1812 Overture Solennelle, Opus 49
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born May 7, 1840, in Votkinsk, Russia
Died November 6, 1893, in St. Petersburg, Russia
This work was first performed on August 20, 1882, at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, Russia, conducted by Ippolit Al’tani. It is scored for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, two cornets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, and strings. Brass band, bells, and cannons are often added in the finale.
In the year 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia. His 680,000 troops moved through Western Russia, but opposing Cossack troops retreated before the enemy, not out of cowardice or defeat, but to burn all crops and villages in the French path. The invaders were denied food and shelter and winter was rapidly approaching. When the French army caught up to the Russians at Borodino, Napoleon hoped for a decisive victory, but the result was little more than a draw. Although the Russians lost about 45,000 men, including twenty-three generals and 211 officers, the French lost 35,000, including forty-seven generals and 480 officers. French leadership was decimated, but they managed to enter Moscow. In one of the most creative strategies of all time, Moscow was abandoned when the French entered, populated only by peasants and thousands of prisoners who had been released from the jails and looted many businesses. The French troops were flabbergasted. After a short time, they started the long march back to France, but most reports indicate that only about 22,000 of them returned home. The remaining troops either died in battle, from starvation, or were taken prisoner by the Russians.
In preparation for the seventieth anniversary of the Russian victory, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior was being constructed in Moscow. Nicolai Rubinstein suggested that Tchaikovsky compose a large work to commemorate the event. The idea was that the piece would be played outside the cathedral, along with cannons, all of Moscow’s church bells, and a brass band. Although the cathedral took longer to build than expected, one major event preempted the premiere—Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. Finally, in 1882, the work was finally premiered.
Tchaikovsky held great disdain for this work—undoubtedly his most famous work for modern audiences. He claimed that it was loud, but lacked artistic merit. However, he conducted the overture on the opening concert of New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1891.
The 1812 Overture is a streamlined narrative of the battle and is perhaps the perfect illustration of program music. It opens with a hymn of the Russian people, “Oh Lord, Save Thy People,” as heard in the strings (and sometimes sung by a choir in certain performances). After a poignant theme in the woodwinds, violins, and low brass, the familiar Russian fanfare occurs. Allegro skirmishes are heard as troops take positions and, finally, the French theme, “La Marseillaise,” is heard in the brass. After a brief reprise of the second theme, a folk song entitled “At the Gate, at Grandfather’s Gate,” emerges in the woodwinds. Tchaikovsky’s brilliant development section follows with all of the previous themes thrown into the mix. At first the French theme gains hold, but the cannons make the outcome uncertain until the Russian hymn tune returns. The lively Russian military melody is finally given a grand victorious statement by the full orchestra, along with a broad and majestic statement of the Romanov anthem, “God Save the Czar.”
©2015 Orpheus Music Prose & Craig Doolin
Song of the Poets
Born 1976 in Oxford, England
This work dates from 2014. It is scored for chorus and orchestra.
Composer Abigail Richardson-Schulte was born in Oxford, England, and moved to Canada as a child. Ironically, she was diagnosed incurably deaf at 5. Upon moving to Calgary, however, her hearing was fully intact within months. Her music has been commissioned and performed by major orchestras, presenters, music festivals and broadcasters including the Festival Présences of Paris.
Abigail won first at the prestigious UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers and had broadcasts in 35 countries. She won the Karen Kieser Prize (CBC) and the Dora Mavor Moore Award for “Best New Opera”. Abigail has been Affiliate Composer with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and now programs performances for their New Creations Festival. She wrote the wildly successful music for the classic Canadian story, “The Hockey Sweater” by Roch Carrier. It was the country’s first triple co-commission, by the TSO, National Arts Centre Orchestra, and the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. Within three seasons her piece has been performed by nearly every professional orchestra across the country, and has been experienced by more than sixty thousand audience members, often with Abigail hosting from the stage.
Current projects include a complete family concert commissioned by the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra based around Dennis Lee’s Alligator Pie.
Abigail is currently Composer in Residence with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, serves as Artistic Director of the HPO’s What Next Festival, hosts community events, and teaches composition for U. of T.
Richardson-Schulte provided the following notes for her Song of the Poets, a commemorative work commissioned by the National Arts Centre (Pinchas Zukerman, Music Director), The World Remembers, the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra (Arthur Post, Music Director), and the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra (Roberto Minczuk, Music Director) in honour of the Centennial of the Great War:
“Song of the Poets is a work for choir and orchestra (or piano reduction). The work uses excerpts from five poems written by poet soldiers of WWI. These five poets come from four different countries on both sides of the war. Their words are sung in the native languages of English, French, and German (music also available in English or French only). They all write of loss and regret, as would be expected, but each poetically portray this with their own imagery using the sun, sea, poppies, fields, stones, etc.
The piece is introduced like a ringing church bell with an excerpt from In Flanders Fields by Canadian John McCrae. The women sing much like a tolling bell: ‘In Flanders fields, the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row,’ while the men hauntingly chant ‘we are the dead, short days ago we lived’ etc. We move directly into an excerpt from ‘Futility’ by English poet Wilfred Owen who suggests how to wake a fallen comrade: ‘Move him into the sun. Gently it’s touch awoke him once.’
The soldiers that did survive the war often wished they hadn’t. French writer Louis Aragon shows freedom only by escaping to the sea with its welcoming beautiful, glittering diamonds: ‘They dance, they sing, they open up their arms to him who weeps.’ For many, surviving the war was a sentence in itself and the Aragon poem shows freedom through suicide. In fact, it is the only positive ‘major’ music in the entire piece because it is the only text that shows a way out.
German poet Gerrit Engelke puts the sides of the war in perspective with a German soldier in conversation with a soldier on the other side. ‘And while you love your wife, I have and love one too’ and ‘At leveled Ypern, did you die? So did you and so did I.’ This text made sides of the war seem irrelevant. Every person suffered just as every country suffered.
French poet Luc Durtain wrote about being remembered as no more than ‘your’ death. He told of stones wondering where your name would be inscribed, your favorite things soon forgotten and ‘so soon, your death is all that’s left of you.’ This poem is sung to the same music as the earlier French poem by Aragon. The piece ends by recalling the Owen and McCrae, bringing the piece full circle to the beginning again.
These are not graphic poems of fighting or propaganda to gain support for the war effort. Each of these poems looks at the outcome of war with the perspective of poets able to see beyond their own circumstances. The music is simple and narrative in order to best impart the text. Each section has it’s own distinct themes however there are similarities that link each section together to form a unified piece despite the language and perspective differences. We seamlessly follow their stories through place and time.”
Biography, notes, and translations provided by the composer
Overture to Egmont, Op. 84
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born December 16, 1770, in Bonn, Germany
Died March 26, 1827, in Vienna, Austria
This work was first performed on June 15, 1810, at the Hoftheater in Vienna with Beethoven conducting. It is scored for woodwinds in pairs with added piccolo, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings.
Despite the common belief that Ludwig van Beethoven was a leading proponent of the Classical idiom of balance and symmetry, quite early in his career his music began to display the full-fledged Romantic tumult and storminess that would spark the creativity of more than a century of composers. Beethoven’s style of orchestration, with its use of string tremolos, shocking dynamic contrasts, and solo lines for wind instruments, displays the revolutionary spark he gained, as a teenager, from hearing music of French political refugees passing through his hometown of Bonn. Nowhere is this more evident than in his music for the stage.
Beethoven’s overtures were mostly for use in theatrical productions, with four of them – Fidelio and Leonore No. 1-3 – composed at various times for different productions of his opera Fidelio. Most of the other overtures were from stage plays – Coriolanus, Ruins of Athens, and Egmont. These miniature masterpieces are filled with intense drama in their brief duration of ten to fifteen minutes. Nearly all of this music was associated with a single performance of its associated play.
Beethoven’s incidental music to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play Egmont dates from the winter and spring of 1809-10 for a production of the play on May 24. The most popular of the several pieces in the score, the overture, was written in June – too late for its intended performance.
Egmont is set in sixteenth-century Holland and deals with Spain’s annexation of that country. The Spanish Duke of Alba has imprisoned the Dutch hero, Egmont, and plans to kill him to prevent the independence of Holland. As Egmont marches off to his execution, he remembers a dream in which his love, Clärchen, appeared to him revealing that his death would be the catalyst of Dutch rebellion and freedom. This nationalist triumph through personal defeat strangely foreshadows the Wagnerian ideal of redemption through personal sacrifice. In this scene, Goethe calls for a “symphony of victory.”
In the overture, Beethoven summarizes the entire action of the play in microcosm, from its measured and heavy minor-key introduction representing the malevolent Duke, through the tumultuous and churning Allegro of the exposition showing Egmont’s tribulations, to the triumphant and victorious ending.
©2013 Orpheus Music Prose & Craig Doolin