The French Invasion of Russia in my car

When I was younger, my mom would play classical music from a CD as I drifted off to sleep. Since the prevailing social theory was that classical music made children smarter, she found a CD with the best cover ever:

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and would have the dulcet tones of Beethoven, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky lull me to sleep. Of that entire CD, one track in particular was my favorite: the 1812 Overture.

The overture tells the story of how Russian forces drove back the invading Napoleonic troops in 1812. Through the notes, you can almost picture the ebb and flow of the war–each tactic changing the outcome until there could only be one ending. It’s no wonder why this composition has become one of the best-known pieces of classical music in the world.

But Raul, what does your car have anything to do with this?

Earlier this week, I started watching Mozart In the Jungle, one of Amazon’s originals and damn near the best of their work. In the watching of it, I started hearing those familiar notes.

So, earlier, on the drive to Kroger to pick up groceries, I decided to listen to the 1812 Overture. It was a gorgeous day, very relaxing. As I was driving down Monument Drive, which, by the way, looks like this,

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I had the windows down and the volume up. The entire time, I was soaking up the narrative woven by Tchaikovsky. The entire time, the drive was peaceful. The entire time, I had not hit a red light.

That changed, and fast.

The light turned red, and I slowed to a stop. Next to me was an elderly woman in a Cadillac. Just waiting. The music got low, so I turned it up to listen intently to the sounds coming out.

With no warning, Tchaikovsky himself rose from his grave with a vengeance as my car speakers unleashed a cannon blast that reverberated around my car interior, shook my windows harder than the most aggressive dubstep, and scared away what little remaining life force was left in the little old lady stopped next to me. After that first cannon blast, my Jetta turned into the Battle of Borodino as volley after volley of cannon fire erupted from my speakers in quick succession.

Then the light turned green.

Vroom vroom.

Not his favorite

Here’s the thing about that song. Before it could frighten a young man in a horseless carriage a continent away 204 years into the future, it had to be written. Now, Tchaikovsky wasn’t really “into” big, bombastic displays of patriotism like this song leads you to believe. He liked things to be a little more subtle, with more shades of Grey inside of it than Anastasia Steele.

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But he did it for the same reason that most of us would compose something should the leader of our country asked us to: he was the Tsar.

But here’s where the 1812 Overture stands out.

Deliberately Different

A little over two months ago, I started writing a series called “Leadership Planks,” where I codify my leadership principles in writing. The very first one, and arguably one of the more important ones was deliberately different. 

If there ever were an example of this it would this Overture, and really the entire composition. Whereas most composers would play within the everyday rules laid out by the task at hand, in this case an orchestra, Tchaikovsky played using different rules. He composed a song  wherein cannons would be fired as part of the percussion. Casually.

With great precision, Tchaikovsky included the exact timing of each shot. He even took it a step further. His original composition called for the town church bells–all of them–to be rung at the same time in a mind-boggling display of flashiness, entropy, and decibels. It’s partially for this reason that the Year of 1812 festival overture in E-flat major, Op. 49 stands out so much among its competition.

What Tchaikovsky did was take the rules of the orchestra and threw them out and replaced them with his own set. Any other (read: subpar) composer could draft a glorious ode to the motherland. It takes genius like Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to even begin to have the audacity to work in a weapon, let alone heavy artillery, into a song.

And therein lies the definition of deliberate difference.

It’s throwing out our own existing preconceptions of what something represents, means, or does, and using it in a new way.

Remember, Tchaikovsky had this much genius in a work that he hated and created without love. That means that his ability to look beyond what was visible at first glance had already been honed. Ultimately, it’s the point we want to get to in our own lives and creative endeavors.

Time to get started.

Cover photo by Larisa Birta

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