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Aftershocks of 1812: Nationalism and Censorship in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture

Aftershocks of 1812: Nationalism and Censorship in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture

By micholic|May. 13th, 2014

by Peter Micholic

For most of its history, Tchaikovsky’s famous 1812 Overture has been censored in both print and public performance. It was only until after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that the piece could be performed in Russia as the composer originally intended. 1812 Overture was the product of Tsarist Russian nationalism, a political movement seventy years in the making, which had its roots in the defeat of the French during the War of 1812. Soon after its completion, however, 1812 Overture would be subject to a completely different way of thinking. This piece can be thought of as a sort of bridge between two drastically different periods of Russian history: the old imperial ways and the radical new Soviet regime. First, an understanding of the actual War of 1812 must be established to see where these conditions originated. Following the Russian victory, nationalism spread quickly and climaxed around the turn of the Twentieth century. Finally, in order to understand the development of anti-Tsarist ideas, one must analyze the rapid shift in national identity that occurred during the events of the Russian Revolution.

As the sun dawned on the morning of September 7th, 1812, two forces prepared for battle near Borodino, Russia. The French army, led by Napoleon, advanced on Moscow in their conquest of Russia. The French outnumbered the Russians by over 20,000 men, but both sides had suffered heavy losses.[1] Before the battle, Kutuzov, a field marshal of the Russian army, made a religious procession through the troops, followed by popes and priests and speaking of defending their holy homeland from the godless invaders.[2] This reveals the Russians as a deeply religious culture, something that would be a central focus in the rise of Russian nationalism after their victory over the French. The battle itself was incredibly bloody and drawn out, lasting almost the entire day. The French had technically won, but their victory came at a great price. Napoleon was careless with his military tactics, using his army’s greater numbers to stage a brute force attack on the Russians. Had he been more careful in his assault, France may have eventually conquered the Russians, but this tactic was far too risky and irresponsible.[3] The Russians had lost nearly twice as many troops as the French, but the French could not sustain themselves with their current numbers, and eventually had to retreat after a futile occupation of an abandoned Moscow and the onset of the Russian winter.[4]

This victory over the French inspired a stronger sense of nationalism in Russia. After all, they had just held their own against Napoleon, the greatest military commander that the world had ever seen, and sent him back to France with his tail between his legs. At this point, Russia had become a rising world power. This allowed Tsar Nicholas I to have even greater influence, and Russia quickly grew in influence on a global scale. With this newfound sense of national pride, the Russian government and private patrons began to commission more works proclaiming their country’s greatness.

1812 Overture was composed in 1880, and it premiered in 1882 at the Moscow Arts and Industry Exhibition[5]. Its composition coincided with the construction of a cathedral built to commemorate the Russian victory over the French. The cathedral, commissioned by Tsar Nicholas I, was actually not complete at the time of the premiere. Instead, the piece was performed in a tent near the construction site.

The theme of a great battle is apparent in this overture, with many martial motives. The infamous cannon fire in the finale is certainly indicative of a battle, but there are a few other places in the piece that show nationalistic and military influence. The very beginning of the piece is an adaptation of a Russian Orthodox liturgical hymn, praying for deliverance from the invading army. In later versions of 1812 Overture, a choir singing in Russian was added to this section to better reflect its prayer-like quality. Throughout the piece, La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, can be heard creeping through the other textures of the piece, referencing the impending battle. At the finale, La Marseillaise appears again, but this time it is joined by Bozhe, Tsarya khrani! (God Save the Tsar!), the Russian national anthem. These two quoataions of national anthems represent the two opposing forces on the battlefield. Also, the Russian liturgical hymn cited at the beginning of 1812 Overture returns in the finale as a triumphant anthem.

The finale begins with a quotation of La Marseillaise in the horns, which is answered by a descending figure in the strings (p.52, m.6)[6]. La Marseillaise is heard again, with the strings repeating their figure. This call and response continues for the next 21 measures, until the theme for the French climaxes to the sound of cannons. After the first climax of the finale, the entire orchestra plays diatonically descending lines of four notes each (p. 57, m.1). As the lines get lower and lower, the piece starts a very drawn out decelerando and the section ends after 22 measures with the brass punctuating each individual note. Next, the chorale from the very beginning of the piece is quoted again, except this time it is accentuated with large sweeping gestures from the strings and the wild ringing of carillon bells (p. 61, m.5). After the chorale is completed 22 measures later, 1812 Overture transitions to its famous allegro vivace section (p.67, m.1). This itself is a restatement from earlier in the piece, and is the main musical motif for the overture as a whole. Eight measures into this section, the Russian national anthem can be heard in the low brass section (at a ffff dynamic), accented with blasts from the cannon (p.69, m.1). After this last theme has been stated, the overture finishes with a powerful closing cadence.

Musical found in 1812 Overture's finale

Musical found in 1812 Overture’s finale

For a time, national pride in Russia was higher than it had been in decades. This nationalist sentiment could only last so long, however. A stronger national identity led to more citizens criticizing the Russian government, and around the turn of the twentieth century, a strong need for reform started to appear. Russian citizens were dissatisfied with the amount of resources they had. The war had left Russia in a large amount of debt, and the government’s solution to this problem was to tax the poor working classes very heavily. By 1917, the Tsarist government had fallen into disrepair, and many workers and soldiers were poor, tired, and hungry.[7] They claimed that the old government had lost touch with its people and did not care about the well-being of its citizens. There was widespread famine, and food prices had exploded. Families literally could not afford to eat, and this unease in the lower classes eventually grew to a head. Fed up with their lot in life, a group of political dissidents overthrew Tsar Nicholas II and forced him to abdicate.[8] The Tsar, once a champion of the Russian people, had been demonized to the point of his execution in 1918. With such an unstable political climate, the Soviets needed a scapegoat, and that scapegoat came in the form of the old Tsarist government. Condemning their decadence and selfishness, the Soviets painted the Tsarists as enemies of the state. The old system was completely revised, but it was not without its share of bloodshed. There were over seven revolutions that took place within the span of a year.[9] Eventually, however, the Soviets consolidated control to the point where they were the ruling political party of Russia

The Soviets distanced themselves from the old Tsarist government in as many ways as possible, even going so far as to censor works of art that showed the Tsar in a positive light. For example, a specific part of 1812 Overture was changed from what was written at first. Near the end of the finale, a quotation of “God Save the Tsar” can be heard in Tchaikovsky’s original version, which can be heard here:

The Original

However, in the new Soviet regime, this would have obviously raised some red flags (pun intended). Even the mere reference to the old national anthem was unacceptable to the new government. Instead, it was decided that that quotation should be replaced with one more in line with Soviet thought; namely, Glory, Glory to You, Holy Rus!, which was taken from the nationalist opera by Mikhail Glinka, A Life for the Tsar. This change was brought about officially by the Russian government, and it was expected that all public performances would include this revised musical line:

The Censored Version

This removed any connection of the Tsar in Tchaikovsky’s work, thereby making it acceptable by Soviet standards. It would remain in this altered state for over 100 years, up until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Why is this change relevant, or important at all? Why did a change need to be made in the first place? 1812 Overture is in a unique historical position; caught between two polar opposites. 1812 Overture can therefore be used to view some of the real-world applications of the changes that took place in 1917. This censorship shows that the Russian Revolution pervaded all aspects of life in Russia; not even its great works of music were free from Soviet influence. This would have been just one of the innumerable changes that took place near the turn of the twentieth century in Russia.

Apart from being an excellent piece of music, 1812 Overture provides us with an inside look at the level of patriotism during the Tsarist regime. It can also be used to observe the extreme malice that the Soviets had towards the old government, going so far as to remove an instrumental passage from a piece of music that was reminiscent of the Tsarist government. The fact that the original victory over the French had such a lasting impact on the development of Russian nationalism and culture is also worth noting. 1812 Overture is a very historically relevant piece, because it marked the turning point for a country with one of the most turbulent histories the world has ever seen.


Felsenfield, Daniel. Tchaikovsky: A Listener’s Guide. Amadeus Press, 2006.

This book is a companion to many of Tchaikovsky’s most famous works, providing program notes and interesting facts about each piece. It also includes information about the premieres of the pieces in question.

Reihn, Richard K. 1812: Napoleon’s Russian Campaign. New York : McGraw-Hill, 1990.

This book documents the Napoleonic invasion of Russia, and his subsequent defeat at the hands of the brutal Russian winter. This will provide some historical context for 1812 Overture and the feelings of national pride that arose after the French retreat.

Suny, Ronald Grigor. “Toward a Social History of the October Revolution.” The American Historical Review 88/1 (Feb. 1983): 31-52.

This article gives a new perspective on the traditionally given history of the Russian Revolution of 1917. It gives an in-depth look at the causes and consequences of the October Revolution, and the spread of anti-Tsarist sentiment that led to the censoring of certain quotations in 1812 Overture, as well as a few other works by Tchaikovsky.

Daniels, Robert V. The Russian Revolution. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, inc. 1972.

This book provides an introduction to the Russian Revolution, with inside looks at the causes and effects using eyewitness accounts and documents from that era.


Original Version:

Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Ilyich. 1812 Overture, Op. 49. Perf. London Philharmonic Orchestra. Cond. Alexander Gibson. 1989.

Censored Version:

Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Ilyich. 1812 Overture, Op. 49. Perf. USSR State Symphony Orchestra. Cond. Evgeny Svetlanov. 1974.

[1] The French had roughly 124,000 men, while the Russians had roughly 103,000. Richard K. Reihn, 1812: Napoleon’s Russian Campaign (New York: McGraw Hill, 1990), 243.

[5] Daniel Felsenfield, Tchaikovsky: A Listener’s Guide (Amadeus Press, 2006) 54.

[7] Ronald Grigor Suny, Toward a Social History of the October Revolution (The American Historical Review 88/1 (Feb. 1983)) 34.

[8] Robert V. Daniels, The Russian Revolution (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, inc. 1972) 20.

DMU Timestamp: March 07, 2019 02:52

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