Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture

Little boys like things that go “BOOM.” Come to think of it, big boys do, too. How else can you explain the wars that continue to spring up even after the fall of the Berlin Wall?

Several years before my daughters were born, an article appeared in the Washington Post, by a puzzled mother. She had a small son whom she had tried to keep away from toy guns, violent movies, and all other traditionally gender-based activities. One day at a friend’s house she saw her son hop on a tricycle, pretend he was an airplane fighter pilot, and go racing down a hill, making a rat-a-tat noise as he simulated strafing his playmates. The mother concluded that boys possess a gene for this kind of behavior, or else the missing leg of the “Y” chromosome, which girls don’t lack, is involved in masking this behavior. I suspect this might be the secret reason behind the popularity for the 1812 Overture

This turns out to be another one of those pieces that’s hard-wired into everyone’s neural structure, because of over-playing. My earliest memory of the piece goes back to a 1960’s television commercial for the cereal, Quaker Puffed Rice. The ending of the Overture blared in the background as canons exploded, showering the screen with the puffed cereal. The clever copywriters had penned these memorable lyrics: “This is the cereal that’s shot from guns. This is the cereal that’s shot from guns. Quaker Puffed Rice!” which scans perfectly.

Nowadays you can’t go to an Independence Day concert, without the orchestra playing it. What’s more, a kind of 1812 Overture arms race has begun as people found the kettle drums lacking sufficient “oomph.” You can now hire a company that will set up a row of computer-controlled mortars, which the percussionist can percuss in perfect cadence with the music. I have also heard of towns making deals with the Army artillery to actually set off real Howitzer canons at the end of the piece.

I must admit that as a boy, those bursting canons did fascinate me. When I first heard the entire piece, though, I was surprised to find that the canons only occur at the end. Before that, Tchaikowski effectively captured the worry of Napoleon’s campaign, the rallying of the Russian people, and the terror of battle. This music evokes vivid images and that too might be a reason for its continued popularity. Even among boys.

Before my daughters were born, I came down on the side of nurture in the “nature versus nurture debate.” To prove the case, I tried to capture  their interests with non-sexist toys, book, and games. My oldest daughter went through a strong tom boy phase, which I believed proved the case. However, they both raised their eyebrows later when I brought home a used race car set from a garage sale. I stopped the experiment when I realized they were drawing the wrong conclusion: one day I overheard Claire—the oldest—say to my wife that she thought that I must have really wanted a son.

Now, they’ve both graduated from college and have boyfriends. They don’t follow contemporary fashion, but they dress fashionably in retro-Hippy. They both studied science and are quite articulate and environmentally aware.

Still, one summer when they were children, at an Independence Day concert in front of town hall, they were excited to find out that the orchestra would perform The 1812 Orchestra that evening. They were up for it when I suggested we go watch the computer-controlled mortars. We all laughed when the mortars went off and nearly scared us out of our skin.


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