Conducting the ‘1812 Overture'

Spag stick conductor.
Spag stick conductor.
From its packet in the pantry, I unsheathed a dried spaghetti stick. Ran my finger along it: good, a worthy if brittle baton.

I saw no need to change out of my dressing gown: any gown is ceremonial in the privacy of home.

Into the stereo I put my Reader's Digest free-gift CD of Tchaikovsky's "Festival of Hits". I have been listening to this best-of album since I was a teenager, and little other classical music besides.

I skipped to track 10, the 1812 Overture. Normally I would skip to track 6, Swan Lake Ballet Suite, but this was a special occasion.

The occasion was the bicentenary of the Battle of Borodino, an incident in which the French fought the Russians on Russian ground and, between them, the nations lost an estimated 70,000 people in a day. More than half a Dunedin. That is sickening even 200 years later.

It is also absurd, pointless. Is there a grand scheme of things? I suspect not, but if there is, the scheme appears not to have been affected by all those deaths. Inhumanity and humanity keep happening in approximately equal measure, and for this reason you might as well die old, rather than young and for someone else's cause.

Some cultural artefacts were, however, created as a result of the Battle of Borodino and its overarching Napoleonic war. These include Tolstoy's famously fat novel War & Peace and Tchaikovsky's famously cannon-fiery 1812 Overture.

So, in honour of the bicentenary of a battle, I took up a spaghetti-stick baton and attempted to conduct the overture. The orchestra was imaginary.

The overture begins with a hymn, requiring gentle waving of the semolina-flour wand in the direction of the imaginary cellos and violas.

I know the piece relatively well, although it is my least favourite track on "Festival of Hits".

I usually prefer to pretend to conduct the ballet works because these are, if you ask me, personal: the composer, perpetually tormented by homoerotic feelings, hides nothing of the thrilling hope, creativity, passion, doubt and despair that marked his life, and never mind the lives of some mythical accursed swans and a nutcracker.

Still, I thought I should give the pompous and ceremonious 1812 Overture an airing. At school our history teacher played it through for us once and cried. Surely I, too, could engage emotionally with the 15-minute musical progression that tells the story of the Russian defence, now that I had grown up and read the relevant Wikipedia pages.

The eyebrows can be used to command a bang on the kettledrum, which is then followed by a clarinet, or possibly an oboe (it doesn't matter too much as the orchestra is not real) joining the cellos to signal the danger of the French advance.

Practically the whole orchestra then gets involved for the battle scene, and this would be very difficult to conduct even for a real conductor because it's all happening at once; arms waving maniacally; quite discombobulating.

Next, a tilt of the spaghetti stick brings in the trumpeting of the French national anthem. I think this is supposed to indicate victory at Borodino; it does not last long considering what it represents.

The rest of the overture is then a bit of a guessing game for me as conductor, until late in the twelfth minute when the cannon blasts come in with stomps of my feet.

I am not sure who is firing at whom here: in real life, the Russians eventually got hold of the French cannons, which had become stuck in frozen mud, and turned them back on the French as they drove them out of Russia. That was just weeks after Borodino, so again, you have to wonder what it was all for.

In the end, I couldn't get into the 1812 Overture. This spaghetti-stick conductor's heart is not with the militaristic music of massacre. Tchaikovsky himself called it "a lot of noise about nothing". Nothing. Agreed. The obliteration of 70,000 is just too much to comprehend.

Guy Fawkes remix...

This fine piece of music will never be the same since I was in Christchurch on Guy Fawkes night and heard an orchestra and fireworks technicial have....ummm...artistic differences.  The fireworks acted as the cannon.  That was the plan anyway.  Instead, we had: da-da-BOOOOOM-da-da-da-da-daaaaa....<silence>.  Highly amusing.

Spag Pops Orchestra

Another meta column with a message: war, what is it good for? AC, you took time within our walled city to channel Borodino and the Napoleonic incursion into Russia. Bravo.
My cohort had to make do with Herbert Lom, War and Peace, 1956. Stomping out cannon works. As ASM, Grey Repertory, I made FX by banging a plank offstage.