4th of July fireworks, photo courtesy of U.S. Air ForceWhether you’re on the road or at home for the 4th of July, I hope you’ll have a chance to enjoy this special American holiday. It will be celebrated in big cities and small towns from coast to coast, and many of those events will include not only fireworks and food, but plenty of music.

Some musical selections, such as The Stars and Stripes Forever, have become a established traditions in July 4th concerts, and you probably have your own favorites. Feel free to list your top 3 choices in the comment box below!

If you have a chance to see one of the larger 4th of July concerts, you’re likely to hear a musical selection that was originally written to celebrate a military victory in another country. It includes portions of the national anthems from two other nations, including one that no longer even exists. Like to make a guess about this number?

With its booming cannons and pealing bells, the 1812 Overture has become a favorite at some of the nation’s largest Independence Day celebrations, including “A Capitol Fourth in Washington, D.C. and “Pops Goes the Fourth” with the Boston Pops Orchestra. Music commemorating a battle in 1812 may seem to be a very American choice for a 4th of July concert. After all, didn’t we prevail over the British for a second time in the War of 1812?

Well, yes, we did, but the fun “story behind the story” is that the inspiration for this piece of music had nothing to do with the U.S.A. Some of the most stirring sections of the work are based on music with historic ties to France and Russia.

On October 19, 1812, the army of Napoleon I of France ended its failed invasion of Russia and began a disastrous retreat from Moscow. In 1880, the Russian composer Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write a piece of music to celebrate that event, and he called it Overture 1812. He included the tunes from two then-current national anthems in his work.

“La Marseillaise” became the rallying call of the French Revolution and was adopted as the French national anthem in 1795. Although the Boston Pops Orchestra has ensured that the music won’t be banned in Boston on July 4th, it was banned in France by Napoleon I, Louis XVIII, and Napoleon III before being reinstated in 1879.

“God Save the Tsar!” was chosen as the national anthem of the former Russian Empire 1833 and held that honor until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It provided a great tune for Tchaikovsky’s overture, but clearly failed the test of political correctness when the tsarist era ended.

Perhaps all of this proves that we are a nation of people graciously willing to embrace the musical contributions of other cultures. I suspect, however, that some Americans don’t have a clue about the background of this music, and it doesn’t really matter anyway. What this piece’s popularity does confirm is that we do know a tune that goes well with a fireworks show when we hear one! The 1812 Overture certainly fits that bill.

Here’s a final tidbit of historical irony: October 19th is not only the date observed in Russia for the victory over Napoleon, it’s also the day in 1781 that the British army surrendered to the forces under George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia. That event effectively marked the end of the American Revolution and ensured the success of our quest for independence. Perhaps the 1812 Overture is more appropriate for our 4th of July celebrations than many of us realize!

Now, don’t you wish your history teacher had explained to you so clearly how all those seemingly unrelated historical events really do fit together? Perhaps your holiday weekend will include a rousing game of “Trivial Pursuit.” If so, you’re primed and ready for several questions in the “History” category!

Jim Burnett


Life – it’s an adventure…. Find something to smile about today!

This story is adapted from the book Hey Ranger! © Jim Burnett and Taylor Trade Publishing, used by permission.

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