Friday, May 11, 2007

Peaks to Crack Your Window Panes... and Maybe Your Speaker Cones, too!

Most of you will likely recognize this piece from the opening and the closing scenes in V For Vendetta. The 1812 Overture, or Festival Overture "The Year 1812" in E Flat Major was composed just three years after Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony. The commissioned piece was intended not only to commemorate the Russian forces who staved off Napoleon's invasion in 1812 but was meant to hail the building of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, where Tsar Alexander II was to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his coronation.

The public event was to be performed by an orchestra and backed by a brass band with live cannonfire in accompaniment that was fired from an electric switch panel. The performance never occurred as a result of the assassination of Alexander II six months before the event was to take place.

There has been much conjecture in the world of musicology over whether Tchaikovsky ever heard the music performed as it was originally scored with cannonfire intact. Although an attempt was made to re-create the piece with cannonfire on US and European soil, no exact simulation of the shots was produced.

In 1967, Erich Kunzel was the first conductor of the piece who attempted to incorporate the shots as they were intended in the musical score. There have been many attempts since that time to reproduce these sounds with cannonfire intact- either in reality or in the digital realm.

In 1978, Bob Woods and Jack Renner were the first to record a classical music piece in the digital format. One of the pieces recorded was a recording of the 1812 Overture performed by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra conducted by Erich Kunzel. The sound effects of the cannonfire were the first digitally-recorded sounds to be added to a recording of music. The cover of the album even had a warning: "Caution! Digital Cannons!"

Although this recording was performed much earlier than that, the excitement of the piece can be felt nonetheless. This particular recording was played by the Boston Pops Orchestra and conducted by Arthur Fiedler.

The flip side of the album is Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien- a mixture of Italian popular dances, songs, and military marches the composer heard while staying in Rome. The movement that includes The Cossack's Dance is all that remains of his unpopular opera Mazeppa, which was composed in 1883.

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