1866: Tchaikovsky: Festival Overture on the Danish National Anthem, age 26

Mr. Peabody Says:

I’ve covered Symphony No. 1 on this site, because the six symphonies are all masterworks and are famous in their own right. That makes The Festival Overture on the Danish National Anthem almost a “prelude” to his first symphony.

Geoffrey Simon

Andante non troppo—Allegro vivo – D major


  • 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (in A, Bb, 2 bassoons
  • 4 horns (in F), 2 trumpets (in D, Eb), 3 trombones, tuba
  • 2 timpani, triangle, side drum, cymbals, bass drum
  • strings

1866 was an important year for Tchaikovsky. He wrote four important compositions that year, so only one major work for orchestra was written earlier, The Storm in 1864. The Storm was given zero recognition and so fell into such obscurity that it got no attention until after his death, and the same thing happened with his next big composition, the Overture in C minor.

The Imperial School of Jurisprudence…

Tchaikovsky was prevented from becoming a musician earlier until 1861, when he was already 21 years old. At age 19, in 1859, he graduated from The Imperial School of Jurisprudence with nothing but a future career in civil service, and as a result of the push from his father to do “something practical”, he was not allowed to seriously study music until very late. This put him in the awkward position of being a student at an age when most composers were far more advanced in the musical world. There were practical reasons for this. It was almost impossible to make a living at that time in Russia as a composer.

The RMS…

The Russian Musical Society (RMS) was founded in 1859 by the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna along with Anton Rubinstein, a famous Russian pianist who was also famous for a brief time as a composer. In 1861, Tchaikovsky attended RMS classes in music theory taught by Nikolai Zaremba. These classes were preparation for The Saint Petersburg Conservatory, which opened in 1862.

At first the help of Zaremba was very important because Tchaikovsky had been denied formal training in music. However, he outgrew Zaremba rather quickly, and later his former teacher was nothing but a problem for him.

The Saint Petersburg Conservatory…

Tchaikovsky enrolled at the Conservatory in 1862 as part of its premiere class. He continued studying harmony and counterpoint with Zaremba and instrumentation and composition with Rubinstein. Zaremba helped him catch up on all the basics he was lacking, and it could be for this reason that he never told him to get lost later. No doubt he felt a certain respect for all older men who appeared to be mentoring him. Zaremba was 19 years older, and Anton Rubinstein was 11 years older. Nicolai Rubinstein, Anton’s younger brother, was five years older. Together these three men were supportive one moment and nothing but a horrendous obstacle the next. All three were mired in the past and resisted any changes in music that were not in line with earlier traditions which were mostly German.


Tchaikovsky wrote his Festival Overture on the Danish National Anthem between September and November 1866 in Moscow. It was commissioned from Tchaikovsky by Nikolai Rubinstein for the forthcoming celebrations of the marriage of the heir to the Imperial Throne, Grand Duke Aleksandr Aleksandrovich, and the Danish Princess Dagmar (later Tsar Alexander III and Empress Mariya Fyodorovna). From this you can see that things were complicated. At that time Tchaikovsky certainly did not want to miss any opportunity for support from the future Tsar.

During his time at the Moscow Conservatoire, around September 1866 the school’s principal, Nikolay Rubinstein commissioned Tchaikovsky to compose an overture to be played for the visit of the heir to the throne to Moscow, accompanied by his new Danish bride, Princess Dagmar of Denmark.

He would eventually be crowned Tsar Alexander III of Russia and he remained a devoted follower of Tchaikovsky’s music, awarding the composer both the Order of St. Vladimir (Fourth Class) in 1884 and a state pension in 1885.


Tchaikovsky’s commission would have been no earlier than September 1866. On 8/20 November that year, the composer informed to his brother Anatoly:

“The overture for Dagmara is completely finished, but it seems that her visit to Moscow has been postponed until April, and therefore I didn’t need to rush.”

At the end of the manuscript score is the date “12 November 1866. Moscow”.

Tchaikovsky revised the Overture in April and May 1892, when the full score was due to be published.

A bit of history…

Tchaikovsky went about composing this overture in a very professional way, knowing that it might only be played once. However this time he like his own creation. He wrote toward the end of his life that it was:

“very effective… and far better as music than 1812”.

I don’t think most people would agree, but certainly you can hear similarities to the later 1812 Overture.

Tchaikovsky thought it would be a good idea to also incorporate the Russian national anthem’s melody into the work as well, by way of symbolizing the union of two realms, but he put the Russian melody into minor. A piece of surviving journalism stated:

“Our talented young composer for some reason took it into his head to set forth our Russian national anthem in the minor key, which completely transforms the character of this well-known melody.”

However, Tchaikovsky received a gift of gold cuff links from the Tsarevich as an expression of royal gratitude for his efforts anyway.


The overture was performed performed in Moscow, in the Hall of the Nobles’ Society on 29 January/10 February 1867, at a concert in aid of families of the victims of the war in Crete, conducted by Nikolai Rubinstein.

It appears not to have been played again until a concert in the Queen’s Hall on 3/15 June 1898, conducted by Henry Wood. This was possibly the first performance to include the revisions Tchaikovsky made in 1892.

In other words, in spite of the fact that this is a very good piece of music, it was barely played until five years after Tchaikovsky died.


The full score of this overture was published in September 1892 by Pyotr Jurgenson, who was then working to publish a number of Tchaikovsky’s unpublished works.

In connection with the publication of the full score of the Overture, Tchaikovsky wrote on 10/22 May 1892 to Pyotr Jurgenson:

“Once again I apologize about the “Danish Overture”. My excuse is that I didn’t know you were going to engrave it. I took the manuscript in the winter, but, seeing that it would take a good while to put in order, for lack of time I abandoned the idea of publishing the score, and returned it to you without saying anything. And yet now, as I’m checking the proofs once more, I think it’s something that will enter the repertoire, because it is, as I recall, very effective, and of far better quality than ‘1812’.”

Another publication:

The full score and a piano duet arrangement of the overture were published in volumes 22 (1960) and 50A (1965) respectively of the Complete Collected Works, edited by Irina Iordan. Both scores were edited to confine the Russian anthem ‘God Save the Tsar’ to footnotes and appendices, while the arrangement was revised to correspond to the 1892 version of the full score. Once again we should note that it is unlikely most people had every heard this piece until the late part of the 20th century, because a conductor cannot conduct music that has never been published.

A pattern is emerging; most of Tchaikovsky’s early orchestra works were barely heard in his lifetime, if at all.

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