1812 And All That

I’ve always enjoyed listening to music that tells a story. Sometimes the composer bases his music on an actual tale, but in other cases the music just seems to evoke scenes and events. For instance, Sibelius composed tone poems that would make wonderful soundtracks to a film, and I have spent many dreamy hours imagining the tales they tell.

On the other hand, overtures to operas and plays usually foreshadow the events, and so take you through the story. One of the earliest I stumbled upon as a child was Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where I would listen for the jackass braying.  Another old favourite was The William Tell Overture, which tells its tale from the prelude through to the triumphant galloping finale with its much-abused  “Lone Ranger” motif.

(And just to throw in some trivia, did you know that the horn of the Swiss Postal Buses that is sounded every time the bus approaches a blind bend on a mountain road echoes those opening bars of the Prelude? Ta-taaa-toooo – exactly as Rossini wrote it, in the key of E.)

English: Tchaikovsky's famous 1812 Overture, w...

Tchaikovsky’s famous 1812 Overture, was played complete with cannons and pyrotechnics at the 2005 Classical Spectacular, in the Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne Photo taken at ISO 1600 with no tripod (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So I was pleased and interested when this post about Programme Music landed in my inbox this morning, with the story of the 1812 Overture. What I didn’t know until I read this post was that Americans often associated this piece of music with the Fourth of July and gaining their Independence in the War of 1812.  My first reaction to this was surprise that the stupid ignorant Americans hadn’t picked up on the French and Russian themes in the piece. Then I was surprised at myself for not having heard of the War of 1812. What was that? The War of 1812?  Who’s the stupid ignorant one now?

Well, a long time ago I took history at school and passed GCE O-level, focussing on British and European history from 1789 to 1914, so that certainly included 1812 and Napoleon’s Russian Campaign (I was very good on Napoleon) but I had never heard of this war before.  How remiss of my History teacher who used to drill us to a very high standard.

Then it dawned on me that we were studying for an exam that concentrated on European and domestic British history, and an American war didn’t come under that heading even if Britain had been involved (one of the pitfalls of studying for exams!).  As far as I knew, the USA had gained its independence in 1774 and that was that.  Of course I’d heard of the Battle of New Orleans, but I hadn’t known when it took place. Nor did I know of the precise circumstances described in The Star-spangled Banner. How lucky that nowadays we can turn to Google and Wikipedia to fill the gaps in our knowledge!

Cover of sheet music for "The Star-Spangl...

Cover of sheet music for “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key, transcribed for piano by Ch. Voss, Philadelphia: G. Andre & Co., 1862 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The number of British troops involved in the War of 1812 was relatively small, because most of our fighting men were deployed in the Napoleonic wars, in which far more was at stake. This conflict in a distant former colony was just a minor matter in British foreign affairs, and is scarcely mentioned in our textbooks.  It was, of course, a defeat for the British hence something of an embarrassment, but since it resulted in a status quo ante bellum with no changes in borders etc, we could afford to sweep it under the carpet and forget about it. For the Americans and Canadians, however, it settled their status as independent nations with clearly drawn borders. In fact, last year while Britain was once again looking inward and self-absorbed with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics, over the Pond there were all kinds of bicentenary celebrations going on in the USA and Canada.

English: Sculpture Monument to the War of 1812...

Sculpture Monument to the War of 1812 (2008) by Douglas Coupland in Toronto/Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I wonder if the War of 1812 figures in modern British history books?

I must find a British teenager studying history …

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5 thoughts on “1812 And All That

  1. You have educated me today. Learning history here is Australia we also focussed on British and European history and not American. I never knew of the 1812 war over there nor the origin of the Star Spangled Banner, although it had always amazed me how their national anthem could be based on a war song. Now I can see where the war / freedom paradox appears to come from.

    • So glad I’m not alone in my ignorance! If you want a really bloody national anthem, listen to the words of the Marseillaise – the Star-spangled Banner is a nursery rhyme in comparison (though some of those are pretty violent too :-))

      • Oh. I looked it up and see what you mean about the French national anthem! It made me feel a bit sick.

        Maybe Australia’s pride in our golden soil and nature’s gifts is a good thing to have and is not as childish as I previously thought :)

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