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The History Book On The Shelf Is Always Repeating Itself

Posted by Geoff Edgers  July 4, 2007 11:04 AM

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Matthew Guerrieri writes about classical music for the Globe, and is also responsible for the blog Soho the Dog.

With 4th of July this week, it's hard to avoid Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. Effort may also be required to avoid some comment about the incongruity of a piece about a French-Russian military engagement figuring so prominently in civic celebrations of American independence. Oddly enough, and probably inadvertently, it's more appropriate than you think, particularly here in Boston.

The 1812 Overture commemorates the Battle of Borodino, when Napoleon's army attacked Russian forces under the command of General Mikhail Golenishchev-Kutuzov in what turned into perhaps the bloodiest single-day battle in modern history-casualty estimates range from 65,000 to 120,000. (Here's a virtual survey of the battle, complete with relevant passages from Tolstoy's War and Peace.) Though nominally a French victory, some weeks later, the Pyrrhic results forced one of the most notorious retreats of all time, with the Grande Armée limping out of the Russian winter reduced to something like one-tenth of its original strength.

This was music to the ears of New Englanders, who opposed the other War of 1812, between the United States and Britain, with hardcore fury. Majority "War Hawk" Republicans, led by President James Madison, had initiated the conflict, incensed over involuntary impressments of American sailors into the Royal Navy (necessitated by Britain's long-running war with Napoleon), and the British blockade of commercial shipments to France, which was impoverishing Southern trade. But Yankee Federalists saw "Mr. Madison's War" as a threat to their own economic interests, and their marginalized minority status in Washington drove them to extreme anti-war measures: secession was seriously discussed, and Massachusetts governor Caleb Strong would even attempt to initiate his own secret peace talks with Britain.

Any French setback was a British boost, and thus welcome news in New England—in March of 1813, for example, there were services at Boston's King's Chapel in celebration of the French retreat, followed by the typical 19th-century oration and banquet. (Of course, Napoleon held on until 1814, which probably saved the United States—by the time Waterloo freed up the British military, American defenses, initially ill-prepared and incompetent, had improved such that the result was stalemate, not defeat.)

It's doubtful that any of this was in the mind of Arthur Fiedler when he programmed the 1812 Overture for the Boston Pops' Independence Day concert in 1974, which most people consider the origin of the modern tradition.(Andrew Druckenbrod of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette traced the history back in 2003.) With its sixteen notated cannon shots, the piece lent itself both to extravagant outdoor performance and fireworks (at least in the days before fireworks came with inane pre-recorded soundtracks). But as you listen to it this year, see if you can't hear an echo of the anti-war Federalist glee that greeted news of Napoleon's debacle, a tribute to the long tradition of Yankee contrarianism.

Incidentally, the war indirectly resulted in another unlikely collision of Russian culture and American patriotism. Among the American delegation that sailed for Europe on the USS John Adams in the waning days of the war to negotiate the Treaty of Ghent was one William David Lewis, who would stay to help his brother's import-export business in St. Petersburg. Lewis was tasked with learning German and Russian to facilitate business contacts-and as part of his studies in the latter, he produced a Russian version of "Yankee Doodle" in 1815:


(Reproduced from Norman E. Saul, "A Russian Yankee Doodle." Slavic Review, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Mar., 1974), p. 52.)

Lewis's literal translation, I think, makes as fine an American anthem as any:

There is such a ridiculous nation in the world where every one is happy, each lives as he takes it into his head, for they are all free.
Chorus. Yankee Doodle they all cry out, Oh! what a beautiful tune, it will do to dance by or advance by to the terrible battle.

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About Exhibitionist Geoff Edgers covers arts news for The Boston Globe..

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