This week, music lovers reassemble where Tchaikovsky’s vision was first fully realized.
The Minnesota Orchestra’s sold-out “Echoes of History” concert reopening the University of Minnesota’s iconic Northrop Memorial Auditorium on Friday reprises more than Northrop’s original Oct. 22, 1929 dedicatory concert. It also celebrates the special, if unlikely, relationship between the auditorium, the orchestra, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s famous “1812 Overture.”
The 1929 performance by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra concluded with the “1812 Overture,” and the Minnesota Orchestra’s performance will do the same this week.
But in the 1950s, the auditorium and Tchaikovsky also brought the orchestra its first “gold” record (and worldwide fame) through a dramatic recording of the “1812 Overture” — Mercury MG 50054 — featuring the orchestra led by the fiery young Antal Dorati, its conductor from 1949 to 1960, plus the University of Minnesota Brass Band, a 1761 brass cannon at West Point and the bells in Yale University’s Harkness Tower.
Tchaikovsky wrote the “1812 Overture” in 1882 for full symphony orchestra, plus extra brass players, cannons and all of Moscow’s bells to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Napoleon’s defeat in Russia.
But the performance Tchaikovsky sought never happened, at least not until an innovative new recording company, a Midwest orchestra and an enterprising conductor accomplished it electronically almost 75 years later, starting in Northrop Auditorium.
The first step occurred Dec. 4, 1954, at the University of Minnesota. Dorati, the Minneapolis Symphony, the University of Minnesota Brass Band and a crew from the upstart Mercury Record Corporation enlivened Northrop’s famously dead acoustics by recording an especially vivid “1812 Overture” performance that became the standard for all later recordings.
In fact, they were continuing a Northrop recording tradition begun by Eugene Ormandy in the 1930s with new, spectacular recordings of the classical repertoire — Beethoven, Stravinsky and Copland, but especially Tchaikovsky. They recorded not only the “1812 Overture” but also the first complete scores of all the Tchaikovsky ballets — “Sleeping Beauty,” “Swan Lake,” “The Nutcracker.” Mercury’s “living presence” sound set’s new high-fidelity standards, and its sumptuously packaged multi-disc sets, brought the Minneapolis Symphony unprecedented worldwide recognition.
The next steps occurred at West Point, New Haven and New York.
In January 1955, Mercury producer Wilma Cozart (who had been Dorati’s personal assistant) and the brilliant sound engineer C. Robert Fine successfully captured the hefty thud of the 1761 brass cannon at West Point. A month later, Fine and another Mercury producer, David Hall, recorded the bells in Yale University’s Harkness Tower, chosen because, as a former Yale student, Hall knew that the activity could take place with little traffic noise.
Finally, in Mercury’s New York studios, Cozart, Fine and Hall overlaid the tape of Minneapolis Symphony recording at Northrop with the sound of the West Point cannon just where Tchaikovsky had specified. When they decided that the Yale bells needed greater brilliance, they created a second soundtrack, in double speed, and laid both across the orchestra and cannon recordings. The effort, unprecedented in classical music, created the 30-second musical clangor Tchaikovsky had wanted for the climax of the “1812 Overture.”
The recording stunned listeners. High Fidelity’s John McConly lauded Dorati’s performance as “rapturous” and the cannon and bells as awesome: “The listener feels himself almost showered with sound, much as a Muscovite may have when his city’s thousand bell towers rang at once.” McConly offered a warning, however: The disc was so crowded with orchestra, bells and cannon shots that “not every pickup will track the final grooves of the 1812.” McConly’s warning only thrilled listeners, who flocked to record stores to make Mercury MG 50054 one of the first classical gold records.
Newer “1812” recordings of the last 50 years sound smoother, more powerful. But Mercury MG 50054, with its showers of sound from Northrop, West Point and New Haven, was the daring, innovative recording, so popular that it remains a common sight in used-record sections at Goodwill and Salvation Army stores everywhere.
This weekend, Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra will do the famous Northrop/Mercury recording one better. True, the cannon sound for the “1812 Overture” will come from a synthesizer, and the bells will be played on symphonic bar chimes. But the full University of Minnesota Chorus will join the orchestra and the University Marching Band to make a force not even Dorati and Mercury employed.
In an auditorium now downsized for improved acoustics (2,700 seats, from an impossible 4,800), and prefaced with music by Wagner, Dvorak and Liszt, Tchaikovsky and the musicians will help Northrop sing again in a new century.
Jon Butler, a retired U.S. historian and former dean of the Yale University Graduate School, lives in Minneapolis.
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