1812 Overture v The Lark Ascending – which best represents Brexit Britain?

Tchaikovsky’s militaristic bombast has knocked Vaughan Williams’s bucolic birdsong off the top of the Classic FM charts, which may say something about our national mindset

Classic FM listeners have voted Tchaikovsky’s rousing 1812 Overture as their favourite piece of classical music, pushing Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending off the top spot and into third place (Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2 in C Minor came in second). This is a bit of a shock: The Lark Ascending has come first for the past four years, while the Overture had, by 2015, drifted out to No 18 – prompting some to wonder if the poll reveals a shift in the national mindset, post-referendum and pre-Brexit. So, which is the better choice to represent Britain’s mood today?

Date of origin

1812: 1880

Lark: Composed 1914; debuted 1921.

Does the work hark back to a simpler, less confusing time?

1812: Sort of – it commemorates events surrounding Russia’s 1812 defeat of Napoleon’s army, specifically the battle of Borodino, which was notoriously confusing for all involved.

Lark: Yes and no. It was inspired by George Meredith’s 1881 poem about a skylark – but was composed at the dawn of the first world war, so perhaps not that much simpler or less confusing.

Peter Tchaikovsky.
Peter Tchaikovsky. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images

Any possible comfort for those who voted remain?

1812: It celebrates success in a battle that was – on paper – a defeat, but the triumphalism of the victors was ignored. After they got tired of wrecking everything, they just went away.

Lark: Although it begins with the sound of a single violin, it eventually rises to a volume loud enough to drown out cries of “Get over it – you lost!”

Anything in it to particularly gratify Brexiters?

1812: Bombast, and plenty of it. It’s also about a country getting rid of an unwanted European occupier – unfortunately, by starving itself.

Lark: It’s written by a British composer, about a British bird.

Anything in its popularity to trouble the government?

1812: It’s a little pro-Russian for the present climate.

Lark: The British skylark population has declined by a third since the 1980s due to intensive farming; possible rallying cry for conservationists.

Trigger warnings needed?

1812: Yes, literally – 16 cannons go off during its performance.

Lark: Possibly, if you’re a bit weird about birds.

Vaughan Williams.
Vaughan Williams. Photograph: Bentley Archive/Popperfoto/Popperfoto/Getty Images

Does it offer any hope for those facing a future beset by uncertainty in a world run by venal incompetents?

1812: No.

Lark: No.

In that case, is it easy to slag off on social media as a way of infuriating its devotees?

1812: Yes. It was described as “very loud and noisy and without artistic merit” – by Tchaikovsky himself, who loathed it.

Lark: Yes. It’s routinely derided as a bland and safe choice, which is perhaps why Classic FM listeners are backing away from it.


Tim Dowling

The GuardianTramp

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