Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture is a staple of Fourth of July celebrations around the United States, yet many of us might not be aware of the narrative that unfolds in the music. You might think that it recounts a pivotal battle between the United States and Great Britain during the War of 1812 but you would be wrong. You might be really intelligent and know that the piece is actually about Russia driving Napoleon out of Moscow in early fall of 1812, as heard with the competing musical quotations of the French (“La Marseillaise“) and Russian (“God Save the Tsar!“) national anthems near the end. But that is only part of the narrative.
The key to understanding the 1812 Overture is the Russian hymn, “O Lord, Save Thy People,” that begins the piece (and is usually left out of American performances):
O Lord, save Thy people, and bless Thine inheritance!
Grant victory to the right believing Emperor over their adversaries,
And by virtue of Thy cross, preserve Thy habitation.
Here in the hymn the Russian people pray for God’s deliverance from the invading Napoleonic armies. They earnestly seek out God and expect Him to act in history by protecting them from the coming onslaught of Europe’s most powerful army. God miraculously sends in waves of heavy winter storms, driving the French armies to retreat and the Russian people turn their praise to the God Who saves “by virtue of Thy cross.” The 1812 Overture then, is not a story of American patriotism and triumph but the story of a God Who is sovereign and provident over all of human history.