Tchaikovsky wrote the 1812 Overture in 1880 for use in a dedication service for the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow commemorating the 1812 Battle of Borodino and the retreat of the French army from Moscow. The Battle of Borodino took place on September 7th, 1812. Casualties were high and neither side came out a clear victor. Shortly after the battle the French moved in to occupy Moscow. Unfortunately for them, the Russians had burnt it to the ground before abandoning it. The French found themselves with no supplies and no shelter against the coming winter and were forced to retreat, fighting the Russians and the relentless cold weather all the way back to Poland.
This is a wonderful piece to spend some time with. A little background information and an understanding of the themes goes a long way, because each theme is used significantly to great effect. It starts with a gentle theme taken from a Russian church chant played softly in the strings and then shared with the woodwinds. It crescendos and a new theme is suddenly introduced. The new theme builds, singing of coming trouble and conflict before falling away to the French national anthem The Marseillaise (which was actually banned during Napoleon’s reign). Following The Marseillaise is a Russian folk song signifying the strengthening of the people’s national identity during the conflict. Winter sets in. The French retreat to the booming sound of the cannon shots that help make this piece so distinctive. A triumphant and thankful church chant is heard with the ringing of bells followed by the Russian National Anthem played victoriously accompanied by more cannon shots and horn fanfares. For a really great breakdown of the themes with musical examples of each, check out this website.
I own two versions of this piece. The first is Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This version cuts out a section in the middle as do the recordings in the website above. The second version is the full version performed by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. The Bernstein recording is by far superior. Apart from being abridged, the Reiner recording is sans cannons. They do a good job of compensating, but it’s just not the same without those cannons.