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Officially titled The Year 1812 Festival Overture in E-flat major, Op. 49, the 1812 Overture was composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in 1880. Tsar Aleksander I had commissioned a church to be built commemorating Russia’s victory over Napoleon in 1812, and the church was nearing completion. Big festivities were planned, but derailed when Tsar Aleksander II was assassinated in March 1882. (The piece was eventually performed, but indoors with a conventional orchestra.)

Written for outdoor performance with pealing bells and live cannon fire, the Overture is a musical war between la Marseillaise (representing Napoleon’s French army) and God Save the Tsar (representing the Russian Empire). The French national anthem is strong in the beginning, but is beaten back as the piece moves, drown out by the cathedral bells, cannon, and the Russian national anthem. (Interestingly enough, neither anthem was in use at the time of the actual battle.)

Have a listen and see if you can pick them out:

Here’s the entire Overture for the musically adventurous among you:

Here in the US, we use the 1812 Overture to celebrate our own Independence Day, which seems strange given the original purpose of the music. This article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette posits a theory as to why.

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