3. In the sections in which cannon shots are played, the actual cannons are sometimes replaced by recorded cannons or played on a piece of staging, usually with a large wooden mallet or sledge hammer. The bass drum and tam-tam are also regularly used in indoor performances.
Sixteen cannon shots are written into the score of the Overture. Beginning with the plaintive Slavic OrthodoxTroparion of the Holy Cross played by eight cellos and four violas, the piece moves through a mixture of pastoral and martial themes portraying the increasing distress of the Russian people at the hands of the invading French. This passage includes a Russian folk dance, At the Gate, at my Gate. At the turning point of the invasion—the Battle of Borodino—the score calls for five Russian cannon shots confronting a boastfully repetitive fragment of La Marseillaise. A descending string passage represents the subsequent retreat of the French forces, followed by victory bells and a triumphant repetition of God Preserve Thy People as Moscow burns to deny winter quarters to the French. A musical chase scene appears, out of which emerges the anthem God Save the Tsar! thundering with eleven more precisely scored shots. The overture utilizes counterpoint to reinforce the appearance of the leitmotif that represents the Russian forces throughout the song.
The music can be interpreted as a fairly literal depiction of the campaign: in June 1812, the previously undefeated French Allied Army of over half a million battle-hardened soldiers and almost 1,200 state-of-the-art guns (cannons, artillery pieces) crossed the Niemen River into Lithuania on its way to Moscow. The Russian Orthodox Patriarch of All the Russias, aware that the Russian Imperial Army could field a force only a fraction of this size, inexperienced and poorly equipped, called on the people to pray for deliverance and peace. The Russian people responded en masse, gathering in churches all across the Empire and offering their heartfelt prayers for divine intervention (the opening hymn). Next we hear the ominous notes of approaching conflict and preparation for battle with a hint of desperation but great enthusiasm, followed by the distant strains of La Marseillaise, the French National Anthem, as the French approach. Skirmishes follow, and the battle goes back and forth, but the French continue to advance and La Marseillaise becomes more prominent and victorious - almost invincible. The Tsar desperately appeals to the spirit of the Russian people in an eloquent plea to come forward and defend the Rodina (Motherland). As the people in their villages consider his impassioned plea, we hear traditional Russian folk music. La Marseillaise returns in force with great sounds of battle as the French approach Moscow. The Russian people now begin to stream out of their villages and towns toward Moscow to the increasing strains of folk music and, as they gather together, there is even a hint of celebration. Now, La Marseillaise is heard in counterpoint to the folk music as the great armies clash on the plains west of Moscow, and Moscow burns. Just at the moment that Moscow is occupied and all seems hopeless, the hymn which opens the piece is heard again as God intervenes, bringing an unprecedented deep freeze with which the French cannot contend (one can hear the winter winds blowing in the music). The French attempt to retreat, but their guns, stuck in the freezing ground, are captured by the Russians and turned against them. Finally, the guns are fired in celebration and church bells all across the land peal in grateful honor of their deliverance from their "treacherous and cruel enemies."
In a transcription by American conductor Igor Buketoff the following changes and additions were made:
The opening segment, God Preserve Thy People is sung a cappella by a choir.
A children's or women's choir is added to the flute and cor anglais duet rendition of At the Gate.
The orchestra and chorus unite in the climax with a triumphant version of God Preserve Thy People and God Save the Tsar.
Historical background: Napoleon's invasion of Russia
On September 7, 1812, 120 km (75 miles) west of Moscow at Borodino, Napoleon's forces met those of General Mikhail Kutuzov in the only concerted stand made by Russia against the seemingly invincible French army. The Battle of Borodino saw casualties estimated as high as 100,000 and did not result in victory for either side. It did, however, break the back of the French invasion.
With resources depleted and supply lines overextended, Napoleon's crippled forces moved into Moscow, which they occupied without resistance. Expecting capitulation from the displaced Tsar Alexander I, the French instead found themselves in a barren and desolate city, burned to the ground by the retreating Russian Army.
Deprived of winter quarters, Napoleon found it necessary to retreat. Beginning on October 19 and lasting well into December, the French army faced several overwhelming obstacles on its long retreat: famine, frigid temperatures, and Russian forces barring the way out of the country. Abandoned by Napoleon in December, the Grande Armée was reduced to one-tenth of its original size by the time it reached Poland.
Anachronism of nationalist motifs
Although La Marseillaise was chosen as the French National Anthem in 1795, it was banned by Napoleon in 1805 and could not have been heard during the approach of Moscow. However, it was reinstated as the French Anthem in 1879—the year before the commission of the overture—which can explain its use by Tchaikovsky in the overture.
In 1880, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, commissioned by Tsar Alexander I to commemorate the Russian victory, was nearing completion in Moscow; the 25th anniversary of the coronation of Alexander II would be at hand in 1881; and the 1882 Moscow Arts and Industry Exhibition was in the planning stage. Tchaikovsky's friend and mentor Nikolai Rubinstein suggested that he write a grand commemorative piece for use in related festivities. Tchaikovsky began work on the project on October 12, 1880, finishing it six weeks later.
The piece was planned to be performed in the square before the cathedral, with a brass band to reinforce the orchestra, the bells of the cathedral and all the others in downtown Moscow playing "zvons" (pealing bells) on cue, and live cannon fire in accompaniment, fired from an electric switch panel in order to achieve the precision demanded by the musical score in which each shot was specifically written. However, this performance did not take place, possibly partly due to the over-ambitious plan. Regardless, the assassination of Alexander II that March deflated much of the impetus for the project. In 1882, at the Arts and Industry Exhibition, the Overture was performed indoors with conventional orchestration. The cathedral was completed on May 26 1883.
Meanwhile, Tchaikovsky complained to his patron Nadezhda von Meck that he was "not a concocter of festival pieces," and that the Overture would be "very loud and noisy, but [without] artistic merit, because I wrote it without warmth and without love," adding himself to the legion of artists who from time to time have castigated their own work. It is this work that would make the Tchaikovsky estate exceptionally wealthy, as it is one of the most performed and recorded works from his catalog.
The logistics of safety and precision in placement of the shots require either well-drilled military crews using modern cannons, or the use of sixteen pieces of muzzle-loading artillery, since any reloading schemes to attain the sixteen shots or even a semblance of them in the two minute time span involved makes safety and precision impossible with 1800s artillery. Time lag alone precludes implementation of cues for the shots for 1812-era field pieces.
Did Tchaikovsky ever hear the piece as written?
Musicologists questioned across the last third of a century have given no indication that the composer ever heard the Overture performed in authentic accordance with the 1880 plan. It is reported that he asked permission to perform the piece as planned in Berlin, but was denied it. Performances he conducted on U.S. and European tours were apparently done with simulated or at best inexact shots, if with shots at all, a custom universal until recent years.
Antal Doráti and Erich Kunzel are the first conductors to have encouraged exact fidelity of the shots to the written score in live performances, beginning in New York and Connecticut as part of Dorati's recording, and Kunzel in Cincinnati in 1967 with assistance from J. Paul Barnett, of South Bend, Indiana. Of recorded versions of these performances, Dorati's recording for Mercury Records is the more faithful performance. Dorati uses an actual carillon called for in the score and the bells are rung about as close to a zvon then known. The art of zvon ringing was almost lost due to the Russian Revolution, when many of the bells were destroyed. The Dorati recording also uses actual period French cannon from the 1812 period, which belonged to the United States Military Academy at West Point.
The earliest traceable orchestral recording, by the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra conducted by Landon Ronald, was issued by HMV on three 12-inch 78rpm sides in 1916. It includes bells but no cannon effects.
A Royal Opera Orchestra recording of about the same time contains no shots at all.
DECCA, Sir Robert Sharples and the London Festival Orchestra: First recorded in 1963, later remastered in quadrophony by Decca, Sir Robert Sharples at the baton and the London Festival Band left the world another landmark recording with "pomp and circumstance" of roaring cannons in sensorround echoing as thunder in the distance and mighty church bells gloriously jubilating the 1812 victory.
Later recordings have been done by similar means. The Black Dyke Mills Brass Band has also recorded a brass band arrangement of the piece. This recording includes the cannon shots as originally written. In 1990, during a worldwide celebration of the 150th anniversary of Tchaikovsky's birth, the Overture was recorded in the city of his youth by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic using 16 muzzleloading cannons fired live as written in the 1880 score. That recording was done within earshot of the composer's grave. The festival was televised for the first time in USA on March 9 1991.
In 1990 a version was recorded for the children's home video and audio line Kidsongs. It appears on Kidsongs: Ride the Roller Coaster.