‘1812 Overture’ should be dropped from July 4 playlist

An original American-centric piece should be crafted

July 4, 2023 4:00 am

USS Constitution goes underway in Boston Harbor in celebration of Independence Day on July 4, 2022. Constitution earned the nickname of Old Ironsides during the War of 1812 when British cannonballs were seen bouncing off the ship’s wooden hull. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Alec Kramer)

Protesting the barbaric Ukraine invasion by banning Russian music from orchestral concerts is shortsighted, but replacing the “1812 Overture” on July 4th programs is long overdue.

Tchaikovsky was born in Russia, but his father’s family came from Ukraine (“Chaika” is the name of a Cossack war boat). He often summered there, and at least 30 of his works have Ukrainian subjects or include Ukrainian melodies and folk songs.

Cabinet card portrait of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, circa 1888 (Public domain)

Yet cherishing Tchaikovsky’s music should not also mean embracing the “1812” on our Independence Day.

Many years ago, I raised with Boston Pops Laureate Conductor John Williams the idea of him composing a signature Independence Day piece that could replace the 1812 Overture as the marquee finale for Fourth of July celebrations.

At the time, he demurred, indicating the Tchaikovsky overture was too well established in the holiday repertoire.

After the Russian invasion of Crimea in early 2014, I urged those planning the Boston Pops July 4th concert to drop the 1812— or at least also include the Ukrainian national anthem as part of some ode-to-freedom medley. The case for American orchestras doing so now is even more compelling.

Long-term, someone should create a replacement piece. Unlike the Star-Spangled Banner’s rousing reference to “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” the 1812 Overture has nothing to do with Americans battling the British back then nor with any other aspect of American history.

The 1812 celebrates Russia’s nation-saving resistance to Napoleon’s invasion at the Battle of Borodino. Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write the piece for several 1882 festive Russian commemorations, including the 25th anniversary of Tsar Alexander II’s coronation, canceled after the Tsar was assassinated in 1881. Today, Russian efforts to destroy Ukraine and its democracy make our use of this paean to Russian triumphalism as the highlight of the celebration of our national identity seem ironic if not obscene. I love the 1812 Festival Overture (even if Tchaikovsky himself didn’t), but not here on July 4th.

Far from having any venerable patriotic patrimony, the inclusion of the overture was essentially a clever gimmick devised in 1974 by two pyrotechnic-fascinated “sparks” (who loved chasing Boston area firefighters as they fought blazes) to restore flagging audience interest in the annual Independence Day event on Boston’s Charles River esplanade. Arthur Fiedler, the legendary maestro of the Boston Pops, and his friend, wealthy businessman David Mugar, thought that local and national broadcast audiences would love the cannons and church bells of the 1812 finale leading into a major fireworks display—and Mugar would pay for it. It succeeded, notably two years later at the nation’s bicentennial concert, and other American orchestras followed.

It’s time for the Boston Symphony, the logical choice, or some other symphony orchestra, to commission, perform, and promote an original America-centric Fourth of July piece, which could become a stirring national overture.

Instead of Russian Orthodox liturgical music, Russian folk melodies, and variations of “God Save the Tsar,” the piece could feature flavors of American folk tunes, ballads, Negro spirituals, and jazz. It could channel the spirit of American composers like Aaron Copland, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Scott Joplin, Earl Scruggs, Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, Florence Price, Charles Ives, Leonard Bernstein, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and John Williams.

It should embrace historical themes celebrating our people, their struggles, victories, independence, resilience, diversity, and cherished freedoms — the bedrock of our democratic republic. Imagine the overture building to a crescendo, retaining the beloved blasting cannons and pealing church bells, followed by a fireworks/sound and light show worthy of President John Adams’s vision. He wanted Independence Day to be celebrated with pomp, parades, “guns, bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

Tchaikovsky wrote his overture in just six weeks. Surely there must be a composer or conservatory student up to the challenge in the run-up to 2026, our nation’s 250th birthday. Creating this, in a deeply divided America, might in some small but meaningful way help bring us together—at least for a day.

This commentary originally appeared in CommonWealth, a nonprofit journal of politics, ideas and civic life published by published by MassINC.



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James Barron
James Barron

James H. Barron is a journalist, attorney, and founding advisory board member of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. He is the author "The Greek Connection: The Life of Elias Demetracopoulos and the Untold Story of Watergate."