Tag Archives: Tchaikovsky

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


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A Nutcracker Tribute

When I was four years old, my mother enrolled me in ballet school. It was one of those things she had always wanted to try but, as a working class child growing up in Detroit, it was a luxury her family could not afford. As a result, I was exposed to not only the classical world of ballet and the rigors of training, but also to the most beautiful music in the world. I danced parts in both  Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake (music by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky) and, of course, every December, The Nutcracker. While I have grown to love and appreciate all of Tchaikovsky’s music, The Nutcracker holds a very special place in my heart.

I know it is ubiquitous during the holidays and it is tirelessly performed by both large –to my deep dismay, there is no live orchestra during this performance!–and small dance companies, but I take my holiday music very seriously; it’s one of my personal holiday traditions.

Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky

The Nutcracker ballet premiered in Russia in 1892, to disappointing reviews however, in America, the music was highly praised and with good reason. With its clever nuances, dramatic melodies, building tension sequences, and ornamental highlights of different instruments (the flute being my particular favorite), my own dream is to see a major symphony orchestra perform this entire masterpiece–not highlights!–without the ballet (how about it, Pittsburgh Symphony?). It has as much drama and excitement as watching the actual ballet performance, sometimes even more. I’m not a music critic or even a professional musician, but the music of this ballet entrances me. It can be quiet and relaxing and it can be exciting and loud.

The library has many ways for you to enjoy The Nutcracker on compact disc or streaming, book, or DVD. My personal favorites are the recording with Anton Dorati and the London Symphony Orchestra and the 1977 made-for-television ballet starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland, but there are more versions than you can count of both the recording and the ballet. If you’re a musician, there is also the score and, if you want to read the story, we have that too.


who, from Thanksgiving until Epiphany, blissfully listens to The Nutcracker on repeat


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