Cape Town Military Tattoo 2010: The 1812 Overture

After the performance by the SA Army Band of KwaZulu Natal, it was time for the annual highlight of the Cape Town Military Tattoo: the performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture to the sound of live gunfire. This well-known piece of music is

“an overture written by Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in 1880 to commemorate Russia’s defense of Moscow against Napoleon’s advancing Grande Armée at the Battle of Borodino in 1812. The overture debuted in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow on August 20 [O.S. August 8] 1882.[2] The overture is best known for its climactic volley of cannon fire and ringing chimes.” (Wikipedia)

(Incidentally, the Wikipedia article on the 1812 Overture includes an interesting summary of the musical structure of the piece, explaining the symbolism of the various motifs, and the narrative that is actually told by the music.)

Search lights illuminating the cityscape

In the course of the afternoon, the four 25-pounder G1 guns of Cape Field Artillery had been towed from Fort iKapa to the city centre, and set up on their bases outside the front gate of the Castle. As the spectators streamed past before the start of the evening’s performance, many of them stopped for a closer look, or to ask the gun crews all manner of questions, or to pose for a picture with the powerful guns. It was nice to see that the visitors were curious and intrigued, and the crew were happy to show them around these guns and explain how they worked.

After every night’s performance, the guns were hooked up again to their trucks, and towed all the way back to Fort iKapa, where they were cleaned and prepared for the next night’s performance. There is definitely a lot of work that happens behind the scenes at these events.

The four 25-pounder G1 guns of Cape Field Artillery are arranged on the lawns in front of the Castle

At the start of the signature piece of the Cape Town Military Tattoo, all the participating military bands – SA Army Bands Cape Town, Kroonstad and KwaZulu Natal and the SAPS Police Band of the Western Cape, as well as the Rwandan Army Band – marched into the front arena. The large timpani and the chimes or tubular bells were set up in the front, on either side of the conductor, Major Martin Chandler of the SA Army Band Cape Town.

SA Army Bands Kroonstad and Cape Town

In previous years, I had always sat on the stands, as a member of the audience, and thus had never seen the actual gunfire, although I had, of course, HEARD it! Even if you sit inside the massively thick stone walls of the Castle, the thunder of those salvos is loud enough to make the ground vibrate under your feet. Outside, the shockwaves of the salvoes always set off the car alarms in the surrounding streets!

This year, much to my delight, I was allowed to roam around freely with my camera, and so I set up my tripod on the ramparts outside the Castle, behind the moat, and overlooking the guns, which were pointing north.

Playing the chimes - a beautiful church-bell-like sound

The gunfire is synchronised precisely, using stopwatches and relying on the bands to play the piece at the same speed each night. I learned that the man to observe closely was Cape Field Artillery Pipe-Major Staff Sergeant Andrew Imrie, who was following the score by looking at the notes pinned to a music stand with a blue light that stood right behind the row of guns. Against the blue light, it was just possible to see the movement of his arms – he would wave them in time with the music from inside the Castle (which I couldn’t hear so well, as I’d put in earplugs), and, as the music reached a crescendo, he would raise his arms and lower them sharply, as someone shouted “One – Fire!” etc.

The final thunderous salvo makes the ground shake and the ears ring! A-W-E-S-O-M-E!!!

Capturing the perfect shot of the gunfire proved as tricky as figuring out the optimal settings for the musket and cannon fire at the start of the evening’s programme, though! The guns fire several times (22 rounds in total, I believe) during the 1812, so there was a bit of time to play around with the settings inbetween. Luckily, I could benefit from Brent and Lorraine’s years of practical experience, particularly with night-time shots, and so, I am delighted to say, I got my first real snap-shot of the guns firing! Yay!

Brent, of course, did what I certainly wasn’t brave enough to attempt as a total newcomer to fearsome military weaponry. He’d been reassured by the very experienced gun crew that, because of the angle of the barrels and the nature of the charges used, there was a safe zone some distance in front of the guns.

A shutter speed of 1/3 seconds and ISO 3200 at least catches the billowing smoke

As a result, while I was still frantically lengthening the legs of my tripod, clipping the camera into position, and double-checking the settings with Lorraine, a crazy bearded chap with a bright orange cap, in his quest for an unusual, not-attempted-before angle, had set up his highly sensitive photographic equipment *xx* metres in front of the 25-pounder guns and facing them.

Intermittently, during the performance of the 1812, we would see the little red light on his camera flashing in anticipation… and after each salvo, it was a profound relief to see the orange cap and the little red light of the camera emerging out of the billowing smoke once more. I suggest that you have a look at some of his pictures here.

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Gallery of Photos

One thought on “Cape Town Military Tattoo 2010: The 1812 Overture

  1. Pingback: Colourful costumes, thundering drums and skirling bagpipes: Announcing the Cape Town Military Tattoo 2012! | Grains of Sand

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