The Kennedy Center

1812 Overture, Op. 49

About the Work

Painting of Tchaikovsky Composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
© Richard Freed

This brief work, composed for the celebration of the 37th anniversary of the 1917 Revolution, was given its first performance on November 6, 1954, by the Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theater, Moscow, under the direction of Alexander Melik-Pashayev. The National Symphony Orchestra's first performances of it were conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich the concerts of September 25 and 26, 1976, which marked the 70th anniversary of the composer's birth; the most recent one was conducted by John Clanton at the Carter Barron Amphitheater last July 16.

The score calls for 2 flutes and piccolo, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum,cymbals, triangle, and strings, with an option for an additional brass ensemble of 4 horns,3 trumpets and 3 trombones. Duration, 6 minutes.

The death of Joseph Stalin on March 5, 1953, was followed by a pronounced relaxation of the harsh restraints that had affected the work of composers, playwrights, poets and other creative artists in the Soviet Union following the denunciation of numerous prominent figures by Stalin's cultural spokesman Andrei Zhdanov in February 1948. The names of Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev led this list of composers Zhdanov vilified for the sin of "formalism," and although Zhdanov himself died before that year was out, the climate of fear and repression was felt with particular severity until the death of Stalin. The lifting of that pall came too late for Prokofiev, who died on the same day as Stalin, but Shostakovich, who was at that time 47 years old, was able to take out the numerous scores he had "put in the drawer" during the difficult five years and bring them to completion and performance. Among these were the two splendid works heard in last week's concerts under Mr. Rostropovich: the Violin Concerto No. 1 and the Tenth Symphony. At about the time of the Symphony's premiere, in December 1953, Shostkovich was called upon to provide a brief orchestral piece to be performed the following year in observance of the 37th anniversary of the October Revolution. The Festive Overture he provided for that occasion has survived its original function to take its place in the international repertory.

Although the music opens with the grandest of ceremonial fanfares, there are no solemn heroics in the piece. It is simply a vivacious and thoroughly Russian celebratory gesture, in the bright key of A major, whose ancestry may be traced back through the Overture to Dmitri Kabalevsky's opera Colas Breugnon to the more extended Russian Overture of Prokofiev and the much earlier Overture to Glinka's Russlan and Ludmilla. The exultant mood is exhibited in passages alternately grandiose, lyrical and playful, with the pomposity of the opening gesture effectively submerged under waves of high spirits whenever it recurs.