This Week In History: August 20-26


This week in history: Cannons become instruments in the infamous 1812 Overture, Pompeii is destroyed, and Michelangelo commissioned to create the PietàRead more below and dive deeper with The Great Courses Plus.

August 20, 1882 – Tchaikovsky Debuts the 1812 Overture

One of Tchaikovsky’s most enduring works, the 1812 Overture (also called The Year 1812) debuted on this day in 1882. Written to commemorate Russia’s defense against Napoleon’s invading army in 1812, it is commonly used today during Fourth of July celebrations in the United States. Tchaikovsky would complete the composition in six weeks; he was allegedly unenthusiastic about it, saying that he had little interest in composing ‘festival pieces’ and thought that the piece thus had little artistic merit. It has since become Tchaikovsky’s most well-known and most widely performed piece. 

Learn more about Tchaikovsky’s music in How to Listen To and Understand Great Music, 3rd Edition

Finale begins at 3:44. “The elite Presidential Salute Battery of the Army’s 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, “The Old Guard” fires to the music of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, performed by the U.S. Army Band & Chorus, during the annual summer concert at the Sylvan Theater on the grounds of the Washington Monument. The Battery fires four WWII vintage M5 anti-tank (field) guns. This video captures their performance from march-on to march-off.” Never tell Tchaikovsky that a cannon is not a musical instrument.

August 24, 79 AD – Mount Vesuvius Erupts

On this day in 79 AD, the Roman settlements of Pompeii and Herculaneum would be obliterated following a devastating eruption from the volcano Mount Vesuvius. The wrath of the volcano would last for two days, during which time ash and flaming pumice would rain down from the sky and molten lava floes would destroy buildings and permanently alter the coastline. The site of Pompeii was lost until 1599, when it was rediscovered. Now a major archaeological destination, the ruins of Pompeii are a major tourist destination and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. During excavations archaeologists have made plaster casts of nearly 1,044 individuals who were buried under layers of ash from the eruption, and have unearthed the skeletal remains of another 100.

Learn more about the excavations of Pompeii in Archaeology: An Introduction to the World’s Greatest Sites

August 26, 1498 – Michelangelo Commissioned to Carve the Pietà

One of Michelangelo’s greatest pieces, the Pietà would be commissioned by Cardinal Jean de Bilhères on this day in 1498. Carved from a massive block of Carrara marble, the sculpture depicts the Virgin Mary cradling the body of Jesus in her lap following his crucifixion. Though arguably a pinnacle of Renaissance sculpture, the figures in the Pietà are considerably out of proportion in an effort to reconcile a woman holding the full-length of a grown man’s body in her lap. Mary is also depicted as incredibly young, perhaps to indicate her purity. It would take Michelangelo two years to complete work on the piece, and it would be the only piece the artist would ever sign. The sculpture originally stood outside of Cardinal Bilhères’s mausoleum, but today it resides in St. Peter’s Basilica between the Holy Door and the altar of Saint Sebastian.

Learn more about the Pietà in A History of European Art