A popular July 4th anthem isn't actually American

Nearly one million people gather annually on the Charles River Esplanade every 4th of July for the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular. The event, one of the country's biggest Independence Day celebrations, reaches millions more via national television broadcast. During its 35 year run the event had changed, but one tradition remains: its grand fireworks finale is always accompanied by "The 1812 Overture." Intermingling marching tunes, patriotic anthems and cannon fire, the musical piece has become a trademark melody at Independence Day celebrations across the United States. There's only one catch: the symphony celebrates a Russian victory, not an American one.

Pyotr Tchaikovsky composed the score in 1880 as a tribute to the Russian victory over Napoleon. Yes, that happened in 1812, but it has nothing to do with America's War of 1812. About fifteen minutes long, the piece retells the story of Napoleon's invasion. It begins with solemn chants recalling the invasion and capture of Moscow, proceeds to rise in volume and instrumental drama as the music imitates the battle between the armies, and concludes with celebratory cannon fire to signal the Russians' declared victory at Napoleon's retreat.

Given its historical context, the 1812 overture seems peculiar accompaniment for an American holiday. So how did the song find its way into American celebrations?

"I think it's our fault," says Keith Lockhart, conductor of the Boston Pops since 1984. The popularity of the song skyrocketed after the Pops' first televised 4th of July event in 1976, Lockhart says. Since then, many Americans have come to associate the tune with the 4th and, thus, with American patriotism.

Cultural misappropriation was never the intention. Arthur Fiedler, the Pops conductor at the time, chose the overture simply because the event's organizer, Boston grocery mogul David Mugar, told him that a loud and flashy display might attract bigger crowds to the performance. Mugar, who still produces the event, recalls telling Fiedler that the cannons and fireworks probably would not coincide perfectly with the symphony. The conductor replied: "It's fine, as long as all hell breaks loose."

Mugar said the Tchaikovsky rendition was a huge hit and helped them draw an audience of 50,000 that year. "We then decided, 'Hey, let's do it one more year," Mugar says. The Pops have performed the overture every year since, accompanied by the big guns provided by the Massachusetts Nationoal Guard. Major Peter Fiorentino is the officer of the 101st field artillery unit charge of firing the 16 cannon rounds during the overture. Ever since Fielder asked for the unit's assistance with the performance, Fiorentino said, his soldiers have found a way to show up, even through deployments. "It has become our tradition over time," he said.

Even if the song has nothing to do with American history, one Tchaikovsky expert believes that the song has thematic relevance. "Many people relate to the more subtle musical symbolism of the celebration of triumph over tyranny—or at least over an enemy—even though it relates to another war and different countries," says Roy Guenther, music professor at George Washington University.

Lockhart believes that the song's ancestry only enriches it. "This whole country is founded on assimilations," he says. "We have brought traditions from all over the world and co-opted them into our own traditions."

Mugar thinks it doesn't matter what Americans do or don't really know about the song's origins: it pleases the crowds and makes an already celebratory night in an old colonial city more special. And so, this year again, an Eastern song of a fallen French emperor will accompany a thoroughly American celebration.