This is the day many Americans will celebrate a disastrous military victory for Napoleon Bonaparte.
Wait a minute, you say. What does Napoleon’s victory on September 7, 1812 have to do with the Declaration of Independence? The answers is, “Nothing at all.” But we’re going to observe it in many of our cities today.
Napoleon and his Grand Army marched into Russia in 1812, intending to extend the Napoleanic empire far to the East of France. The Russians made a stand at a village about 75 miles east of Moscow called Borodino. It was the only major fight offered by the Russians against the invincible forces of Napoleon and it was a terrible fight with casualties estimated at 100,000. Napoleon won that fight and captured Moscow soon after.
But by then, Napoleon’s resources were depleted. Moscow had been abandoned by its residents who left little behind for the Grand Army to forage for. The Russians had not surrendered and the Grand Army was in such bad shape it would not continue the fight. The Russian winter was approaching and the Army had nothing to sustain it and no captured populace to force to supply it. So Napoleon ordered a withdrawal that began inmid-October. The retreat lasted into December with the French soldiers harassed by Russian Cossacks, stricken by famine and disease and frigid weather. They finally fought their way to a level of safety in Poland. The Army that left Russia was only about one-tenth the size of the army that invaded.
So why do we observe this miserable French military campaign on our Independence Day? Stay with us.
Russian Composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote some music in 1880 to commemorate his country’s defense of its homeland. It was first performed in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow on Ausut 20, 1882. Tchaikovsky came to the United States in 1891 to perform the piece at the dedication of Carnegie Hall.
He wasn’t real fond of the piece. He once wrote that it was “very loud and noisy” and lacked artistic merit because he composed it “without warmth and without love.’
But sure as you’re born, some communities are going to have Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, complete with bells and cannons, blaring over the loudspeakers during tonight’s fireworks show. It seems to fit such occasions musically.
What you are unlikely to hear at the fireworks show is this piece performed in 2009 by the Texas All-Region Symphonic Band at the Amarillo Globe News Theatre:
It’s an English ballad that dates to the 1640s when citizens protested against Parliament’s decree that Christmas celebrations would be banned and the day would be a solemn occasion. It was that same stiff-necked attitude toward some English citizens living on this side of the pond 130 years later that led to the Declaration of Independence that we celebrate today. The tune is “The World Turned Upside Down.” Tradition has it that the tune was played at Yorktown in 1781 when General Cornwallis surrendered his part of the British Army. Although the American Revolution’s battles continued to be fought in other colonies for sometime, Cornwallis’ surrender signaled the end of this country’s subservience to a foreign power.
It doesn’t have cannons and church bells and it wasn’t written by a great Russian composer. But its history is part of our history and it was born in a fashion familiar to our spirit–citizens protesting an unjust government. Who in 1640 England could have guessed how the creation of this protest song could become so much part of the spirit that led to the establishment of an entirely new nation free of the tryanny of a government that would not even allow its own citizens to celebrate Christmas?
Yet for some reason, we’ll celebrate Independence Day with the music of a Russian Composer about an event that happened 36 years after the Declaration and has nothing to do with freedom, equality, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the victory that let us become the United States of America.