The 100 Works of Art series of blog posts is a primarily positive slew of posts blethering in a hopefully intelligent manner about works of art which have some sort of personal resonance for me; 25 posts about visual art begin with Black Virtue by Matta, and the ongoing section on audio art opens with The Cure’s Let’s Go To Bed.
32. 1812, Tchaikovsky
Unlike most of the music included on this list, I have no memory of the first time I was introduced to this. It would be impossible to separate out a moment when I first became aware because Western culture is fairly heavily steeped in this piece of music. It has soundtracked endless films and adverts for Iceland, accompanied a thousand fireworks displays, and probably nauseates real connoisseurs of various periods of classical music with its inappropriate ubiquity. Certainly the relentless inevitability with which it is spooled out to provide a false sense of celebration can leave a sour taste in the mouth.
But it doesn’t have to be a degraded version, or a sad attempt at emotional manipulation through invoking the associated sense of victory and achievement. Listened to outside of the context of Bonfire Night, bad films, and the inexplicably popular frozen food giant’s old ads (what is a prawn ring and more importantly why is a prawn ring?), I think the overture retains its original fire.
There is also something to be said for any piece of music which, rather than relying on an excellent performance by an above-average individual (thank you Mozart for whatever the harpsichord equivalent of fretwanking is), decides to go balls out and hit you with cannons.
Written by Tchaikovsky (not that one, the other one) in 1880 to commemorate the victory of Russia against the invasion by Napoleon’s troops (no mean feat considering how much of the rest of Europe the mad little Corsican had successfully vanquished), the 1812 Overture or Overture of 1812 or whatever you like to call it is rightfully celebratory, victorious, triumphal, and full of fucking cannons. It evokes the spirit of relief and strength, and if there is one thing Russian composers love, it’s evoking strength: those two emotions, connected irrecoverably to the successful defence of the frozen motherland, are easily hijacked into daily victories:
Play it when you’re approaching the final word count of your essay; play it when you’re getting to the top of a hill on a long run; play it when, against all the odds, you have successfully tidied your hell-hole bedroom and found no dead animals under the mounds of mouldering clothing.
It is of course for this transferable quality of victorious joy that the overture has been so repeatedly press-ganged into services which are beneath the composition’s true potential and inadequate at securing an emotional response on their own, by a lot of very very lazy musical directors, or productions with a tiny PRS budget. I believe that music should be a personal experience; that is what this entire series of posts is about, and even when enjoyed communally and enhance through the communal experience, what is important is the connection between the individual mind and the music, and the emotion created in the space between them.
Therefore I think it is only reasonable to expect to be able to reclaim the 1812 Overture, and play it whenever you need the appropriate sense of military salute accompanying your achievement. The people at the bus stop may not appreciate that you’ve just jogged half a mile, but Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky does. Or he would if he wasn’t dead. And since he’s dead he can’t argue.