Tchaikovsky’s The Year 1812, Festival Overture in E Flat Major, more commonly known as the 1812 Overture, can be heard in 4th of July concerts all across the country. The nearly 15-minute piece was composed to commemorate Russia’s defense against Napoleon but has been adopted by all of America including right here in Naperville.
Every year since 1859 the Naperville Municipal Band has played a special patriotic 4th of July concert, and every year since 1977, that concert has ended with a “bang.”
The tradition started when then Mayor Chester Rybecki wanted the band to play the 1812 Overture. Director Ron Keller said he could, but to do it right he needed real cannons.
“He said, ‘Whoa! Ok!’ So the next day I was working the summer band program for the school district and the phone rang and it was Chet Rybecki and he said “I have four 105 Howitzers. When do you want them and what time?’” said Keller.
Starting slow, like a hymn, the overture gradually builds, until finally cannons are fired. A group of Civil War reenactors provide the cannons every year to help bring the piece alive.
“The music builds as the French attack progresses,” said Richard Baldino, Corporal, Taylor’s Battery Co. B, 1st IL Light Artillery. “The cannons fire when the real battle occurs and then the song winds down as the French retreat from Russia.”
The overture weaves in the Russian national anthem and ends triumphantly with bells. In order to really capture the emotion, Keller recruited area churches to ring their bells at the end of the piece.
Audiences enjoyed the 1812 Overture for seven years. In 1984, Keller substituted the song with a different piece, but Naperville wasn’t happy.
“I think it was called The Civil War Fantasy,” said Keller. “It had a medley and tunes from the Civil War and I think we used three cannons that year. Well I had complaints, my phone was ringing off the wall, people saying ‘oh you’ve got to do the 1812 Overture.’”
Keller brought back the overture the following year and it’s now a tradition in Naperville that the band has played 34 times.
“It’s always the biggest crowd of the year,” said Keller. “We have as many as 8,000 people in this park, that come down as early as 6:00 in the morning with lawn chairs and stake out their property, with blankets and everything. It’s quite a show.”
The concert isn’t the only time Naperville gets to hear the booming cannons. They are the same ones used at Naper Settlement’s Civil War Days.
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