Every Fourth of July, I find myself at a fireworks show enjoying the pretty lights and the prettier colors only to be slapped in the face with a muscially-driven grand finale that should be an awe-inspiring feat of Amerigasmic glory.
Except that the music driving that finale often has nothing to do with America. At all.
I’m talking about the 1812 Overture. Here’s the part you definitely know:I may be an overreacting history nerd. I accept that possibility. But also consider that I want us all to bask in the glory that is the history of the United States. We are f*cking amazing.
We’re back-to-back World War champs, we have the strongest military in the history of ever unless Star Wars turns out to be real, and we don’t need to take other countries’ history as our own.
My (correct) guess is that people think the 1812 Overture is so-named because of the War of 1812, fought between Britain and the United States, often called our second war for independence. That war was fought to a grinding draw.
They burned Washington. We burned what would become Toronto (only because London was too far to swim, but dammit, we would have). We checked the vaunted Royal Navy in both oceans and the Great Lakes.
We even teamed up with pirates and beat the British at New Orleans. (Side note: we should bring back pirate alliances.)
My other (probably correct) guess is that if an American doesn’t live in New Orleans or upstate New York, the bulk of what they know about the War of 1812 is that it started in 1812. And because the sun obviously revolves around the Earth and the Earth obviously revolves around America, the 1812 Overture must be about our War of 1812.
What else did history have to pay attention to in 1812, other than America toppling the giant again, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2“-style?
(Reminder: a draw is not a loss.)
It turns out, a whole hell of a lot was going on. Namely, 1812 is the year Napoleon’s Grande Armée (minus all the men he lost to disease and lice on the march) captured Moscow. But before they did, the Russians made sure to douse the city in vodka and burn it to the ground.
The French Army spent the winter in Moscow trying to find snails, or whatever it is they ate, in a burned-out city as babushkas laughed at them from the shells of former homes and distilleries.
This is how Tchaikovsky was inspired to write the 1812 Overture, an awesome piece, complete with church bells and cannons and lots of drums and what not.
But Tchaikovsky didn’t like it. He called it, “very loud and noisy and completely without artistic merit, obviously written without warmth or love.”
There are a number of clues in the song that should have signaled to us that it — like many things — isn’t about us. For starters, it’s written by a Russian named Tchaikovsky. That should have been our first clue.
Secondly, the Marseillaise — the French National Anthem — is actually played in the 1812 Overture. More than once.
So when I’m watching the fireworks on July Fourth, I’m always quizzically raising an eyebrow as we celebrate our independence with the French National Anthem.
Unlike other Americana that borrows from other countries songs (The Star-Spangled Banner, for example, is the tune of a British drinking song set to Francis Scott Key’s poem about the bombing of Fort McHenry), the 1812 Overture is a piece we will never be able to fully co-opt as uniquely American.
So play something else. I recommend “The Battle of the Kegs,” an American propaganda song about Patriots scaring the sh*t out of British sailors with a bunch of beer kegs during the Revolution.