Get out the hot dogs, flags and stereos. July 4th is upon us and once again the musical forces of the United States will be in full sway. Patriotic concerts will take place from sea to shining sea and audiences will flock to hear that most American of pieces, Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture."
Yes, this piece, celebrating Napoleon's retreat from Russia, has become the unofficial anthem of our most celebrated celebration. The public would forgo Sousa, John Williams and Gershwin but take away Peter Ilyich and all muskets would break out.
Surprisingly, Fourth of July concerts were not always filled with fireworks and cannon barrages. It was not until the 1970s, when Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler decided to introduce live ammunition into the concert proceedings that the idea took off. And of course this was at a time when there were still Soviets.
Never mind that the work incorporates music from Russian liturgy. Never mind that the main tune at the end is "God Save the Tsar." Never mind that the only other national anthem heard is "La Marseillaise." No, that does not stop culture hungry Americans from thinking that this piece is all ours.
How come we don't have the "1776" Overture? Certainly there must be some good tunes from back then that all of us can recognize? Or is it not a case of the music itself?
Fiedler was quite savvy when it came to understanding his audience. He knew that they wanted something showy and the Tchaikovsky was already well known through recordings. Some of those incorporated the cannon fire and all that needed to be done was to add it to our own revolutionary celebration. The idea stuck and it is not to be undone.
I have led these concerts in many cities, not all of them in the United States. Europeans really don't have an equivalent in terms of concerts, which commemorate historical events. The closest would be in London, for the Last Night of the Proms. The final 30 minutes or so consists of patriotic British music, with the audience dressed in all kinds of attire. They bring klaxons, flags and any accouterments they can think of to join in the merriment. It is all great fun but often leads to charges of jingoism. There are those who want to get rid of the patriotic element altogether, but after 110 years or so, that is not going to happen.
In France, Bastille Day goes by somewhat quietly. Orchestras do not participate because they are on vacation. Of course there is May Day in Russia, where they do not play the "1812" Overture.
Back in the States, we will continue to present our Fourth of July concerts. Some will be televised and might feature major stars from recordings, Broadway and film. Others will be low key, with perhaps a small group of musicians in a park. We have a few traditions besides Tchaikovsky. Certainly the National Anthem will be played, as well as some Sousa Marches. Members of the military will be recognized.
But people will still flock because of the Russian bombast. Maybe the best way to Americanize the work is to change the name of the composer to John Philip Tchaikovsky. And if the piece is really an Overture, perhaps we should play it at the start of the concert.
We rightfully love our traditions, even though they are sometimes borrowed. This nation of immigrants not only includes the people but the music as well.