Friday, July 2, 2010

Sing along with the tsar

On Sunday, throughout the United States, bands and orchestras will mark the Fourth of July by playing Tchaikovsky’s "1812 Overture." Celebrating our Independence Day with a musical depiction of the victory of tsarist Russia over Napoleon's invading army is a pretty weird practice – and the standard follow-up, John Philip Sousa’s "The Stars and Stripes Forever," doesn’t really mitigate the weirdness.

How about an arrangement of the old American folk song "Bonaparte's Retreat" between the Tchaikovsky and Sousa?

Anyway, the "1812" on the Fourth represents This Great Country of Ours at its pragmatic best: Until some homegrown composer and/or pyrotechnician comes up with a better musical platform for firing artillery and shooting off fireworks, this will do.

It would be nice to hear the choral version more often. Tchaikovsky's quotations of the Russian anthems "God Save the Tsar" and "God Protect Thy People" really hit the spot when they're sung.

POSTSCRIPT: The Baltimore Sun's Tim Smith proposes rewriting the overture "so that the structure and length stay the same, along with as much as the original musical material as possible, but all French and Russian allusions are transformed into appropriate British and American counterparts. No more 'Marseillaise.' No more Russian hymns." . . .

. . . so we'd hear "God Save the Queen" vs. "My Country 'Tis of Thee" . . . no, wait, same tune . . . or "To Anacreon in Heaven" vs. "The Star-Spangled Banner" . . . oops, same tune again . . . "Rule Brittania" vs. "The Battle of New Orleans?" Umm . . .

Until we grow our own "1812" (paging John Williams?), I think we'd better stick with undoctored Tchaikovsky.