I heard a recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture for the first time in the mid-1980s, when I had just started buying classical music albums and a company called Telarc Records was pioneering digital recordings. Of course these weren’t digital in the mp3-sense of today, but a pre-cursor to digital as we now know it – released released not even on CD but on those round vinyl platters (!!) you never see any more. I had a large collection once upon a time; but sold them years ago as CDs hit the market. I wish I still had them, if only for the sake of novelty and nostalgia.
I still remember that the original album cover had a red sticker across the front, warning purchasers that at high volumes, the canons used in the Overture finale might damage a stereo system. Of course I didn’t believe that but it turned out to be true; I remember replacing the stylus twice and blowing one speaker before I learned my lesson and kept the volume down.
These days, I have sort of a love-hate relationship with Tchaikovsky’s music, probably from the over-exposure certain melodies have gotten in American culture. Our tendency to extract sound-bites from orchestral music and grind the same ones repeatedly into movie soundtracks, commercials, and elevator music is an unfortunate one, because the sound-bites become what many people think of as “classical music.” A piece of music like the 1812 Overture – despite the fireworks cliché it has become – has a lot more subtle beauty and melody than you might have ever been exposed to.
With that in mind, here’s Part One of the full 1812 Overture from YouTube, performed – according to the poster’s notes – in Leningrad by The Leningrad Philharmonic and Leningrad Military Orchestras during a celebration of Tchaikovsky’s 150th birthday. For fun, try following the opening melodies and their variations (from the beginning to about the three-minute mark) through the entire piece. If you do that, you’ll have learned one of the best ways to develop an appreciation for classical music. Finding the recurring melodies and their variations is a technique you can use when listening to even the longest and most complex symphonies.
Here’s Part Two, the part most often associated with Fourth of July fireworks in America. The first use of canons outside the concert hall occurs at about 2:50. At the five-minute mark begins the canon finale … and – you guessed it! – some fireworks.
Happy Independence Day!