Sunday, July 04, 2010

Star-Spangled Anvils: The Anvil Chorus May Have Been the Fourth of July's Original Crowd-Pleasing Music

I live in a place that takes the traditions of the  Fourth of July very seriously. It's a celebration here of Olympic proportions, as 800,000 or so of your closest friends all get together on the banks of the Charles River in Boston and wait for the sky to erupt in one of the most dazzling fireworks displays anywhere. Everyone waits for the orchestra to strike up the grand finale, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. The church bells ring, cannons fire, and the fireworks begin.

And it's all choreographed perfectly--every year!

But people haven't always cheered to the 1812. Tchaikovsky didn't even write his 1812 Overture until the 1880s and he probably never heard it performed outdoors with cannons and church bells.

Musical tone anvils are still manufactured today outside Boston, Massachusetts, as demonstrated here by manufacturer/percussionist Neil Grover.

No, that was Boston's idea. Back in the 1980s, the city needed to boost the outdoor concert; they needed a grand finale showstopper. The 1812 filled the bill, since there were churches nearby to help out with the bells. It worked so well that other cities and orchestras followed suit and now everyone connects that piece of music with fireworks and the US celebration of the Fourth of July. And everyone knows there was a war in the United States in 1812, even though the music was written to commemorate Napoleon's ill-fated siege of Moscow in 1812.

So what did they play for a grand finale back in the old days? Chances are, they played the Anvil Chorus. And they played it very loud. With anvils.

Like most Americans of a certain age, I grew up listening to the Anvil Chorus  because it was built so many of the soundtracks of the cartoons I watched on television. When you heard the familiar chorus, it signaled something dramatic to follow. Usually it was Roadrunner being buried under a pile of boulders that tumbled on top of him in time to the music.

To celebrate the end of the Civil War in Boston, 100 farrier anvils provided percussion for a performance of Verdi's Anvil Chorus in what was the largest outdoor concert in history until Woodstock in 1969.  Did anyone play an anvil there? Here you see the firemen rehearsing.

Verdi's opera Il Trovatore, which contains the Anvil Chorus, premiered in 1853, in an era when so-called "musical" anvils were already embedded in orchestras' percussion sections. Wagner used them elaborately in his German operas, but Verdi brought the anvils on stage. His score directed that the sound of the anvils was not to emanate from the orchestra pit. The singers in the chorus were to hammer the anvils: basses should play (hit) their anvils on the beat; tenors provided the offbeat on-stage percussion. The audience loved it, and the rest is history.

Percussionists have always appreciated what an anvil could offer them. But as percussion became more sophisticated, orchestras didn't use just any anvils; there actually was a demand for anvils identifiable not for their horn shape or heel width, but for their tones.

Even though the sound of an anvil can be created and manipulated electronically, percussion anvils--which look nothing at all like "real" anvils, but sound just like them--are still manufactured and sold; one manufacturer is Grover Pro Percussion, in Woburn, Massachusetts.

But sometimes just an anvil or two would not be enough: Wagner wrote music for 16 different anvils in his opera, Das Rheingold. And when the city of Boston was ready to celebrate the end of the Civil War, the party planners knew what the audience would want to hear. They put a call out to the city's horseshoers, who donated a whopping 100 anvils for the big night. The city's firemen were dressed up in finery to play the anvils. In an age with no microphones, no sound systems, and no speakers, you can be sure that the people in the back row over by the river heard the percussion for the Anvil Chorus.

That concert, by the way, was the largest attendance at a musical event in history, until Woodstock came along 100 years later.  Were there anvils on stage at Woodstock? The great tradition of the Anvil Chorus has always had a way of making anvils heard, wherever and whenever great music is made.

Happy Birthday, America! 


4 July 2010 | © Fran Jurga and Hoofcare Publishing. 

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