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Saturday, September 7, 2019

September 7 is the anniversary of the battle of Borodino, on which War and Peace and the 1812 Overture are based

Larger version here
September 7  is the anniversary of the battle of Borodino (wiki) on 7 September 1812, at which Napoleon's (wiki) Grande Armée grappled bitterly with massed Russian forces defending Moscow under Marshal Mikhail Kutusov (1745-1813)* during Napoleon's invasion of Russia

Kutusov suffered significant losses, and the French occupied Moscow a week later, but in a month, Napoleon's disastrous retreat toward the west had begun. As Tolstoy noted in War and Peace,
"The cudgel of the people's war was lifted with all its menacing and majestic might, and caring nothing for good taste and procedure, with dull-witted simplicity but sound judgment, it rose and fell, making no distinctions."
Napoleon's own judgment has become more famous:

"Du sublime au ridicule il n'y a qu'un pas."

(From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step.)

Here's the rousing cannon-punctuated finale of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, conducted by Leonard Bernstein:

Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was commissioned to write that staple of summer pops concerts, the 1812 Overture (actually Ouverture Solennelle 1812, Op. 49), for an exhibition of arts and industries at Moscow in 1881. It was intended to commemorate the battle of Borodino and Napoleon's ultimate defeat.**

* N.B. Earlier, at the battle of Smolensk, Kutusov had noted, "The battle has already been decided. It is like a river that runs downhill. I can only move it slightly to the right or left. But its outcome will not be changed by me."

** During the Soviet era, Russian performances of the 1812 Overture substituted an anonymous chorale-like tune for "God Preserve the Czar," the "Russian hymn" quoted by Tchaikovsky in the original.

A brief documentary:

Related post: the anniversary of the 1815 Battle of Waterloo: history, quotes and video (including a Lego re-enactment)

Parts of the text above are based on Ed's Quotation of the Day, only available via email - leave your email address in the comments if you'd like to be added to his list. Ed is the author of Hunters and Killers: Volume 1: Anti-Submarine Warfare from 1776 to 1943 and Hunters and Killers: Volume 2: Anti-Submarine Warfare from 1943.


  1. +++substituted an anonymous chorale-like tune for "God Preserve the Czar," the "Russian hymn"+++

    Well. "God save the Tsar" in the original indeed was the anthem of Russian Empire until 1917 Revolution. During the Soviet era, it was substituted by not some anonymous tune, but by "Glory" or, rather, "Be glorious" piece from an opera by another Russian composer, Michael Glinka.

    Now, to make the matters more interesting, the abovementioned opera, based on a popular legend about a common Russian peasant named Ivan Susanin who had deliberately guided a Polish detachement into the deadly woods in XVII century, was originally called "A Life for the Tsar" and the lyrics read "Be, be glorious, the Russuan Tsar!". But during the Soviet era, the opera was renamed a simply "Ivan Susanin" and the lyrics of the piece were changed to proclaim glory to the Russian people insted of the Tsar...

    So there :)