The Year 1812
Festival overture, Op. 49 (1880).
Composed and orchestrated during the period from late September/early October to mid/late November 1880 at Kamenka, for an Arts and Industry Exhibition which should have taken place in Moscow in 1881.
On 20 May/1 June 1880, Pyotr Jurgenson informed Tchaikovsky that Nikolay Rubinstein had been appointed head of the music section of the 1881 Arts and Industry Exhibition, and that he had asked Tchaikovsky to write a composition for this occasion on one of the following themes: an overture to open the exhibition; an overture for the silver jubilee of Alexander II; or, a cantata for the opening of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour .
In his letter of reply of 23 June/5 July , Tchaikovsky asked Pyotr Jurgenson how long and in what form the new work should be, and in a letter of 3/15 July to the same correspondent he wrote that he had the "utmost loathing" for such commissions. "It is impossible to set about without repugnance such music which is destined for the glorification of something that, in essence, delights me not at all", he wrote. "Neither in the jubilee of the high-ranking person (who has always been fairly antipathetic to me), nor in the Cathedral, which again I don't like at all, is there anything that could stir my inspiration" .
In letters of 24 August/5 September and 13/25 September, the composer asked Pyotr Jurgenson for exact details of the character and of the length of the commissioned work . Evidently, the original idea was for an orchestral work with chorus, and in a letter of 1/13 September 1880 he wrote to Jurgenson to send him S. I. Ponomareva’s collection Moscow in Native Poetry. "I need this book very much, because I hope to find in it some themes for my exhibition music, which I shall shortly be putting together" .
On 18/30 September, Nikolay Rubinstein himself sent Tchaikovsky a personal request for him to write a piece in any form, between 15 and 25 minutes in duration, to be submitted between 1/13 December 1880 and 15/27 January 1881 . In a letter to Nadezhda von Meck of 28 September/10 October 1880, Tchaikovsky wrote: "There is nothing more antipathetic to me than composing for the sake of some festivities or other. Just imagine, my dear friend! What, for instance, might one write on the occasion of the opening of an exhibition, besides banalities and generally noisy passages? However, I do not have it in my heart to refuse such a request, and so I keep accepting these unsympathetic tasks regardless" .
On 6/18 October the composer told Anatoly Tchaikovsky  that he had finished the overture for the exhibition, and on 10/22 October he wrote to Nadezhda von Meck: "The muse has been kind to me recently... so that with good speed I have written two things, namely: 1) a grand festival overture for the exhibition, at the request of Nikolay Grigoryevich, and 2) a Serenade for string orchestra, in four movements. Both of these I am now orchestrating little by little. The Overture will be very loud and noisy—but I wrote it without any warm and loving feelings, and consequently it will probably be lacking in artistic merit" . In 1882 the composer wrote to Pyotr Jurgenson: "I’m undecided as to whether my overture ("The Year 1812") is good or bad, but it is probably (without any false modesty) the latter" .
On 27 October/8 November 1880, Tchaikovsky, in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck, complaining of acute headaches and finding it impossible to work, wrote: "All at once I am finding that minor problems are very burdensome and worrying to me, since I have barely begun the instrumentation of the overture for the exhibition" .
The full score was completed on 7/19 November 1880 (according to the date on the manuscript).
The exhibition of 1881 did not take place, and its opening was postponed until 1882.
In Tchaikovsky's correspondence for 1881, there is only one reference to the overture—in a letter to Eduard Nápravník of 17/29 June, in which he asked Nápravník to perform the overture in one of the concerts of the Saint Petersburg branch of the Russian Musical Society .
Eduard Nápravník replied that he considered it necessary to wait until the overture had been performed at the exhibition before including it in the concert programme of the Russian Musical Society .
In the second half of 1881, Tchaikovsky sent the full score of the overture to Pyotr Jurgenson for engraving, and made his own arrangements of it for piano duet and solo piano. In Tchaikovsky’s letter to Jurgenson of 18/30 January 1882, the composer said he was returning the first proofs of the overture, which had been in his possession for more than three months . On 1/13 March the second set was dispatched .
The composer wrote to Nadezhda von Meck on 16/28 April 1882 about the third set of proofs: "I am correcting the overture myself in all its three forms at once (full score and arrangements for piano 4 and 2 hands)", and in the same letter, on 20 April/2 May, reported: "With luck my work will soon be reaching its end and tomorrow I might be able to leave for Kamenka" . This last statement proved to be correct, and the third set of proof corrections of the overture were dated 20 April/2 May 1882.
The overture had still to be printed for the opening of the exhibition. The full score, orchestral parts and both arrangements for piano (for two and four hands) were published by Pyotr Jurgenson in May 1882.
The first performance of the overture took place on 8/20 August the same year at the sixth symphony concert, in a programme consisting entirely of works by Tchaikovsky, in the hall of the All-Russian Arts and Industrial Exhibition in Moscow, conducted by Ippolit Altani. In Saint Petersburg the overture was performed for the first time on 26 March/7 April 1883 at the tenth symphony concert, conducted by Anton Rubinstein.
The festival overture The Year 1812 was greeted with wide public acclaim, and was performed frequently, and invariably with success, under the author’s baton both in Russia and abroad.
The overture uses the theme of the prayer for victory in battle "God, preserve thy people" [«Спаси, господи, люди твоя»]. The theme of the overture’s second subject was taken over from the end of Act II of the opera The Voyevoda . In the overture, Tchaikovsky also employed the theme of the French national anthem La Marseilleise, as well as the Russian state anthem... and the Russian folk song "By the gates" [«У ворот, ворот батюшкиных»].
Музыкальное наследие Чайковского (1958), pp. 295–297
This page was last updated on 16 February 2013