A Tradition is Born

What does the American Declaration of Independence have in common with a village in Russia?

I’m going to run on the assumption that the Declaration doesn’t need an explanation.  If I’m wrong, then it’s worth your time to read American scripture : Making the Declaration of Independence by Pauline Maier for both her outstanding background and commentary.  For the village –Borodino–I will show a little more forbearance and tolerance.

Borodino, 70 miles west of Moscow, was the site of the bloodiest single battle of  Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, and possibly of the Napoleonic Wars. The Battle of Borodino (September 7, 1812) involved more than 250,000 troops and resulted in more than 70,000 casualties, two-thirds of them Russian.  Napoleon’s Grande Armée, trying to reach Moscow, attacked the Imperial Russian Army near the village. While the French defeated the Russians, they failed to win a decisive victory. About a third of Napoleon’s soldiers were killed or wounded; Russian losses were also heavy, but her casualties could be replaced through readily available militia and what was in effect an endless resource of people.

Because of his extensive casualties and a lack of intelligence on Russian positions, Napoleon chose not to pursue and instead disengaged. By not destroying the Russian army, and allowing it to pull back and regroup, Napoleon lost the initiative. Borodino was the last offensive action fought by Napoleon in Russia. By withdrawing, the Russian army preserved its strength, eventually forcing Napoleon out of the country.

On December 25th, 1812, Russian Emperor Alexander I commissioned what he envisioned as a grand cathedral in a demonstration of imperial gratitude for what was seen as divine intercession in saving Holy Mother Russia and the monarchy.  Due to changes in design, other wars, the political situation and the monarchy itself, construction on the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour didn’t begin until 1839 and wasn’t completed until 1880.

In 1880 composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was offered an opportunity to accept one of three commissions for significant events upcoming in the national life of Czarist Russia – the dedication of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the opening of the Exhibition of Industry and the Arts, or the Silver Jubilee of Czar Alexander II. Tchaikovsky opted for the cathedral dedication (a wise choice since the Czar was assassinated a year later.)  What was the piece he wrote in six weeks?  You may have guessed; it was The Year 1812, Festival Overture in E flat major, Op. 49AKA the 1812 Overture.

So why all the history?  I’ve been thoroughly taken in this year by the endless automatic inclusion of the 1812 Overture in almost all the July 4th advertising (as opposed to the fireworks) I’ve seen this month.  It’s one thing for this seminal Russian work – which so prominently highlights La Marseillaise (wait for the 50th second) to close out our firework’s displays, it’s grander than Sousa, but I’m not sure the default association with the 4th of July bodes well for the next generation of participants in Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” in-the-street knowledge quizzes.

As for the Overture itself and the 4th of July, most sources credit Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops with introducing it at the 1974 July 4th celebration on the suggestion of Fiedler friend and event sponsor David Mugar.  And so was born fireworks on the Charles River as well as a new American Independence Day tradition.

- Richard

3 Comments

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3 responses to “A Tradition is Born

  1. Sheila

    JayWalking.

  2. Maria

    Thanks for this interesting bit of history, especially about Tchaikovsky & the 1812 Overture. I’ll take music and history over fireworks any day!

  3. Rebekah

    The new issue of Grammophone (music mag) has an article about the 1812 Overture and its history with pyrotechnics.

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