This is where the journey starts: my old school. It is here that I first heard the name of Pyotr Tchaikovsky. I was 12, and Pjotr has become my all time favourite composer since then. Like so many other boys of that age, I was interested in bikes, girls, soccer, Formula-1 pilots etc. NOT in classical music. But our music teacher found a way to get his message through. He counted on our rising level of testosterone and our interest in all things related to war.
To stimulate our interest, he had picked Tchaikovsky’s “Ouverture Solennelle 1812” Op. 49, composed in 1880 by Tchaikovsky within a week and without any enthusiasm as a favour to his friend Nikolai Rubinstein. “Too loud, no room for subtleties” the composer characterized his own piece in a letter to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck. Nothing that would reflect his immense talent. But Pjotr was always short of cash, and it was one of those jobs that just had to be done.
I liked the piece at once. “It starts with a prayer”, said the teacher. In 1812, Russia is at war with Napoleon, whose troops are advancing on Moscow. Russian women pray as their sons and husbands will be sent into harm’s way. Then the troops meet on the battlefield. The Russians march on a tune inspired by a Russian folk song, the French on a melody derived from the French anthem “La Marseillaise”. And bam! The troops close combat is reflected by a musical inferno. It’s really loud. Then the music becomes very soft, very gentle again. Temporary truce. The wounded are being carried away, the troops regroup on both sides, get some rest, but the battle hasn’t been decisive. It’s not yet over. The troops march again and bam! The inferno develops, but gradually the “Marseillaise” tune fades while the Russian theme takes over. The Russians win the second battle. Joy all over the country, a triumph march sets in, church bells ring and cannons fire a salute. Wow!
Why was that so fascinating for me at the age of 12? Well, my classmates and I re-enacted the battle on our desks with pencils, erasers and the like. We draw a line through the middle of the desk and parallel to the music our simulated troops moved forward, clashed, retreated, clashed again. That was fun! And it opened the door to other pieces of classical music.
Now, if you want to recreate that experience, here’s a link to Youtube: https://youtu.be/VbxgYlcNxE8
The recording that I prefer is the one made in 1982 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under conducter Daniel Barenboim (Deutsche Grammophon).
© Charles Thibo