Here at All Classical Portland, we are convinced that nothing accompanies the rockets’ red glare like some classical music. If there is anything as American as fireworks, it surely must be the iconic 1812 Overture, that bombastic, canon-firing hurrah that accompanies the grand finale of every Fourth of July spectacle, signaling that the sulfuric constellations will soon be turning red, white, and blue and fade to smoke and applause.
After all, the 1812 Overture seems a perfect fit – the War of 1812 proved that The United States was here to stay. We beat the British (again!) and even wrote a national anthem in the process. It is only logical that we celebrate with the most American of all composers: no, not Bruce Springsteen, but Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, of course. As it turns out, the piece’s history is not quite so convenient. The 1812 Overture or Festival Overture in E-flat Major, Op. 49, is, in fact, about a different war of 1812, the Napoleonic Campaign of 1812 between France and Russia. Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write the piece in 1880 to commemorate the Russian victory over France.
Almost as incredible as the music itself is the musical hijacking we have accomplished with Tchaikovsky’s piece; not since turning “God Save the Queen” into “America” have we so deftly commandeered a piece of music. The premiere of the piece in Moscow in 1892 did occur just after Tchaikovsky’s visit to America, but, unlike Dvorak’s New World Symphony, it bears no residual Americanisms, as it was written just before Tchaikovsky’s New World appearance at Carnegie Hall. The 1812 Overture is not only a textbook example of Russian nationalism in music, characterizing the “Scythian” aesthetic and quoting folksong, but also incorporates God Save the Tsar, the Russian National Anthem at the time of the composition (though, interestingly, not in 1812) and the French National Anthem, La Marseillaise (another anachronism: this was not the anthem during Napoleon’s reign, though the Beatles also quote it in “All You Need Is Love”). Sorry, Francis Scott Key.
Now that we have established an image of Paris burning at the hands of the Russian Imperial Army, maybe 1812 Overture does seem an odd choice for your Independence Day playlist. Then again, we could also hold the French accountable for claiming to invent the bistro, another yield of the Russian invasion, when Russian soldiers shouted, “Bystro, bystro!” – Russian for “quickly” – to the harried Parisian cafe owners during the invasion. We would also have to admit that Aaron Copland, the architect of the open-spaced American sound was born to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents (originally Kaplan), and that Leonard Bernstein, the face of mid-century American music also came of recent Ukrainian origins. Philip Glass and John Cage studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, and Dave Brubeck and Burt Bacharach were pupils of Darius Milhaud in Paris, as well. Even Portland’s own Lou Harrison studied with the Viennese Arnold Schoenberg and made his reputation as a champion of Southeast Asian music.
It seems that American musical genealogy has rather strong Eastern Hemisphere ties. However, it also becomes increasingly apparent that American musical culture exhibits a richness only possible in such an immigrant nation. Stravinsky, who immigrated to Los Angeles along with Schoenberg and many others, tried his hand at jazz just as Charlie Parker was known to infuse his solos with Rite of Spring quotes. It is safe to say that the French won’t be giving back the bistro, so we’ll take advantage of Russia’s loose copyright laws and keep Tchaikovsky for our own patriotic devices.
We’ll still play the 1812 Overture for you on the Fourth at All Classical, as well as a lot of great American music. If you’re bold enough to sample some more 20th Century works by composers from the United States for your Independence Day playlist, here are a few starters:
The Afro-American Symphony by William Grant Still is the first symphony by a black American composer to be played by a major orchestra in 1931. This blues-infused orchestral romp is great for the concert hall, but wouldn’t be bad for your backyard badminton, either. You can also hear some of Still’s other works by listening to All Classical on the Fourth.
Charles Ives’s entire catalogue is appropriate for Independence Day, as he was the first internationally recognized innovator in American art music (and the insurance industry, his day job). Much of his music is based on humanistic and patriotic themes, and The Fourth of July is a delightful example of his simultaneously nostalgic and experimental idiom, and an ideal grilling soundtrack. We’ll also be playing Ives for you several times on Independence Day, including Songs My Mother Taught Me.
Vincent Persichetti’s Lincoln Address for orchestra and narrator, based on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is a reverent reminder of the Civil War and that remains just as relevant today as when it was commissioned for and subsequently dropped from the program of Nixon’s inauguration in 1973. This could make a good pre-bbq history lesson for the kids.
Ronald Lo Presti’s Elegy for a Young American, dedicated to President John F. Kennedy, has become a standard of wind band repertoire, and will amaze newcomers to the genre with its expressive depth. This is a sobering reminder of one of the more tragic episodes of the American chronicle.
Jazz Symphony by George Antheil, recently performed by the Oregon Symphony could be considered somewhat of a boisterous answer to Rhapsody in Blue. Antheil, who entitled his autobiography The Bad Boy of Music, was also recently featured on an episode of Club Mod with Robert McBride. This is a great accompaniment to your fireworks show if you ever can’t find your Tchaikovsky record.
“Wild Nights” from Harmonium by John Adams is my pick for the finale of the fireworks on the Fourth. Based on a poem by Emily Dickinson, this quintessentially American work by the president of contemporary American music is rousing, uplifting, and characteristic of the broad United States.
Happy Independence Day, and happy listening from All Classical Portland.
David Salkowski, intern