Monday, June 4, 2007

The Wonderful 1812 Overture

It wouldn’t be a proper summer concert if it didn’t end with the 1812 overture. The reasons for this are not immediately obvious, but pretty interesting nonetheless. To be honest, I don’t really know why the 1812 has become such a staple, and I am making these reasons up as I go along, which I generally find to be the best policy if you want to be convincing about what you say. There are some obvious things about the piece though, that I merely observe rather than invent.

1 The score itself calls for canons to be fired near the end of the piece, and canons are, in a sense, fireworks; they use enclosed fire to work, and they make a loud bang. So it isn’t much of a stretch to add brightly colored fireworks leaping into the sky as a sort of elaboration of the canons firing. This has the advantage that it makes letting off fireworks during a piece of classical music respectable. It can be justified to the most snobby of purists, letting us all have a terrific time whilst also being scholastically correct, (which matters to some people.) I suppose there are other pieces of music by great composers that call for fireworks, but I can’t think of any at the moment, and lesser composers have usually done it because they are imitating Tchaikowsky. We’d rather have the real thing. In my last post I wrote about the value of wonderful concert halls. Well, one thing you can’t do in a concert hall is let off fireworks. Tends to burn the hall down. So the possibility of using fireworks is an immediate advantage of outdoor summer concerts, not to be lightly passed up.

2 It was written by Tchaikowsky, who was a top-notch composer in several ways. First and foremost, he was one of the most talented inventors of melody there has ever been. That seems to have been a Russian skill, since Borodin and Rachmaninov immediately come to mind as other composers in the same class. It’s always fun to argue about who was “the greatest” composer, poet, third bass, politician, poker player, physicist; though it doesn’t really matter, and can rarely be decided in a meaningful way. Nonetheless, Tchaikowsky is not usually the winner in competition with the likes of Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, etc. But can you think of a melody by Beethoven that is as catchy and wonderful as the great theme from “Romeo and Juliet” or the big tune in the middle of the Pathétique Symphony? Some might venture the theme from Beethoven’s 9th symphony, but I would timidly counter that although that is dramatically effective, (I am not foolish enough to be rude about Beethoven) it is deliberately corny. It was important to Beethoven’s agenda that the melody he finally unfurls as the apotheosis of a long symphony about discontent be instantly memorable, and so he made it very repetitive. I’m not knocking it, but there is a voluptuousness and unpredictable wonder to a great Tchaikowsky melody that is wholly different matter. Tchaikowsky tends to get looked down on a bit, probably because his melodies are so seductive, and because that fact in turn causes his music to get overplayed. But be ye not deceived! He was a composer of huge talent, and of tremendous technical sophistication. A master of his craft. Even this weird overture has a wonderful sweeping melody in it, as well as the perfectly judged bluster and boomerama.

3 Nobody cares what music is “about” anyway. When you read program notes for a concert, you generally read about what the composer had in mind when he wrote the piece, whether he was contemplating suicide at the time, (that’s always a good selling point) how terrible the first reviews were, who he had just been unfaithful with, what he ate for breakfast the previous Thursday: all that sort of thing. And the reason for this is that when you write about music, you have to write about things that can be written about. It’s all determined by the limitations of language. The written word is very good at telling you who was the first performer and what disease they died of, but words are terrible for describing what an actual bit of music feels like when you hear it. That cannot be described in words, any more than can a particularly unpleasant shade of pink. So, as I say, people write about, and talk about, things that language can refer to. Things like Napoleon and Russia and battles in 1812 are just great to write about. There are even, in this piece, musical references of a linguistic sort, such as the famous Russian and French tunes. But does this really make the music unambiguously about Russia and France? Is music about anything? Certainly, when we hear music, we judge it by what it does to us at the time – what moods and emotions it causes to well up in our hearts. So if those feelings are appropriate to joy and merriment in America on a summer evening in the early 21st century, who is Tchaikowsky or a random musicologist to tell us otherwise?

4 Familiarity is a source of wisdom and knowledge. That might sound like an odd claim, since it’s the norm to complain about things that are overly familiar. “Oh no! Not the New World Symphony again!!!” Well, there is a reason these familiar pieces get played a lot; they are very good. And there is a reason why people like to hear pieces that they know. Put in simple terms of neurology and brain science (!!!); when you hear or see something you know very well, you perceive it and all its details much more quickly and completely than is the case with something unfamiliar. If you hear someone recite a well-known rhyme and get a bit wrong, you will notice instantly. If it’s something you hardly know, the errors will get by you. You notice a lot more walking around a town you know well that one you are unfamiliar with. So: although it is true that you can get bored with anything if it is done to death, the fact is that when you hear a piece of music that is familiar to you, you hear a lot more of it. You actually perceive more, and can pay attention longer, and so generally get a bigger, more comprehensive musical experience. We all tend to sneer at the very familiar, but audiences prefer to hear what they know. The problem for us musicians is that they don’t know enough! Musicians will tell you they like to play different things. True, but even they don’t give concerts of pieces that they are unfamiliar with. They will have just spent a week rehearsing it, getting very familiar with it, before they play it for you!

So there you are – the 1812. A fantastic piece, completely appropriate in feeling for summer in America – familiar enough for you to grasp it all – with a fantastic melody such as you will hear nowhere else – and, even more, with fireworks.
Beat that, Busoni!

Andrew Massey - conductor
you can find details of the concerts with this link.