Backyard barbecues, beach parties, fireworks, and concerts featuring the 1812 Overture – all traditional parts of the holiday celebrating the independence of our nation. What’s wrong with this picture? Why, the 1812 Overture, of course.
This marquee finale by Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, and many of us look forward to its annual performance. It has Russian Orthodox music, Russian folk tunes, cannons, church bells and, as our spirits go higher, fireworks.
But let’s face it. It was composed by Tchaikovsky to commemorate the success of Russia against Napoleon. Isn’t it time to commission a piece of distinctly American sounds for arguably America’s most important holiday? Think about a concert grand finale that honors American folk tunes, ballads, Negro spirituals and jazz. Think about homages to the likes of Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Arlo Guthrie, John Philip Sousa, Julia Ward Howe and John Williams. The piece should have plenty of brass and fanfare, including the popular cannons and bells, and other audio pyrotechnics, all leading to a spectacular fireworks display.
More than a decade ago, my husband tried to interest composer and Boston Symphony Laureate Conductor John Williams, celebrated for some of the most memorable music in decades of American films, to take on such a project. Williams demurred, saying the 1812 was too baked into 4th July celebrations to replace. My husband responded that concerts, if programmers wanted, could still include the shortened version of the 1812 overture as a penultimate piece, but that the grand finale should be a new Independence Day anthem. Williams and others he approached were unmoved.
I, too, doubted the value of flouting such a popular tradition. But, in this year of reassessment, in which we once again will not have a live July Fourth concert on the Esplanade, I’ve softened my opposition. Aside from the fact that the 1812 overture has nothing to do with American history, six years of disclosures of Russian efforts to disrupt the foundations of our democracy make our national celebration’s use of a Russian composer’s ahistorical paean to the Russian “victory” at Borodino seem ironic if not obscene. We love Tchaikovsky’s music and the full version of the 1812 Festival Overture (even if Tchaikovsky reportedly said it was “loud and noisy and without artistic merit.” ), and don’t want to cancel it from orchestral programs. Just not on July 4th .
In my past life as WCVB-TV Editorial Director, I regularly editorialized about how contradictory it is that our national anthem, the unsingable Star-Spangled Banner is set to the tune of Anacreon in Heaven, an old English drinking song. And “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” borrows from the British national anthem, “God Save the Queen.” Far better to use “America the Beautiful” by Katherine Lee Bates or even Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Changing those will never happen, but let’s rethink the 1812 Overture as a signature of our Independence Day annual celebration.
It’s our understanding that far from having any august patriotic patrimony, the inclusion of the 1812 Overture was simply a 1974 marketing strategy by two pyrotechnic-fascinated “sparkies,” philanthropist and television executive David Mugar and BSO Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler, to revive flagging audience interest in the annual Esplanade event. They certainly succeeded, and Mugar’s generous financial support of the annual fireworks concert became an enormous tourist attraction, bringing significant revenues to the city. Some worry that, over the years, the fireworks with canned music came to dominate the live performance. I am not necessarily among those critics.
While the BSO, our first choice, has not been receptive to the idea, another orchestra could extend its international brand by commissioning, performing and promoting an original American-centric Fourth of July piece that could, over time, possibly rise to the level of a competing national anthem. Somewhere in this great land there must be the perfect composer to embrace our own historical themes and celebrate our people, their struggles, victories, independence, resilience, diversity, cherished freedoms, civil liberties and bedrock democratic republic and build to a fireworks/ sound and light show worthy of John Adams’s vision that Independence Day 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.”
Clearly this is something that could, in a deeply divided America, attract bipartisan support.