Once again this year, for those Americans who are so inclined, they and their families will no doubt be trekking out to the nearest downtown area or wide-open field in order to gaze in wonder at some stray sparks ejected up into the sky that slowly fall back to earth as they fizzle out into oblivion. No, I am not talking about the careers of your favorite D-list celebrities. I am talking about that perennial patriotic pleasure that somehow manages to enrapture children of all ages by appealing to their seemingly innate sympathy for pyromania: the fireworks display.
I grew up in a moderately large family and every year (nolens, volens) we were whisked off to a great expanse of land somewhere in the middle of nowhere. And each year we lifted our collective gaze to the sky to witness something not unlike the occasion when my brother missed my sister with a water balloon indoors and hit the electric socket instead. However, there was one big difference between my brother’s indoor display and the patriotic annual rituals held on the Fourth of July: at the latter there was music, whereas during the former incident there was mostly cacophonous screaming, crying, and yelling accompanied by the percussive ostinato of my brother’s footsteps as he hightailed it for a safe haven.
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Not all fireworks displays are so lavish that they are accompanied by an orchestra, but at the very least you can witness a similarly incendiary combination of music and pyrotechnics on the television (which is where I see most of my fireworks displays these days) and when you do come across such a performance you almost invariably hear Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.
Now, as a child (knowing far more about American history than Russian history; a discrepancy I still have yet to rectify, I’m afraid) I good-naturedly assumed that Tchaikovsky must have intended to represent the War of 1812 against the British invasion and that the composer himself had been an immigrant perhaps or, at the very least, an ardent admirer of the United States. I was disabused of this notion in my elementary school music class with Ms. Stevenson. She liked to give us a break every now and then from blowing on those plastic recorders (more accurately, I realize from hindsight, she liked to give herself a break from our less than melodious renditions of “Hot Cross Buns”) and turn to the music and life of one of the famous classical composers.
On the day that she broached the subject of Tchaikovsky, I (rather uncharacteristically, I must say) raised my hand and upon being recognized, I notified her that Tchaikovsky was an immigrant. Miss Stevens said that I was quite mistaken. I insisted on the point assuming I could use the 1812 Overture as evidence of the fact. When she ignored my best attempt at juridical rhetoric, I assayed a passage from the Overture on my recorder. It came out sounding more like a catcall and I received my first detention. (Fortunately, I shared detention that day with an equally obstinate girl from the grade below mine who had earned detention by insisting that zebras were simply horses with pajamas on, since that is what her father had always told her. She soon became my first girlfriend, inasmuch as one has a girlfriend in elementary school, and just as quickly became my first ex-girlfriend.)
Years later, I of course realize that I was indeed mistaken in my assumption, and it begins to strike me as rather curious that Tchaikovsky’s piece celebrating the victory of Russian troops over those of the Napoleonic French should be such a mainstay of the Fourth of July. To a certain extent, it is not surprising at all. It is instantly recognizable and replete with bombast, rousing themes (including “La Marseillaise”, which is patriotic enough for the French, although here it represents the soon-to-be thwarted opposing force), and perhaps most importantly cannon shots. The latter is the key ingredient, enabling music and fireworks display to synchronize, joining together music and spectacle to form a heady combination of pomposity and bluster that threatens to overwhelm the sensorium of the crowd already inebriated through some combination of summer heat, caffeine, joy, alcohol, and sugar.
However, there are some works of classical music that can properly be thought of as patriotic by American composers and that utilize American patriotic tunes as source material. I am by no means attempting to exhaust this subject in this short column. There are plenty of other pieces I could have discussed and probably plenty more of which I am blithely unaware. These are just two pieces that I think are rather noteworthy. The pieces we shall take a look at here are equally (or nearly) as bombastic as Tchaikovsky’s opus (such works are not designed to be subtle entertainments as is evidenced by the spate of “patriotic” country songs following the 9/11 attacks) but they are not even remotely as well known. They will certainly not be replacing the 1812 Overture any time soon, but they may be worth your time should you find yourself curious and willing to purchase a recording.
Portland Rose Festival Fireworks 2006 – 1812 Overture
The Union by Louis Moreau Gottschalk; piano solo
“Louis Moreau who“, you ask? Although he may not be a figure that one most readily think of today, Gottschalk was quite famous in his time as the composer and performer of virtuoso piano pieces and his music is now considered to be an important forerunner of ragtime. Born in New Orleans in 1829, Gottschalk soon demonstrated a prodigious talent at the piano. In 1841, he moved to Europe in order to acquire better training in both performance and composition. It was there that he began to make his mark, impressing Chopin with his virtuosity and creating something of a rage with his compositions that blended Western harmonies with the bold syncopation of the music of the West Indies.
He later spent years in Havana, Cuba, where he was exceedingly popular but not financially secure. After some catastrophically unsuccessful concerts during which he wavered between highhanded elitism and the worst kind of pandering to low tastes (at one point he found himself working with a magician), Gottschalk was left with little choice but to return to the United States to take up a concert tour on his native soil. However, it was January 1862 when Gottschalk left Cuba (only nine months after shots were fired on Fort Sumter) and the United States was embroiled in civil war. Since he was a Southerner, Gottschalk was in a difficult predicament. His writings demonstrate that he had no sympathy for slavery but he was loath to disavow his connection with his birthplace. However, before he could depart for New York, he had to declare officially that he was loyal to the union. He signed the declaration but soon after his arrival, he took a decisive step further.
Arriving in New York in February, Gottschalk almost immediately plunged into a concert series. Meanwhile the Federal troops were experiencing their first real victories in the war and the news imbued the metropolis with jubilance and a reinvigorated national pride. In a move doubtless calculated to capitalize upon the prevailing mood, Gottschalk composed The Union in honor of George Washington’s birthday. It was later played in the presence of Abraham Lincoln and although Gottschalk bemoaned the performance as being sub par, the critics proclaimed it among his best.
The Union is a bravado showpiece that opens with bursts of impressive pianistic bombast that give way to some more contemplative arpeggiated passages. This flashy introduction serves to open the way for the appearance of “The Star Spangled Banner”. This theme was not declared the national anthem until 1931 and in Gottschalk’s day was simply a patriotic tune among others. In Gottschalk’s rendition it maintains an almost wistful quality throughout its opening but then begins to sound more like a playful march that soon transmutes into a more rousing instantiation of the tune before the opening bravura passages return.
This is followed by another march figure that soon reveals itself to be a second borrowed tune: “Hail, Columbia!”. This is a most appropriate choice for the occasion of our first president’s birth inasmuch as the piece was written for the inauguration of Washington; “Hail, Columbia!” was the unofficial national anthem at the time (it is still performed on official occasions to introduce the Vice President). The piece concludes with the masterstroke: a setting of “Hail, Columbia!” combined in counterpoint with “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. The message was clear (the Union would be saved through Yankee perseverance) and the piece was an instant success (well, in the North anyway). However, Gottschalk’s musical politics may have been a bit more ambiguous; after all, he had also written a set of variations on “Dixie”.
The Union, a composition written at a difficult moment in our nation’s history (some, including myself, would go so far as to say the defining moment in that history), is more than an amusing period piece. Although it teeters on the edge of preciosity, it provides us with a fascinating snapshot of musical patriotism (contrived or not) during the Civil War, and today asks us to contemplate once again the various meanings we have derived from that conflict.
“The Fourth of July” from A Symphony: New England Holidays by Charles Ives
My second offering comes from one of the truly great American composers and, in my opinion, the only composer who has successfully tapped into such overt Americana without sounding trivial. “The Fourth of July” is the third movement of Ives’s Holidays Symphony, a set of four pieces designed to capture, in his words, “something of the memory that a man has of his boy holidays.” Completed in September 1912 (but not performed until 1932), Ives claimed, “I did what I wanted to, quite sure that the thing would never be played, and perhaps could never be played.” Indeed, one can see the reason behind Ives’s assumption: his technique of layering sound complexes on top of one another creates a texture so overwhelmingly dense that it often borders on cacophony and at times it jumps that border completely.
In part, Ives was striving to recapture the bluster and excitement of marching bands in holiday parades. He was so specific in his “realistic” approach to the subject that he even included missing beats and melodic blunders in an attempt to replicate the common errors of the amateur bands that performed on these occasions in his Connecticut hometown of Danbury. Furthermore, Ives included a plethora of borrowed material ranging from folk tunes to popular tunes to, of course, patriotic songs. A partial list of this source material includes: “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean”, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, and “Irish Washerwoman”. These are all tunes except, perhaps, for the last that might have been performed by a marching band in late 19th-century New England.
However, this is where Ives’s “realism” ends, giving way to the memory of a man looking back fondly toward the long-lost days of boyhood. Thus, pieces are not presented discreetly, performed one after the other, but rather they are superposed upon one another. Ives utilizes only mere fragments of most of the melodies sometimes enough to allow for clear recognition, sometimes only enough to suggest a familiar tune, and sometimes he buries the reference deep within the overarching melee so that even a careful listener may remain blithely unaware of its presence. This is a wonderful evocation of the workings of memory, the way the mind leaps among reminiscences and fuses different but similar occasions together. One remembers the excitement, the heady confusion, the noise but the details…well, the details become confused.
One might suspect that such a rich confluence of source material would lead to a composition marked by formlessness and incoherence. However, Ives manages to create a piece that holds together remarkably well even while it goes to great lengths to represent the mild incoherence of memory and under-rehearsed marching bands (representations of formlessness need not themselves be formless). Indeed, the entire piece has its foundation in the structure and harmonies of “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean” but often that tune is itself difficult to discern beneath the tumult of disparate melodic fragments that vie for the listener’s attention.
The music opens softly with shimmering string dissonances and the stirrings of the main theme in the bass. Slowly, the texture builds as fragments of tunes pile up some are still recognizable to us today while others have mostly been forgotten. “The Battle Hymn” comes to the fore only to dissipate almost immediately. More fragments appear, many of them performed simultaneously but in different keys and thus producing some rather startling dissonances. Twice the intensity builds to a climactic explosion. Although they may sound like pure musical chaos, Ives took great pains in preparing and executing these explosions. They are nearly overwhelming in their impact both emotional and sonic. The second explosion subsides to reveal the shimmering strings of the opening and the piece draws to a close. “The Fourth of July” is a fascinating achievement and deserving of repeated listening, although you should be careful concerning the volume. While writing this article (and playing the piece over and over) I twice had the neighbor knock on my door to inquire after what was occurring within my apartment.
Probably neither of these pieces would be all that practicable during a Fourth of July fireworks display. The Union was composed for solo piano (although I am sure there must be an orchestral arrangement out there somewhere) and I can only imagine what kind of display would result from the combination of pyrotechnics and Ives’s “The Fourth of July” (I am picturing my brother’s water balloon incident on an extremely large scale). However, they are both fascinating pieces and may be just what you need when sitting in your home watching the fireworks on television with the sound off. Your personal soundtrack won’t synchronize with the images, but why not enjoy a little incongruity?