6 Pieces of Music That Mean The Opposite of What You Think

#3. The Year 1812 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

(Listen here.) (Complete overture -- most famous section starts around 13:30.)

Why You Know It:

If you're classy enough to have seen any of these works performed, it was probably this one. A piece of music that calls for real, live cannons in the score tends to get done more than other options. They're just a draw like that.

"Have the cannons manned by topless girls and you've got your funding!"

And if you haven't seen it, you've no doubt heard it. It's a massive, glorious song played all over America whenever something important (re: obtrusively loud) or exciting (re: explosive) is happening. It was written by a Russian dude, but you know just by the sound of it that it has to be about America. Maybe it's about the War of 1812 with the British, or some other American battle. We play it every Fourth of July, for shit's sake; this thing has to be about America. It's boastful, it's triumphant, it's aggressive; the whole thing just sounds like the orchestra is saying, "I am America, my dick is a cannon, and it's time for you to deal with that."

All you other countries can just suck on our fiery, airborne sperm.

The Original Context:

Nope! Turns out the badass, I'm-all-outta-bubblegum piece that the Boston Pops plays every Fourth of July is about a battle between Russia and France. Fucking France.

Wait, What?

There was more than one war going on in 1812, and our little scuffle with Britain wasn't the important one. The grand finale of the 1812 Overture (the part everyone knows) counterposes explosive cannon shots with strains of "La Marseillaise," the French national anthem, to represent the Russian defenders beating the ever-living hell out of Napoleon's army at the Battle of Borodino. And we use it as a backdrop to our fireworks displays because ... who knows? It would be like if Canada played "Born in the USA" to celebrate its independence (if Max Weinberg played cannons instead of drums).

#2. The Pomp and Circumstances Military Marches by Sir Edward Elgar

(Listen here.)

Why You Know It:

Did you ever graduate from anything? Or are you at least aware of graduation as a concept? Then you've heard this song.

Graduation is a celebration of your ability to sit in a small box for 12 years and not fall asleep too often.

The Original Context:

The piece we all know from graduation is the first in a series, sort of a "concept album" from the turn of the 20th century. The concept? Bloody, bloody war and the death of young men.

Above: What the kids of 1914 did instead of raves or shitty frat bars.

Wait, What?

The piece doesn't have any lyrics, but in an effort to set the mood, Elgar the composer helpfully went ahead and prefaced the score with a quote from Lord de Tabley's poem The March of Glory:

Like a proud music that draws men on to die
Madly upon the spears in martial ecstasy,
A measure that sets heaven in all their veins
And iron in their hands.
I hear the Nation march
Beneath her ensign as an eagle's wing;
O'er shield and sheeted targe
The banners of my faith most gaily swing;
Moving to victory with solemn noise,
With worship and with conquest, and the voice of myriads.

Is the pomp hidden under all those corpses?

So you know how every Barry White album could be prefaced with "Play this while preparing to bone"? This is like that, except instead of boning, you're eagerly diving onto a spear and dying in battle. And not in, like, a positive, "dying in battle is glorious" sort of way. This was Elgar's way of saying, "I don't think we should march all of our young men to die in battle," which the British completely mistook, playing it for their armies for years after someone realized, "Hey, this song is cool; it would go great with the sound of our new soldiers marching, right before a big battle."

But at least they got the battle part right. We use it to score our freaking graduations.

"I'm so proud of you, son. Enjoy your certain death."

#1. "Ride of the Valkyries" from Die Walkure by Richard Wagner

(Listen here.)

Why You Know It:

This is probably the most famous piece of dramatic music in the world. It was famously used in Apocalypse Now as the background music for a helicopter strike and has been played on The Simpsons, Looney Tunes and countless other places to depict people riding into battle. We know it so well, we even have a vague idea of what Valkyries look like.

These chicks.

You assume that, when this was played in Die Walkure, a crew of badass, spear-wielding chicks must have been up on the stage engaged in some serious goddamn lady-fighting.

The Original Context:

Or, you know, nothing. And not nothing in a "those Valkyries aren't throwing their spears yet" sort of way. It's more like nothing in a "the lights are off and the curtain is down and literally nothing is happening" sort of way.

Yeah, this song is played as an overture before the show starts.

Pro Tip: The overture is a great time to stock up on those little $9 bottles of wine.

Wait, What?

Here's your scene: One of the coolest and fightingest songs ever recorded plays while the audience is sitting politely and staring at a curtain. It's sort of a way for the composer to pump up the audience, but not for a battle, for a show. When the curtain rises and the Valkyries finally do show up, the rest of the song is used as background music while the eight Valkyries greet one another before a day's work. No fighting, no raging. They pretty much just stand around on a mountain and shoot the bull over some sort of ancient Norse water cooler. It's like using a series of explosions as the opening song of an episode of Frasier.

Or focusing a whole G.I. Joe movie around the HR department.

We also suggest you listen to "Ride of the Valkyries" before you read our new book. You should actually just probably listen to it while you read it also.

And learn more about your favorite things in 5 Pop Culture Classics Created Out of Laziness and 6 Classics Despised by the People Who Created Them.

And stop by Linkstorm to see puppies playing to "O Fortuna."

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