The 4th w/out the Overture

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Napoleon watches Moscow burning in 1812. (Painting by Adam Albrecht, 1840)

I am still suffering from Tchaikovsky’s Retreat from Providence.

Last year the Rhode Island Philharmonic gave a bravura performance of “The 1812 Overture” for the city’s Fourth of July celebration at India Point Park. Not this year. I have no idea who is to blame – Mayor Elorza or the orchestra? Was there an inability to come to terms? Or was it somehow determined, at City Hall, that the Overture would be too old hat? Tradition has worked well in Bristol. Is it to be ditched in Providence?

Here is a full choral version of the Overture played by the Leningrad Military Orchestra, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir, Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting. The YouTube video does not provide the date of the performance, but it is unlikely to have been on our Independence Day, not if the recording was made in St. Petersburg. Anyhow, what does the piece even have to do with our Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776? The War of 1812 might be found among the rationale, but that was a sideshow during the Napoleonic Wars between France and a major but shifting coalition of allies alternately led by Britain and czarist Russia. France was our ally in the Revolution, but it was France whose retreat from Moscow was celebrated by Tchaikovsky. Perhaps it is merely his inclusion of the melody of France’s national anthem, “The Marseilles,” in the piece that caused Arthur Fiedler to place it on the program for a July 4, 1974, performance of the Boston Pops in the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade. I probably saw it, since I was in Boston shrugging off Emerson that summer. It became a traditional part of American fireworks displays only after that, a mere 42 years ago – a time when the idea of a victorious Russia was anathema to many Americans.

Go figure! No, go listen!

Hearing that the Philharmonic would not be present at India Point Park, I retreated this year. But, as they say, there’s always next year. Let’s hope.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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4 Responses to The 4th w/out the Overture

  1. This was truly delightful to hear again, especially the choral. Thanks.


  2. Dan Gordon says:

    Perhaps Fiedler’s selection of this piece in The Pops 4th of July repertoire centers on the composition’s theme of independence (liberation of Russia from Nepolian’s empire) and the dramatic orchestration of the finale celebrates independence heroically.


  3. Somewhere in the mass of soldiers behind Napoleon is my grandfather’s grandfather’s brother, who crossed the Niemen twice in 1812. A real 10 %er.
    The sponsor, Bank RI, did not renew their sponsorship, and the city was unable to secure another sponsor in time. Of course, Bank RI is headquartered in Brookline, MA, so relying on them is foolish. However, I suspect they made that clear earlier in the year, unless they use a fiscal year like the State’s (July to June). Maybe they could dipense with the recorded music during the fireworks, and save enough money to hire the RI Philharmonic next year. If I never hear pap like “Proud to be an American” again, it will be too soon.


  4. You are absolutely right. The 1812 is the perfect piece of music for a fireworks display and the Vladimir Ashkenaey St. Petersburg Philharmonic version is a remarkable performance


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