America’s Ironic Attachment to a Piece of Russian Music

Americans love national celebrations. All nations do. In our case, the most popular is of course the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence on July 4. It not only marks our political freedom from Great Britain but also serves as a celebration of our unlikely victory in the war that followed.

The National Mall in Washington, D.C. on July 4

What most Americans do not realize, however, is how dependent we are on other nations in celebrating our independence.

The scene of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where rousing fireworks displays mark Independence Day, is an expression of this irony. To begin with, the use of fireworks for patriotic celebrations is a practice borrowed originally from the monarchy we overthrew (recall Handel’s famous Music for Royal Fireworks commissioned by George II, the grandfather of the king renounced by the Declaration of Independence). What is more, the monumental white architecture that provides background to the event on the Mall is, to a stone, modeled on the neoclassical styles of Europe’s nineteenth-century capitals.

More ironic is the practice, dominant for decades now, of playing one particular classical composition as the fireworks explode. This work is known as the 1812 Overture. The title is not (as some who know a little about American history might assume) an allusion to the War of 1812. That, after all, did not go very well for our young nation and resulted in the sack of the capital and the burning down of the White House (by the British no less). The War of 1812 did generate our current national anthem, but little we would be proud of beyond that. The 1812 Overture rather makes reference to Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Russia. In 1812, France’s mighty army was decimated and the formerly undefeated Bonaparte forced to flee. Then, in 1880, Russia’s greatest composer Peter Tchaikovsky was commissioned to produce a short outdoor concert piece to commemorate Russia’s independence from European domination.

The 1812 Overture, in other words, is a musical monument to Russian independence. That Americans make such patriotic use of it to celebrate theirs is even more ironic in light of its content. The piece opens with the melody (and in some performances is sung with the words) of the Orthodox hymn “O Lord Save Thy People.” This makes allusion to the Elevation of the Cross, a holiday celebrated annually on September 14. It is a declaration that through his suffering Christ has established a permanent place on earth for his people. A little later in the piece, the mood shifts abruptly with the melody–announced first by martial snare drums–of the French national anthem. This “Marseillaise” is associated with the republican government of revolutionary France. And though it develops steadily throughout the piece, at the end it is literally blown to smithereens by a new melody, that of the Russian Imperial anthem “O God Keep the Tsar.” America’s celebration of the repudiation of monarchy thus makes use of a celebration of monarchy.

Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow

But perhaps the most striking irony of our use of the 1812 Overture on Independence Day is revealed by the occasion for which it was commissioned. The piece is not just a commemoration of the defeat of Napoleon and the role played by Russian monarchy. It was commissioned for the consecration of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, built in an Eastern Christian architectural style to distinguish it from the neoclassical church architecture that had accompanied Russia’s westernization since the time of Peter the Great. On the square below the edifice, the piece was scheduled to be premiered to the accompaniment of church bells and cannon (“instruments” the composer actually included in the score).

The music at the heart of America’s celebration of independence from foreign powers, of the repudiation of monarchy, and of the separation of church and state is nothing, then, if not ironic.

For anyone interested in viewing a live, outdoor performance of the piece, a good example can be found here.

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