The Big Guns

When I was growing up I played in the Symphonic Band. This gave me an opportunity to play a variety of percussion instruments including concert snare, bass drum, timpani, marimba, glockenspiel, and auxiliary instruments like shaker, cowbell, triangle and go-go bells. I favored the timpani and concert snare, sucked at the marimba, and had too big of an ego to respect any of the other instruments. We performed at school functions and concerts. I was also in the marching band, stage band, and percussion ensemble but the Symphonic Band was the most challenging.

It was also an actual class that I took each and every day. It was considered an elective course so I practiced more for that band than any of the other bands that I played in. Symphonic Band required the most reading too. That was when my reading chops where at their strongest. One of the songs that we performed every year was Tchaikovsky’s famous 1812 Overture. That song was a lot of fun.

The required percussion for that composition includes: timpani, orchestral bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle, carillon, and a battery of cannons. Our bass drum player nearly broke a head while simulating the cannons being fired 16 times. Originally Tchaikovsky used actual field pieces. During a live performance precision in placement of the shots required either well-drilled military crews using modern cannon or the use of sixteen pieces of muzzle-loading artillery. The time lag alone required sixteen 1812-era guns.

According to the meaning behind the cannons “Tchaikovsky’s 1812 was written for the consecration of the Kremlin’s Cathedral of the Redeemer, which had been built in the early 1880s to celebrate the 1812 victory over Napoleon. The music of the overture is supposed to depict a culminating battle between the opposing armies, and it includes special effects such as church bells and cannons because Tchaikovsky had been asked to make the finale as thrilling as possible, and knew that he would have access to those resources because of the location and nature of the intended event.”


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