Deceptive Cadence
12:36 am
Sat June 29, 2013

Why Tchaikovsky's Bells And Cannons Sound Every July 4

Originally published on Sat June 29, 2013 1:44 pm

The Fourth of July is just around the corner, and on the big day, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture will be heard from coast to coast, complete with fireworks and cannons. But how did a Russian composition, depicting the rout of Napoleon's Army, end up as the unofficial soundtrack for our most quintessentially American holiday?

NPR's Scott Simon spoke to two folks who know the answer. David Mugar, executive producer of the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular, recounts firsthand how the piece was deployed to turn around the annual concert's flagging popularity in the 1970s; he's joined here by Boston Pops music director Keith Lockhart. Click the audio link to hear their conversation.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG MUSIC)

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

The Fourth of July is just around the corner, so take cover.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "1812 OVERTURE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Sung in foreign language)

NEARY: Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" will be heard from coast to coast, complete with fireworks and cannons. But how did a Russian composition, depicting the rout of Napoleon's army, end up as the unofficial soundtrack for our most American holiday?

NPR's Scott Simon got the answer from two experts.

SCOTT SIMON, BYLINE: Keith Lockhart, the famed music director of the Boston Pops. Maestro, thanks for being with us.

KEITH LOCKHART: Scott, it's a pleasure.

SIMON: And David Mugar, who is executive producer of the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular. Thank you for speaking with us.

DAVID MUGAR: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: So Mr. Mugar, this all traces back to you, and the great Arthur Fiedler?

MUGAR: Yes, it does, back to the year of 1973. The concerts that were being held by Esplanade were declining in popularity and they needed something to jumpstart their interest to the public. And for some reason, I just thought of the idea of having the "1812 Overture" played the next July 4th of 1974, and suggested the idea to Arthur, and he thought that would sound great.

SIMON: I mean, most people want to put a little pop in their concert, you know, they're thinking of balloon animals or, you know, something like that for the kids. What made you think of cannons?

MUGAR: Well, actually, I believe their score. Keith, you'd know that. I'm not sure whether Tchaikovsky has it in the musical score or not. I think he does.

LOCKHART: Yes. Yes. The piece was originally intended - as you probably know, Scott, to celebrate the Russian victory over the French in their war of 1812, not even our war of 1812.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "1812 OVERTURE")

LOCKHART: It's a kind of unusual piece for its time. It was never Tchaikovsky's favorite piece of his own - far from it, actually. But it was meant for big outdoor festivals and includes parts for cannons and for church bells. And since we were in a big outdoor space where it was possible to fire off cannons and to ring live church bells up and down the Back Bay area of Boston, I think they thought, well, if there's any peace that is going to draw some outdoor interest, it's the "1812 Overture."

SIMON: It just occurs to me, as we're sitting here, Maestro, have you ever conducted this piece in Russia?

LOCKHART: No. That's a very interesting question, and I'll tell you a little bit of the story that has nothing to do with that. And my score, I've done the piece - as you can imagine, for 19 straight here in Boston, done it several other times, of course, it's a signature piece for the Pops. But the original score that I learned from as an eager young conductor the first time I had to cover this work is missing the "Czarist Hymn." I had to have it put back in. When I found out about this, did a little digging and figured out it was a Soviet edition from the kind of late Stalinist era, and they had purged the "Czarist Hymn."

Now, "La Marseillaise" was still in there. The French music was still in there, but they had just conveniently left it out and that was such a strange transposition of politics in music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "1812 OVERTURE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Sung in foreign language)

SIMON: You don't hear a good czarist anthem as much as you used to, do you?

(LAUGHTER)

LOCKHART: No. No. They've kind of gone out of favor. But there's at least one that people know and that's the opening choral to "1812."

SIMON: Who gets to fire the cannons?

MUGAR: Well, it's done by the Massachusetts National Guard, and as a throwback to a lot of memories on the Esplanade. We've been friendly with Peter Fiedler, an official with Boston University. And we...

LOCKHART: And Arthur Fieldler's son.

MUGAR: Yes. I'm sorry. Thank you, Keith.

LOCKHART: And he also looks with every passing year, more like his father.

MUGAR: He does.

LOCKHART: Sometimes we're just going to put them on the stage and pretend that Arthur Fiedler has joined us again.

(LAUGHTER)

MUGAR: So I asked Peter to help conduct the cannons and he loves to do it and plays a major role there in the 16 cannon shots for choir at the end of the "1812 Overture."

SIMON: Nineteen times. Maestro, you never get tired of this piece?

LOCKHART: Well, it is a great tradition. It's very funny that because of Boston doing this, it has become ubiquitous. And really, if you go to any small town orchestra in the country, it's considered de rigueur that you perform the "1812 Overture" during a July 4th concert. And most people don't know, of course, where that comes from. The fact is, though, it's become an expected part - along with the great patriotic songs in the Sousa march, "The Stars and Stripes Forever"- of what we do and it's wonderful to get a half-million people so excited about a celebration with an orchestra that's center in heart.

SIMON: Let me ask you both a question. Without putting you on the spot, are you both Red Sox fans?

LOCKHART: Oh, very much so.

MUGAR: Yes.

SIMON: Are you ever tempted to turn the cannons toward Yankee Stadium?

(LAUGHTER)

LOCKHART: I don't think they have that kind of a range. And there are blanks. And besides, that would be a, you know, an unsportsmanlike thing to do.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Keith Lockhart, the famed music director of the Boston Pops and David Mugar, executive producer of the Boston Fireworks Spectacular, joining us from WBUR.

Gentlemen, thank you. Have a wonderful Fourth of July.

LOCKHART: Thanks, Scott. You as well.

MUGAR: Thank you. You too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC,"1812 OVERTURE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language)

NEARY: And this is NPR's WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Lynn Neary.

(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.