly ringing near the end,
represent the joyous celebration of
the Russian people for their victory
over the invading French.
• Near the end, the cannon shots
musically “blow holes” through the
French national anthem. ☺
“GOD SAVE THE TSAR”
• At the very end of the piece, a
military brass band blasts out
the “Russian Army” theme.
• To this celebration of Russian
victory and sovereignty,
Tchaikovsky adds what was
then the Russian national
anthem by the low instruments
in counter-point. (plus more
cannons and bells)
"God Protect the Tsar, He who holds power;
Reign for glory, for our glory.
Reign to the terror of our enemies,
Orthodox Tsar! God Protect the Tsar!
THE 1812 OVERTURE
Try to follow the “story” as we listen to
Tchaikovsky’s rendition of Russia’s mortal battle
with Napoleon in 1812.