Don't Rain on My Tchaikovsky

After I conducted an outdoor Fourth of July concert in Colorado Springs many years ago, I received an effusive letter from a friend who had attended. He called the performance "stirring," "stimulating," "delightful." I appreciated the compliments, but in retrospect I think he was trying to console me. The circumstances surrounding the concert bore an eerie resemblance to a Boston Pops concert on the Esplanade last Fourth of July. Tchaikovsky's "1812" overture was performed at both, and both ended in a deluge.

My friend wrote: "How we felt for you when the rains began to come! It was a welcome note, albeit humorous and tragic at the same time, to hear you call for the Fort Carson cannons without further delay. As we made a dash for our car when the concert was over, I could not help thinking of the great cries to arms over the centuries. During the Indian war in frontier days it was 'Geronimo!' Years later, in Cuba, it was 'Remember the Maine!' You, Walter, in your time have not failed, for in the reenactment of the War of 1812, again and again, we heard the words, 'Barney, the cannon!' "

Being the originator of a famous war cry to be remembered for generations is heady stuff. But I must set the record straight: It was Marty, not Barney. My letter-writer's difficulty in deciphering my words is understandable, if more of the story is told.

THE cannons were four howitzers from Fort Carson, manned by United States Army cannoneers. The "1812" overture is, after all, the musical description of the battle of Borodino between the Russian Army and Napoleon's troops. Although the French withdrew in a strategic retreat, the Russians claimed a victory. The commemorative overture is perhaps the noisiest bit of program music ever written. The Russian national anthem and the Marseillaise weave in and out of the musical fabric, indicating the fortunes of the adversaries as the battle advances.

The music builds in intensity to an enormous climax in which the Russian hymn emerges triumphant, the cannons blaze away, and "church bells" (tubular chimes in the percussion section) ring out as if all the churches in Moscow are joining in celebration. All of this is accompanied by a spectacular fireworks display. This last refinement was added to further rev up the excitement - as if this composer's most flamboyant piece needs any revving-up.

The commandant of Fort Carson gave us not only cannons but also the fort's military band to add to the authenticity (not to mention the volume) of the overture's triumphal ending. Tchaikovsky scored a military band as an option. The composer also specifies the number of rounds of ammunition: 15.

At the meeting to plan the synchronization of music and military, a major presided over a staff that ran down the chain of command from captain, lieutenant, and their aides, to a staff sergeant. Each had clipboard, pens, and marker at the ready. There was much give-and-take, all with military correctness. Lots of "sirs" prefaced remarks.

All the while, the sergeant, the lone noncommissioned officer present, tried to get in a word. He was repeatedly cut off or ignored by his superior officers. His frustration mounted until he finally blurted out, "Sir, how many rounds do I need to requisition?" He was in charge of the detail assigned to man the cannons.

He was crestfallen when I told him. Here indeed was a problem. Ammunition must be ordered in even numbers, according to regulations.

"Don't worry, sergeant," I quickly reassured him. "Once the cannons start blazing away, it won't really matter what we're playing. Go ahead and fire the extra round! Let's have a ball!"

The cannons were to be stationed in the hills a safe quarter-mile away. Because of the guns' distance, we needed a communications link between the orchestra and the cannons. I chose Marty for the job.

On that fateful night, when the orchestra and I were well into the battle scenes, I felt a fleck of dampness on my cheek, then heard a rumble of thunder. The battle of Borodino now became a battle against the elements. I mentally ran through a few maneuvers to get orchestra and audience out of the performance quickly - and dry.

My first instinct was to segue immediately to the spot in the score where the cannons enter. But how? I couldn't just flash a signal and expect 75 players to jump to that spot. Resolutely, I took command of my troops, who were fiddling and blowing in a state of high anxiety. I tried to speed up the tempo gradually, but it was getting darker. More thunder rumbled from above.

Tossing caution to the wind, I boldly pointed to Marty with my pencil flashlight. This was the cue for him to telegraph the cannoneers via the field telephone at his side. I assumed that he had sensed the weather emergency and would act with dispatch. But Marty didn't look up. His nose was buried in the score.

Here I must inform you that Marty was a musicologist. His concern was primarily with research and study of all things musical, but not with performance per se. You might say that he was a "guest artist."

I had enlisted him to man the telephone because I felt confident he would convey the order to fire at the precise moment. Marty followed the score precisely, all right. Why should he look at me? He knew we had not arrived at the composer's chosen point for the cannons' entrance. And apparently he was determined to preserve the sanctity of the composer's creation.

MEANWHILE, I was frantically trying to get his attention. So I yelled at him, I don't remember how many times, "Marty, the cannon!" Not once did he respond. What's more, because of all the commotion, I didn't realize I was yelling into an open microphone I had forgotten to turn off.

My letter-writer heard my pleas; so did thousands of others in the audience. But not Marty. He was obeying the higher authority of Tchaikovsky's muse.

I became resigned. I pressed on with the orchestra, trying to beat the raindrops by racing to reach the legitimate cue for the cannons. When we did, Marty looked up, acknowledged my signal, and the bombardment began.

I know there are many who will commend Marty for his musical integrity. Despite his erudition and precision, however, I doubt he spotted that extra round.

* The writer is a former conductor, violinist, and professor at Boston University.

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