Let’s axe the ‘1812’ Overture once and for all

I applaud the decision of some U.S. orchestras to strike Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” from their July 4 concert programs. This musical composition is a tribute to the military might of Tsarist Russia, specifically the Russian victory over Napoleon’s invading Grande Armée at the Battle of Borodino in September 1812. When Napoleon retreated from Russia at the end of that year, Tsar Alexander I declared that, to commemorate the Russian victory, he would build a cathedral in Moscow to Christ the Savior. Construction was approaching completion in 1880 when Tchaikovsky received the commission for what became the “1812 Overture.” It had its world premiere in a tent outside the cathedral construction site in August 1882. Although the piece would make the Tchaikovsky estate vast sums of money, the composer himself admitted that his heart was never in the project and wrote: “It is impossible to tackle without repugnance this sort of music which is destined for the glorification of something that, in essence, delights me not at all.” But one can’t deny that Tchaikovsky’s brief labors produced a genuinely rousing piece of music.

Nonetheless, we should look beyond the specific situation of 2022 and expunge the “1812 Overture” from all future July 4 concerts in the U.S.

This proposal admittedly will not go down well with Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart, who, when interviewed by the New York Times, argued that the Pops would play the piece this year “to celebrate independence and freedom and people who are willing to sacrifice a lot to make that happen.” In his view, the overture can remind people of “the perils of aggression.” The Russians of 1812, in his view, were the Ukrainians of 2022. The fundamental problem, in his view, is “the attempt of authoritarian powers to dominate other powers.” In Illinois, the Napierville Municipal Band kept the overture on its program, and the narrator described it as a “depiction of all victories over oppression, including our own War of 1812” and referred to the Battle of Gettysburg.

One doesn’t need a doctorate in history to see real problems with such arguments, though requiring more study of European history in high school might be helpful. Of course, Napoleon and his allies violated Tsarist Russia’s territorial sovereignty by invading and briefly seizing Moscow. Napoleon also had an authoritarian streak and was hardly a consistent implementer of the French revolutionary values of “liberty, equality, and brotherhood.” But to cast Napoleon as an oppressor intent on erasing the freedom of the Russian people, in contrast to Russia as a pure and virtuous victim of aggression, is wide of the mark.

If time machines existed and one were facing the prospect of deportation to the year 1812, any sensible person would choose Napoleon’s France over the Russia of Tsar Alexander I — especially if they were likely to end up doing agricultural labor. Russia was a repressive, absolutist, agricultural society dependent on serfdom, by which peasants were bound to the land they worked, and by extension to the owners of that land. Not quite slavery, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the Ukrainians of today are, to an important degree, descendants of people who fled to the southwestern borderlands of Russia precisely to escape serfdom.

In France, serfdom had largely expired de facto in the 1300s, and was formally abolished in 1789 during the French Revolution, along with other aristocratic privileges. Even absolutist Prussia, in a fit of reformism after its crushing defeat by Napoleon at the 1806 Battle of Jena, abolished serfdom the following year. (Russia only abolished it in 1861, not long before abolition of slavery in the U.S.)

In 1812, as in subsequent wars to this day, authoritarian Russian leaders would draw on patriotic and religious themes to induce the people to forget their misery and rally to the cause of Mother Russia. But an analogy between the Russians of 1812 and the Ukrainians of 2022 is groundless. The latter are fighting for values that Americans hold dear. In 1812 the Russian people de facto fought to preserve the dead hand of history.

In the wide swath of Continental Europe that he, for a time, liberated from repressive absolutist monarchies, Napoleon implanted systems for the rule of law and professional public administration that have remained largely in place for the last two centuries. Despite his lapse into personalistic rule, Napoleon embodied a program of modernization whose seeds survived Waterloo and the temporary restoration of European monarchies. His Russian contemporary Alexander I, on the other hand, is best remembered as the godfather of the Holy Alliance of Europe’s absolutist powers, conceived in a fit of religious mania to protect the divine right of kings and repress all expression of liberal values.

In other words, Napoleon was much closer than the Tsar to the progressive currents of the early 19th century, currents best — if imperfectly — embodied in the new United States.

Let’s also bear in mind that, in the Atlantic theater of the Napoleonic wars, American sympathies leaned toward France, and Jefferson and Madison were visible Francophiles. During the War of 1812, the United States was de facto assisting Napoleon by tying down British military assets, though without an actual alliance.

Given all this history, it’s pretty odd that Americans would make a celebratory Tsarist anthem like the “1812 Overture” such an important feature of our national day celebrations.

One hopes that Putin will disappear from the scene and that Russia will assume less aggressive policies. Until that time, at least, we should leave the overture off our 4th of July musical programs. Indeed, I think we simply should replace it for good with something more frankly American.

It’s a lot shorter than the “1812 Overture,” but I wouldn’t mind seeing Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” written to honor Americans fighting in World War II, as the keynote piece in our July 4 concerts.

Eric R. Terzuolo was a Foreign Service officer from 1982 to 2003. He currently teaches at American University’s School of International Service. For many years, he was on contract to the Foreign Service Institute, the professional development unit of the Department of State, with responsibility for West European area studies. Before joining the foreign service, he studied East European and Russian history at Stanford University and taught Russian history at Gustavus Adolphus and Mount St. Mary’s colleges. The views expressed here are purely personal.