But what is the "1812 Overture" really about? It's not about our War of 1812 against the British. Rather, Tchaikovsky wrote it to commemorate a Russian victory in the Napoleonic Wars -- the Battle of Borodino, where Russian forces turned back Napoleon. Let's just recap: in relation to the very American July 4th event, the "1812 Overture" is about the wrong war on the wrong continent between the wrong protagonists. And there's more. The work quotes the Russian Imperial and the French national anthems, and uses those two tunes to represent the ebb and flow of the two armies. Is blasting out the "God Save the Tsar" really the best way to celebrate America's Independence Day? And what about "La Marsailles"? So let's forget the Russian overture written by a Russian honoring the victory of a Russian monarch over a French military dictator and trot out some red-blooded American classical music written by real Americans.
If you're looking for rousing, orchestral music that can be enjoyed by casual listeners in a casual setting, here are some suggestions of Real American music written by Real Americans.
Michael Daugherty: Mount RushmoreDaugherty's composition embodies the vernacular of American music and culture. His Metropolis Symphony is a musical portrait of Superman (a distinctly American superhero) and his world. "Mount Rushmore" has four movements, corresponding to the four presidents it depicts: Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln. Daugherty quotes Revolutionary War songs in Washington's movement, 18th Century French music in Jefferson's, and the finale is an inspiring Copland-esque setting of Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" for orchestra and chorus. This should be a standard work for 4th of July concerts!
Charles Ives: Variations on "America"No composer sums up the American spirit of independence of thought than Ives. His variations on this distinctively American tune are original and inspired, and makes more traditional arrangements just sound uninspired.
Thompson wrote this four-movement choral work for Thomas Jefferson's bicentennial in 1943. It's a populist setting of Jefferson's words, written in the midst of the Second World War. This is an easily accessible work, and can be an uplifting one, too.
Randall Thompson - Testament of Freedom
Ernest Bloch - America, an Epic RhapsodyWant to celebrate the immigrant experience on the 4th? After all, if you go back far enough, you'll find we all came from someplace else. Swiss-born Ernest Bloch wrote a tribute to his adopted country in 1923. It starts with music inspired by Native Americans and moves forward through the centuries. Epic, indeed.
No one could write expansive, elegiac American music like Clifton Williams. Want to salute our troops? This march should fill the bill -- especially if you'd like to give the Sousa marches a rest.
Clifton Williams: Strategic Air Command March
J.J. Richards: Shield of Liberty MarchAnd speaking of marches, Sousa wasn't the only one writing good ones in the 1890's. C.L. Barnhouse was a cornet player who wanted to improve the quality of band music, so he started a publishing company that's still in business today. Marches were among the most popular genres, and things like Richards' "Shield of Liberty" march. Now this is the way to start a patriotic concert!
A uniquely American holiday should feature uniquely American music. And there's plenty of it for full orchestra (or wind ensemble). We can do better than the "1812 Overture." Much better.