May 7, 2016

101 Reel-to-Reel Tapes 117: Tchaikovsky ~ 1812 Overture

reel-to-reel tape cover
photo by Styrous®

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I started the Vinyl LP series because I have a collection of over 20,000 vinyl record albums I am selling; each blog entry is about an album from my collection. The 101 Reel-to-Reel Tapes series is an extension of that collection. Inquire for information here.   

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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, aka Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, was born on this day, May 7, 1840, in Vyatka Governorate (present-day Udmurtia) in the Russian Empire, into a family with a long line of military service.     

the 1812 Overture

The Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture, written in 1880, was my first experience in classical music. The first version of the Overture I purchased was the 1953 Arthur Fiedler (more on him in a future article) vinyl LP monophonic recording.      

vinyl LP mono recording cover
photo by Styrous®

This reel-to-reel tape recording by Antal Doráti was purchased later in 1959. In the US, stereo magnetic tape recording was demonstrated on standard 1/4-inch tape for the first time in 1952, using two sets of recording and playback heads, upside-down and offset from one another. I remember being in awe at the lack of pops, snaps and crackles and did not mind the faint tape hiss.  

It wasn't until November of 1957, when the Audio Fidelity Records label released the first mass-produced stereophonic disc, that the only stereo recordings were on reel-to-reel audio tape.

reel-to-reel tape back cover
photo by Styrous®

Dorati was the first conductor to make a recording of Tchaikovsky's "1812" Overture (featuring the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra) with real cannons, brass band, and church bells, first in mono in 1954 and then in stereo in 1958. I remember I was 19, studying music in college when I discovered this recording. The fact that it utilized a REAL cannon, bronze bells and chimes was more than this 19-year-old boy could resist! The incredibly rousing finale is a sonic spectacle! WOW!    

 bronze cannon, Douay, France
reel-to-reel tape cover detail
detail photo by Styrous®

The 1812 festival overture in E major, Op. 49, popularly known as the 1812 Overture, is an overture written in 1880 to commemorate Russia's defence of its motherland against Napoleon's invading Grande Armée in 1812.  The opening is based on the first mode of the Kievan chant.

 scene depicting the French retreat from Russia in 1812, 
painting by Illarion Pryanishnikov (1874)

The overture debuted in Moscow on 20 August 1882, conducted by Ippolit Al'tani under a tent near the then unfinished Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which also memorialized the 1812 defense of Russia. The overture was conducted by Tchaikovsky himself in 1891 at the dedication of Carnegie Hall. The overture is best known for its climactic volley of cannon fire, ringing chimes, and brass fanfare finale. It has also become a common accompaniment to fireworks displays. The 1812 Overture became Tchaikovsky's most popular work.

reel-to-reel tape box spine
photos by Styrous®

There is a very beautiful recording of the Overture conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy with full choral by the St.Petersburg Chamber Choir, the Leningrad Military Orchestra and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra (link on YouTube below).   

reel-to-reel tape back cover detail
detail photo by Styrous®

The  Doráti 1954 Mercury Records recording (this one) with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, was partially recorded at West Point, and used the Yale Memorial Carillon in New Haven, Connecticut, and a Napoleonic French single muzzleloading cannon shot dubbed in 16 times as written. On the first edition of the recording, one side played the Overture and the other side featured a narrative by Deems Taylor about how the cannon and bell effects were accomplished. The narrative is actually very interesting (links to Overture & ).   

Both the mono and stereo "1812" versions sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA


photo by Styrous®

Antal Doráti, KBE, was born on April 9, 1906, in in Budapest, Hungary. He studied at the Franz Liszt Academy with Zoltán Kodály and Leo Weiner for composition and Béla Bartók for piano. He became a naturalized American citizen in 1943.         

In 1983, Queen Elizabeth II made Doráti an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE). This entitled him to use the post-nominal letters KBE. By convention honorary knights do generally not use the "Sir" unless they subsequently acquire UK citizenship.     

His recording of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, received the coveted French award Grand Prix du Disque.    

Doráti died on November 13, 1988.    

reel-to-reel tape label
photo by Styrous®

Track listing: 

side one - 1812 Overture - 14:50

side two - narration by Deems Taylor (Commentary) - 12:02

Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, University Of Minnesota Brass Band, Tchaikovsky* ‎– 1812 Festival Overture Op. 49 
Label: Mercury ‎–  MCS 5-54  
Series: Mercury Living Presence –
Format: Reel to Reel Tape, 7-1/2 IPS, Stereo
Country: US
Released: 1958
Genre: Classical
Style: Romantic


A1     –Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra With University Of Minnesota Brass Band     1812 Festival Overture, Op. 49

    Composed By – Tchaikovsky*

A2     –Deems Taylor     Spoken Commentary (Beginning)    
B1     –Deems Taylor     Spoken Commentary -     

    Composed By – Tchaikovsky*

Companies, etc.

    Recorded At – Northrop Memorial Auditorium


    Conductor – Antal Dorati (tracks: A1)
    Directed By – Gale Sperry (tracks: A1)


Also featured on A1:
Bronze Cannon, Duay, France (1775) Courtesy U. S. Military Academy, West Point, N. Y.
Bells of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon, The Riverside Church

The Tchaikovsky ~ 1812 Overture 
            Reel-to-Reel Tape is for sale on Discogs    

Net links:            
1812 Instrumentation           
Doráti Recordings
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky                    
1812 Overture on YouTube:        
Antal Doráti version        
Styrous® ~ Saturday, May 7, 2016


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