Thursday, July 23, 2009

Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture and Marche Slave

The overture will be very loud and noisy, but probably has no artistic merit, as I wrote it without either warmth or love.
--Tchaikovsky, writing about the 1812 Overture to his patron Madame von Meck

Tchaikovsky wasn't the only critic of his 1812 Overture. There isn't a music pundit anywhere who hasn't said something witheringly condescending about this work ("it is filled with cheap thrills," sneers my trusty Essential Canon of Classical Music). 1812 is the bane of high school bands anywhere and an eye-roll-inducer at summer pops orchestras everywhere.

And despite all this, it remains one of the most electrifying works of classical music ever written.
Neeme Jarvi and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
Tchaikovsky (1841-1904); Borodin (1833-1887); Rimsky Korsakov (1844-1908)

Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture and Marche Slave
Alexander Borodin: Polovtsian Dances and In The Steppes of Central Asia
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Festival Overture and Capriccio Espagnol
Deutsche Grammophon, 1990

Listener Notes for Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture:
1) This is a somewhat unusual recording in that it includes a chorus, which was not how Tchaikovsky wrote the piece. It's a bit disconcerting at first to those familiar with the instrumental version, but you'll find you'll quickly grow to like it.

2) At the 4:30 mark, you'll hear the woodwinds attempt to play the well-known theme, which is usually played using an articulation technique called triple-tonguing (I know it sounds a tad pornographic, but it's not, sorry to say). What makes me chuckle however, is how reed-based woodwinds, even at the professional level, cannot triple-tongue. It's something any decent brass player can do competently at the high school level.

3) This isn't a completely clean recording. One of the more noticeable muffs is the bass (or perhaps E-flat?) clarinet playing completely out of tune at 7:02-7:05.

4) From 7:15-8:10, listen for the soaring, Bruckner-esque strings--that is some heavy schmaltz Tchaikovsky's throwing in here. But I can't help it, I love this stuff. Who cares if these are cheap thrills? Also, note that this passage gets re-used at 11:03.

5) From 12:07 to the end, just let the tension build and let the music wash over you. If you know anything about the Russian character and this culture's ability to endure suffering and display heroism at certain unique moments of its history, you'll understand why this work can be so emotionally powerful.

6) A few words about the cannon shots that are regular features of any performance of The 1812 Overture (I know, more cheap thrills): The shots on this CD were fired by the Gothenburg Artillery Division, using cannons dated from 1863. I'm sure the original instrument purists were, uh, up in arms when they found out cannons from the mid-19th Century were used for a work celebrating a war that took place in the early 19th Century. Also, the liner notes from this CD, in a peculiar example of how to waste readers' time with useless information, contains this amusing little nugget:

"Bjorn Harmond, the Division's president since its foundation, supervised the firing of the shots, which were ignited using linstocks and detonated with black blasting powder."

Nice. I don't know how I got through life not knowing this.

Listener Notes for Marche Slave:
1) Tchaikovsky wrote Marche Slave in support of Russia's involvement in the 1876 Serb0-Turkish war, and it's filled with familiar-sounding Slavic folk tunes. He didn't view this composition with the same cynical derision with which he viewed his 1812 Overture.

2) Ah, but does the key theme at the 4:54 mark sound at all familiar to you? Yep, it's taken directly out of the 1812 Overture (actually, both are renditions of Russia's Tsarist National Anthem). But it's worth asking--which of these two works was more cynically composed?

Please take a look at my other blogs!
Casual Kitchen: Cook More. Think More. Spend Less.
Quick Writing Tips: Short posts on writing, twice a week.

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