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Sunday, July 04, 2010

Move Over, Tchaikovsky: The Anvil Chorus May Have Been the Fourth of July's Original Finale

I live in a place that takes 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. You can hear the Boston Pops orchestra and everyone just waits for them to strike up Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. The church bells ring, cannons fire, and the fireworks begin.

But what many people don't know is that Tchaikovsky is a Johnny-come-lately. First of all, the Russian composer wrote the overture as part of a much longer piece that dramatized in music the siege of Moscow by Napoleon in 1812. It has nothing to do with the US-British War of 1812. Tchaikovsky didn't even write it until the 1880s and he never heard it performed with cannons and church bells, you can be sure of that.

No, that was Boston's idea. Back in the 1980s, they needed an idea to boost the outdoor concert and a grand finale seemed appropriate. The 1812 filled the bill, since there were churches nearby to help out. 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. The Russians must be puzzled.

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.

Join in the band? An Australian symphony orchestra raided Melbourne-area forges in search of anvils for what has become rare today: a true performance of Verdi's Anvil Chorus from the opera Il Trovatore. The largest (left) weighs 300 pounds. Double bassist James Tait said that farriers donated the use of all the anvils. And maybe the hammers, too!
I've been a fan of the great Chorus since before I knew that the ringing percussion was really made by anvils, at least on older recordings. The idea of an anvil in the orchestra pit in a symphony hall pleased me to no end until I found out that anvils were de rigeur as percussion instruments and were quite often written into scores by composers, including Wagner. A popular late 19th century German piece was The Forge in the Forest; it became one of Edison's famed "brown wax" recordings, and one of the first songs to be sold. And it has anvils for percussion, of course.

Like most Americans of a certain age, I grew up with the Anvil Chorus built into my consciousness because it was also built into the soundtracks of the cartoons I watched. It usually signaled something and you looked up when you heard it. Usually it was Roadrunner under a pile of rocks.

Only today I learned that the Anvil Chorus is in almost every one of the movies ever made by the Marx Brothers, in part as their way of pandering to the public's affection for the piece. And at sporting events, when an opposing player made a foul or error, the home team's band would strike up the Anvil Chorus as a way of embarrassing him.

Verdi's opera Il Trovatore, which contains the Anvil Chorus, premiered in 1853, leaving me to wonder what music they played for the Fourth of July before then!

But orchestras didn't use just any anvils; there actually was an anvil maker that made anvils not for the horn shape or the heel width or the hardy hole, but for the tone, and the anvils were sold by that tone. Sadly, that company is now out of business, presumably because the sound of an anvil can be created and manipulated electronically.

Doc Cudd is the blacksmith at the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina. He takes pride in demonstrating to the public how complex the sounds of an anvil can be. He takes it beyond percussion!

But consider this: when the city of Boston was ready to celebrate the end of the Civil War, the party planners went all out. They needed the perfect song for the grand finale and what could be better than Verdi's Anvil Chorus?

The planners put a call out to the city's horseshoers, who donated a whopping 1000 anvils for the performance. The city's firemen were dressed up in finery to play the anvils, which presumably were tested for tones. In an age with no microphones, no sound systems, no speakers, you can be sure that the people in the back row over by the river heard the 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? I wouldn't be surprised. The Anvil Chorus has always had a way of making anvils heard.

Happy Birthday, America! 

4 July 2010 | Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog at
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