The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: How did Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” which celebrates Russia’s victory over Napoleon, became a staple of Fourth of July celebrations in America? | July 4, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is our national holiday: The Fourth of July  — America’s annual Independence Day, which celebrates when the new nation’s Declaration of Independence (below) from Great Britain was issued in 1776.

Every summer, even as they are cheering and applauding the music and fireworks, a lot of Americans ask the same question: How did Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” – complete with ringing bells and booming cannons – become such an integral part of Fourth of July celebrations?

And an integral part of July 4 and Independence Day it certainly is, as you can hear in almost all celebrations and fireworks displays. nJust listen to the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s second Concert of the Square tonight, starting at 7 p.m.

For more information the WCO’s “Star-Spangled Spectacular” concert tonight, visit:

This summer, where the dangerously dry weather doesn’t force officials to cancel fireworks, Fourth of July celebrations and fireworks shows will begin this weekend and go through the week, with some celebrations postponed until August or even September.

And chances are good that most or even all of these will feature the “1812 Overture.”

It was commissioned by the Czar and written by Tchaikovsky (below) to mark Russia’s victory over Napoleon’s invasion. So how did it become such a part of American lore? Even the people who love hearing the music can’t really answer that question. But the answer is easier and makes more sense and is more recent than you might think.

But recently musicologist Jan Swafford recently answered that question on NPR. It was the best and most comprehensive answer that The Ear has ever heard. It eve has a section-by-section analysis of the music with samples.

It is worth reading and especially listening to if you want to know, once and for all, how the famously loud overture was transplanted to the American celebration of Independence Day.

Here is a link complete with musical examples and analysis as well as the historical and artistic context both here and in Russia:


  1. […] Classical music: How did Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” which celebrates Russia&#8… ( […]


    Pingback by Your chance to play with the Orchestra of the Swan « THE OFFICIAL TWO MOORS FESTIVAL BLOG — July 13, 2012 @ 4:34 am

  2. […] Classical music: How did Tchaikovsky's “1812 Overture,” which celebrates Russia's victory over Napoleon, became a staple of Fourth of July celebrations in America? | July 4, 2012. By Jacob Stockinger.  […]


    Pingback by Classical music: How did Tchaikovsky's “1812 Overture,” which ... | Music House | — July 4, 2012 @ 11:25 am

  3. It’s LOUD. Period. Americans don’t care who beat who in European history, they like the music in ignorance of its provenance.


    Comment by Michael BB — July 4, 2012 @ 11:05 am

  4. It goes hand-in-hand with a huge fireworks display!


    Comment by Nicole Rogers — July 4, 2012 @ 12:39 am

  5. I was wondering about this. It seems kind of silly, at least historically speaking, since the French helped us defeat the British in our War for Independence. But the explanation about fireworks makes sense. It is a very exciting and wonderful piece.
    PDQ Bach wrote the 1712 Overture. I wonder why that hasn’t caught on as well? (:


    Comment by Genie Ogden — July 4, 2012 @ 12:14 am

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