Friday 13 December 2019

Tchaikovsky, Napoleon and the 1812 Overture

God Preserve Thy People, the opening of Pytor Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Symphony, must surely be one of the greatest in all of European Classical Music.

Well, since that is a largely subjective and contentious assertion, let me qualify it by stating that it must be one of the greatest hymns of national patriotism. I can think only of Finlandia Hymni, Jean Sibelius. Both, of course, were soulful, erudite expressions of national resolve and resistance to foreign invasion.

God Preserve Thy People was an old Russian hymn that Tchaikovsky incorporated into his powerful music. It goes:

Grant salvation to Thy people, Lord,
and we pray The bless thine inheritance, O God.
Grant vict’ry to those who fight to save our righteous faith and our dear sacred land,
and from all evil deliver us.
Then the guardian of perfect grace, the cross will forever be.
The Cross will forever be
The cross will be, the cross.

While the use of a choir is an understandably popular choice for orchestras, I prefer the solemn strains of string instruments which to me evoke mournful contemplation of the assault that is to come, as well as the expansive Russian landscape which during the forthcoming winter would play a decisive part in inflicting a colossal defeat on Napoleon’s Grand Armee.

The war, which was about enforcing the Emperor’s “Continental System”; the anti-British blockade which aimed to destroy British commerce began on June 24th 1812 when the Grand Armee crossed the Neman River. After the engagements with Russian forces at Smolensk and Borodino, the occupation and burning of Moscow by the French did not bring the expected capitulation by Tsar Alexander I. The Russians who had withdrawn bided their time while the Grand Armee bore the burdens of a harsh Winter.

The campaign officially ended on December 14th 1812 when the last French troops left Russian soil.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2019)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.

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