dusk near Cuernavaca

dusk near Cuernavaca

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Russian for the Holiday Weekend

There is a long history of emnity between the United States and Russia, from the Bolshevik Revolution to the Cold War to the authoritarian rule of Vladimir Putin.  But when it comes to music, American concertgoers adore the Russian composers.

The Fourth of July weekend marks the opening of the season at Blossom Music Center, the summer home of the renowned Cleveland Orchestra.  I attended last night's opening concert which was devoted entirely to Russian music.

The Blossom Music Center was opened in 1968 and was renovated in 2002. It is surrounded by the Cuyahoga Valley National Park between Cleveland and Akron.
I sat in the pavilion but thousands come to picnic on the lawn.
Our orchestra, Cleveland's greatest cultural asset, is considered to be one of the finest musical ensembles, not just in the United States, but in the entire world.
The concert began with "Scheherazade", Rimski-Korsakov's exotic and sensuous symphonic suite inspired by the tales of "The Thousand and One Arabian Nights."  This has always been one of my favorite pieces of classical music.  I still remember hearing it for the first time on the radio when I was a teenager.  I was captivated by the music, and I wondered, "What is that?"   Later, it was one of the first classical albums that I bought.  Our orchestra gave a masterful performance, and after all these years I still find it captivating. 
After the intermission, the orchestra performed a piece that I had never heard before, "Suite No. 1 for Variety Orchestra" by Shostakovich.  This is a light, frothy piece that is completely unlike the composer's intense symphonies.  It was pleasant, but not really memorable.
The concert concluded with Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture".  (The name of the piece is actually "Festival Overture: The Year 1812".)  This is probably Tchaikovsky's most popular work.  Even those who know nothing about classical music would likely recognize its thunderous finale.  (Those of us who are of a certain age, remember it in the Quaker Oats commercials of the 1960s.  "Quaker Oats... they're shot from guns!") 

Ever since 1974 when the late Arthur Fiedler included the piece in a televised Boston Pops concert on the Fourth of July, the "1812 Overture" has become a staple of Independence Day concerts throughout the United States.  However, the work has absolutely nothing to do with the American Revolution... it doesn't even have anything to do with our War of 1812.  In fact it is a paean to Russian patriotism.

In 1880 Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write a piece commemorating Russia's victory over the invading army of Napoleon.  The first performance was to be held outdoors in a large Moscow square in front of the newly constructed Cathedral of Christ the Savior.  Tchaikovsky scored the piece to include the firing of canons and the peeling of church bells.  The composer never saw the work performed as he intended it.  It proved to be impossible to synchronize the canons with the music.  It was not until our era that modern technology enabled the canons to be coordinated with the music.

There is much more to the overture than its well-known finale.  The composer used many musical sources to represent the historic events.  The work begins with a somber Russian Orthodox hymn as the Russian people pray for deliverance from the invading French army.  Russian folk melodies represent the resistance of the people.  As Napoleon invades, the strains of "The Marseillaise" are heard.  (This is an anachronism, since "The Marseillaise" was not France's national anthem in the time of Napoleon.)  The two nations battle musically as the Russian anthem "God Save the Tsar" is introduced.  A long, descending string line represents the disastrous French retreat from Moscow, and then there is the grand finale celebrating Russia's victory.  And, yes, last night's performance at Blossom included canon fire from outside the pavilion and a very realistic simulation of church bells by the percussion section.

It is ironic that although the "1812 Overture" is Tchaikovsky's most famous work, the composer hated the piece.  Tchaikovsky wrote, "It is very loud and noisy, and completely without artistic merit."  Nevertheless, it became an instant hit... stirring the patriotism of Russian audiences, and becoming an integral part of American Independence Day celebrations.

After the concert there was an impressive fireworks display.

Happy Fourth of July!



  1. Thanks for sharing your musical evening! Sounds like a lovely way to spend time out of doors and in a patriotic way at that!

    Happy Fourth to you as well. It is a quiet time in San Miguel........BUT I do have surprises for the coffee klatch group tomorrow! Stay tuned.

  2. Thank you for the music history lesson!

    1. You're welcome, Meredith!
      Do you like classical music?

  3. I do! (It's probably because of all my years playing flute. So, obviously, I especially enjoy pieces that feature that instrument.)

    1. That's when I developed an interest in classical music too... during my years of playing in the school band.