Every Labor Day, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra does its annual all-Tchaikovsky program at Ravinia, and I go with a bunch of friends to picnic on the lawn and hear the concert. We did it again this year, and as usual it was delightful, and as usual it ended with the 1812 Overture, complete with 11 cannon from an Indiana Re-enactors’ group with cannon dating back to our War of 1812. Of course, on July 4, the Grant Park Symphony does its concert downtown complete with fireworks and ending in the 1812, complete with somebody else’s cannon. And just about everyplace else in the country, on summer holidays, somebody somewhere is doing the 1812 complete with fireworks and cannon. Which this year led me to thinking about cannon, and fireworks, and gunpowder, and festivals, and music.
As I understand it, the Chinese invented gunpowder, and for the first few centuries afterward, used it for fireworks. The point of fireworks in Chinese culture is to drive away evil spirits. Noise-making for that purpose is common in many cultures. It is supposed to be the origin of breaking the glass at Jewish weddings, for instance. And there seems to be a tendency to do this especially on festive occasions, presumably because evil spirits like to hang around when people are having a good time, to spoil the party.
Guns and fireworks also get used to salute VIPs and mark important occasions, including funerals. Probably that goes back to the driving-evil-spirits-away thing too.
But then the Chinese, and the rest of us, discovered, probably as a result of some terrible fireworks accident (this sounds like something Charles Lamb might dream up) that gunpowder could also kill people. And that was the end of the pyrotechnic Eden. Gunpowder became a weapon.
Gunpowder became a major component of war. And of military music. “And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air…” and all that. The sound-and-light show became a killing machine.
And worked its way back into festive occasions by way of military music. What would it take, these days, to keep evil spirits away? Or, looking at it the other way, what kind of evil spirits have we generated, that require literal megatons to get rid of?