The Year 1812

Tchaikovsky Research

Tchaikovsky's festival overture The Year 1812 (1812 год) in E-flat major, Op. 49 (TH 49 ; ČW 46), popularly known as the 1812 Overture or simply 1812 [1], was composed and orchestrated between September and November 1880. It was commissioned for the opening concert of the All-Russian Arts and Industrial Exhibition scheduled to take place in 1881 in Moscow, and commemorates Russia's defeat of Napoleon in 1812.

Ever since its premiere, the overture has been among the best-known and most frequently performed of Tchaikovsky's works.


The overture is scored for a large symphony orchestra comprising piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets (in B-flat), 2 bassoons + 4 horns (in F), 2 cornets (in B-flat), 2 trumpets (in E-flat), 3 trombones, tuba + 3 timpani, triangle, tambourine, side drum, cymbals, bass drum, bells, cannon + violins I, violins II, violas, cellos, and double basses. There is also an optional part for military band in the coda.

Tchaikovsky noted in the manuscript score that "The bells should be large, and all of the same pitch; they should be struck in the manner of celebratory ringing", and that the cannon should be "The instrument used in theatres to depict a cannon shot". The latter explanation was omitted in many subsequent editions and reprints, but it is clear from Tchaikovsky's correspondence with his publisher that this instrument (called Bombardone in the score) was intended to be a large drum, rather than a cannon:

Regarding the Bombardone, kindly learn from the theatre the name the instrument they use for a cannon, i.e. the large suspended drum which is beaten like a gran cassa. If it has no name, and I'm actually mistaken in calling this thing a bombardon, then instead of Bombardone in the score, put Canon, or Colpi di Canone, or Canons, or Coups de canons, or in Russian cannon, as the existing note on the 1st page will explain that this is not a real cannon, but a drum [2].


There is one movement: Largo—Allegro giusto (E-flat major, 428 bars), lasting around 15 to 20 minutes in performance.


On 20 May/1 June 1880, Pyotr Jurgenson informed Tchaikovsky that Nikolay Rubinstein had been appointed head of the music section of the All-Russian Arts and Industry Exhibition scheduled to take place in Moscow the following year, and that in this capacity Rubinstein wanted to commission Tchaikovsky to write a composition to be performed at the exhibition. Three options were suggested: an overture to open the exhibition; an overture for the silver jubilee of Alexander II; or, a cantata for the consecration of the nearly completed Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which was built to commemorate Napoleon's defeat against Russia in 1812 [3].

In his letter of reply of 23 June/5 July [4], Tchaikovsky asked Pyotr Jurgenson for more information as to the length and form of the new work:

My dear chap! You seem to think that composing ceremonial pieces for the occasion of an exhibition is some sort of supreme bliss, of which I shall rush to take advantage, and immediately begin pouring out my inspiration, without having a fair idea of how, what, why, when, etc. I won't lift a single finger until something is commissioned from me. If they want me to set a text for something vocal, then let them send whatever text they like (for a commission I'm even prepared to set Tchaikovsky the pharmacist's advert for corn medicine to music); if they want me to write something instrumental, then let them set out what, exactly, in what form, and to illustrate what event. At the same time, it's essential: 1) to stipulate a fixed fee, with a precise indication of when and from whom I will receive it, and 2) to stipulate a fixed period of time. And so, talk to whomever you need to find out and determine all this. I'm not demanding all this on a whim, but just because otherwise I cannot compose things like this, i.e. anything ceremonial, unless they tell me clearly and precisely what is required from me, for how much, and for how long. There are two inspirations: one emerges directly from the heart with a free choice of this or that motive for creativity; the other is to order. The latter requires motivation, encouragement and means of inspiration in the form of precise instructions, fixed periods of time and the prospect in the more or less distant future of (many) Catherines [5]. You present me with a choice of this or that ceremonial event, as if I could be seduced by one of them! And if I'm personally to blame for not answering you earlier, you are mistaken to say that this is a business matter. Business questions ought to be clear and precise. Just imagine that I'd been able to inspire myself and write a ceremonial overture for the opening of an exhibition. What then? Would it turn out that the great Anton for his part had done something Antonesque? What would have happened to my scribblings? Therefore: precise, clear instructions and terms, and if it's with text, then supply the text. Until then I won't even think about the exhibition or the music accompanying it.

Replying to a further letter from Jurgenson on 3/15 July, he again expressed his "extreme aversion" to the task work:

Regarding the exhibition music, I say to you that, of course, I ought to have given you some sort of reply to your first proposal, and if I didn't do this, it's because I didn't take your words as something already settled and requiring an answer, but merely as a suggestion that if there was supposed to be music at the exhibition, then I ought to write something [...] Indeed, how can I not have an extreme aversion to setting about music intended to glorify that which, in essence, I'm not in the least enthusiastic about. There's nothing at all to catch my inspiration, neither in the jubilee of a high-ranking personage (who has always been quite antipathetic towards me), nor in the cathedral, which doesn't appeal to me at all" [6].

In subsequent letters, the composer again pressed Jurgenson for exact details of the character and of the length of the commissioned work [7]. At this point he seemed to be considering an orchestral work with chorus, and in a letter of 1/13 September 1880 he wrote to Jurgenson to send him Stepan Ponomarev's collection Moscow in Native Poetry. "I have great need of this book, because I hope to find something in it for my exhibition music, which I'm intending to set about composing shortly, and to tell the truth, with an inexplicable loathing. Be so good as to see about ordering and purchasing this book. Have you told Nikolay Grigoryevich that I want more precise and detailed instructions about what is required from me?" [8].

On 18/30 September, Nikolay Rubinstein himself sent Tchaikovsky a personal request for him to write a piece in any form, between 15 and 25 minutes in duration, to be submitted between 1/13 December 1880 and 15/27 January 1881 [9]. Writing to Nadezhda von Meck of 28 September/10 October 1880, Tchaikovsky complained: "There is nothing more antipathetic to me than composing for the sake of some festivities or other. Just imagine, my dear friend! What, for instance, might one write on the occasion of the opening of an exhibition, besides banalities and generally noisy passages? However, I do not have it in my heart to refuse such a request, and so I'm obliged to set about this disagreeable task" [10].

In a letter to Nadezhda von Meck of 30 September/12 October 1880, he reported: "Despite being somewhat averse to the exhibition music, I have quite diligently set about it, in order to quickly remove from my shoulders this burden that weighs heavily upon me" [11].

On 6/18 October the composer told Anatoly Tchaikovsky [12] that he had finished the overture for the exhibition, and on 10/22 October he wrote to Nadezhda von Meck: "The muse has been kind to me recently... so that with good speed I have written two things, namely: 1) a grand festival overture for the exhibition, at the request of Nikolay Grigoryevich, and 2) a Serenade for String Orchestra, in four movements. Both of these I am now orchestrating little by little. The Overture will be very loud and noisy—but I wrote it without any warm and loving feelings, and consequently it will probably be lacking in artistic merit" [13]. In 1882 the composer told Pyotr Jurgenson: "I absolutely do not know whether my overture ("The Year 1812") is good or bad, but I rather think it is the former (pardon my immodesty)" [14].

On 27 October/8 November 1880, Tchaikovsky, in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck, complaining of acute headaches and finding it impossible to work, wrote: "All at once I am finding that minor problems are very burdensome and worrying to me, since I have barely begun the instrumentation of the overture for the exhibition" [15].

According to the date on the manuscript, the full score was completed on 7/19 November 1880.


The overture was also published by Pyotr Jurgenson in the form of arrangements of for piano duet and solo piano. Although it has been suggested that these may have been made by Tchaikovsky himself, their author is not named on any of the published editions, there is no mention of this work in the composer's correspondence, and no manuscript scores have survived.


Due to the assassination of Tsar Alexander II on 1/13 March 1881, the Arts and Industry Exhibition was postponed until the following year. Writing to Eduard Nápravník on 17/29 June, Tchaikovsky then sought to persuade Nápravník to conduct the overture in one of the concerts of the Saint Petersburg branch of the Russian Musical Society [16]. However, the conductor replied that he considered it necessary to wait until the overture had been performed at the exhibition before including it in the concert programme of the Russian Musical Society [17].

The first performance of the overture took place on 8/20 August 1882 at the sixth symphony concert, in a programme consisting entirely of works by Tchaikovsky, in the hall of the All-Russian Arts and Industrial Exhibition in Moscow, conducted by Ippolit Altani.

In Saint Petersburg the overture was performed for the first time on 26 March/7 April 1883 at the tenth symphony concert, conducted by Anton Rubinstein.

The Year 1812 was greeted with wide public acclaim, and was performed frequently, and invariably with success, under the author's baton both in Russia and abroad. Notable early performances include:

  • Berlin, Konzerthaus, December 1882, conducted by Benjamin Bilse.
  • Smolensk, 2nd Glinka memorial exhibition concert, 21 May/2 June 1885, conducted by Mily Balakirev.
  • Saint Petersburg, Philharmonic Society concert, 5/17 March 1887, conducted by Tchaikovsky.
  • Moscow, 2nd Russian Musical Society symphony concert, 14/26 November 1887, conducted by Tchaikovsky.
  • Moscow, special Russian Musical Society symphony concert, 15/27 November 1887, conducted by Tchaikovsky.
  • Berlin, Philharmonic Society concert, 27 January/8 February 1888, conducted by Tchaikovsky.
  • Prague, Rudolfinum, 7/19 February 1888, conducted by Tchaikovsky.
  • Prague, National Theatre, 9/21 February 1888, conducted by Tchaikovsky.
  • Amsterdam, Concertgebouw, extra subscription concert, 17/29 November 1888, conducted by Willem Kes.
  • Prague, National Theatre, 18/30 November 1888, conducted by Tchaikovsky.
  • London, 5th London Symphony Concert, 3/15 January 1889, conducted by George Henschel.
  • Pavlovsk, symphony concert, 6/18 May 1890, conducted by Julius Laube.
  • Tiflis, special Russian Musical Society symphony concert, 20 October/1 November 1890, conducted by Tchaikovsky.
  • Odessa, 3rd Russian Musical Society symphony concert, 20 November/2 December 1891, conducted by Anton Arensky.
  • Kiev, Russian Musical Society symphony concert, 21 December 1891/2 January 1892, conducted by Tchaikovsky.
  • Kiev, Russian Musical Society symphony concert, 22 December 1891/3 January 1892, conducted by Tchaikovsky.
  • Brussels, 2/14 January 1893, conducted by Tchaikovsky.
  • Odessa, 2nd Russian Musical Society symphony concert, 23 January/4 February 1893, conducted by Tchaikovsky.
  • Kharkov, Russian Musical Society symphony concert, 14/26 March 1893, conducted by Tchaikovsky.
  • Boston, Music Hall, 17/29 December 1893, conducted by Emil Paur.
  • Vienna, 5th Philharmonic Society subscription concert, 3/15 January 1899, conducted by Gustav Mahler.

Tchaikovsky conducted 1812 a total of thirteen times — more than any of his other works.


On 18/30 January 1882, the composer told Jurgenson that he was returning the first proofs of the overture, which had been in his possession for more than three months [18]. On 1/13 March the second set was dispatched [19].

The composer wrote to Nadezhda von Meck on 16/28 April 1882 about the third set of proofs: "I am correcting the overture myself in all its three forms at once (full score and arrangements for piano 4 and 2 hands)", and in the same letter, on 20 April/2 May, reported: "With luck my work will soon be reaching its end and tomorrow I might be able to leave for Kamenka" [20]. This last statement proved to be correct, and the third set of proof corrections of the overture were dated 20 April/2 May 1882.

The overture was printed in time for the opening of the exhibition, which ran from May to September 1882. The full score, orchestral parts and both arrangements for piano (for two and four hands) were published by Pyotr Jurgenson in May 1882.

The full score of The Year 1812 was published in volume 25 of Tchaikovsky's Complete Collected Works (1961), edited by Aleksandr Nikolayev. The statement of the anthem 'God Save the Tsar' in the coda was replaced with other music, with the original text confined an appendix to the score. The arrangements for solo piano and piano duet were omitted from the collected works.


Tchaikovsky's manuscript score is preserved in the Russian National Museum of Music in Moscow (ф. 88, No. 68 [view]).


See: Discography

Related Works

The opening theme (bars 1–36, 358–379) is based on the Russian prayer for victory in battle 'Lord, preserve thy people' (Спаси, господи, люди твоя).

The central lyrical theme (from bars 164 and 278) uses a motif from the duet for Marya and Olyona (Act II, No. 8) from the opera The Voyevoda [21], and the short tune which immediately follows it (bars 207, 299) is taken from the Russian folksong 'By the Gates' (У ворот, ворот батюшкиных), which Tchaikovsky had arranged in 1868 as No. 48 of Fifty Russian Folksongs.

1812 also includes quotations (bars 119, 149, 229, 267, 307) from the French anthem La Marseillaise composed by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle (1792), and from the Russian anthem 'God Save the Tsar' (Боже Цапя храни) composed in 1833 by Aleksey Lvov (bars 388–398).

External Links

Notes and References

  1. The first printed editions included the subtitle: "Festival overture for large orchestra, composed for the occasion of the consecration of the Church of the Saviour by P. Tchaikovsky".
  2. In Letter 1984 to Pyotr Jurgenson, 4/16 March 1882, the composer clarified that he meant "the large suspended drum which is beaten like a gran cassa", rather than a real cannon.
  3. Letter from Pyotr Jurgenson to Tchaikovsky, 29 May/10 June 1880 — Klin House-Museum Archive (a4, No. 6131).
  4. Letter 1517 to Pyotr Jurgenson, 23 June/5 July 1880.
  5. A reference to the Russian 100 ruble banknote, which bore the image of the Empress Catherine the Great.
  6. Letter 1525 to Pyotr Jurgenson, 3/15 July 1880.
  7. Letters 1566 and 1591 to Pyotr Jurgenson, between 17/29 August and 24 August/5 September 1880, and 13/25 September 1880.
  8. Letter 1577 to Pyotr Jurgenson, 1/13 September 1880. A copy of the book Москва в родной поэзии. Сборник под редакцией С. И. Понамарева (Saint Petersburg, 1880) is in Tchaikovsky's personal library at the Klin House-Museum.
  9. Letter from Nikolay Rubinstein to Tchaikovsky, 18/30 September 1880 — Klin House-Museum Archive (a4, No. 3836).
  10. Letter 1603 to Nadezhda von Meck, 27 September/9 October–30 September/12 October 1880. See also Letter 1604 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 29 September/11 October 1880.
  11. Letter 1603 to Nadezhda von Meck, 27 September/9 October–30 September/12 October 1880.
  12. Letter 1608 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 6/18 October 1880.
  13. Letter 1609 to Nadezhda von Meck, 8/20–10/22 October 1880.
  14. Letter 1978 to Pyotr Jurgenson, 23 February/7 March–24 February/8 March 1882.
  15. Letter 1617 to Nadezhda von Meck, 24 October/5 November–27 October/8 November 1880.
  16. Letter 1786 to Eduard Nápravník, 17/29 June 1881.
  17. Letter from Eduard Nápravník to Tchaikovsky, 27 June/9 July 1881 — Klin House-Museum Archive (a4, No. 3056).
  18. Letter 1939 to Pyotr Jurgenson, 18/30 January 1882.
  19. See Letter 1983 to Pyotr Jurgenson, 2/14 March 1882.
  20. Letter 2009 to Nadezhda von Meck, 16/28 April–26 April/8 May 1882.
  21. The surviving orchestral parts suggest that this number in the opera was never performed.