Duration: 12 minutes
Denis Davydov (1784 - 1839) was awarded a Golden Sabre (inscribed “For Courage”) following the Battle of Friedland, which took place between French and Russian armies on June 14, 1807. The Imperial Order of The Golden Sabre (or Saber) was established in 1720 by Peter the Great and became one of Russia’s highest military awards.
Davydov was known throughout Russia, not only as a famous partisan during the Napoleonic wars, but as a poet whose works were admired by many writers of the day, including his younger friend, Alexander Pushkin, who wrote of Davydov:
Hussar-poet, you’ve sung of bivouacs
Of the licence of devil-may-care carousals
Of the fearful charm of battle
And of the curls of your moustache”
By 1812, Davydov had achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and shortly before the Battle of Borodino, persuaded his commanding officer, General Kutuzov, to let him lead a small group of cavalry and Cossacks to raid the French supply and communication lines. His actions in this new form of warfare undoubtedly took their toll on the French army and led to the formation of further partisan units to harass the enemy (a tactic that would serve the Russians well in the wars to come).
1812 was a hugely important year in Russian history. The Patriotic War of 1812 (Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and subsequent retreat) led to a resurgence of Russian national pride. The war served as inspiration for vast numbers of writers, poets, composers and musicians, and their works came to define Russian Romanticism.
Hussar songs and poetry were hugely popular in Russia throughout the 19th Century, depicting the lives and heroism of Hussar cavalry. They addressed themes such as true friendship, reckless valour on the battlefield, carousing and revels around the ‘bivouac fires’, and Davydov was among the most famous of the so-called Hussar-Poets.
When writing War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy based his character, Denisov (the dashing hussar who falls in love with Natasha Rostov) on the memoirs of Denis Davydov, ensuring his lasting fame beyond death.
Although written as a single, continuous work, The Golden Sabre is a series of musical portraits shaped around Denis Davydov’s military actions during 1812, alongside the ideals and themes that defined Hussar poetry.
As the sun rises, Cavalry Trumpeters sound the call…
This, the title of an old Ukrainian folksong, used here, that may well have been known to many of the Cossacks attached to Davydov’s partisan brigade.
Russia, with its vast landscapes and savage winters presented a formidable challenge to any invading army, and the Russian people were exhorted to defend the ‘Motherland’.
It is June, 1812. Napoleon’s Grande Armée crosses the Neman River and begins the invasion of Russia…
The Russian camp is alive with activity as the soldiers and cavalrymen prepare for the battle to come…
Aside from battlefield heroics, Hussar poetry depicts the cavalryman’s love of life and comradeship, celebrated with wild evenings ‘carousing’ around the campfires.
At the camp of Prince Pyotr Bagration’s 2nd Army, Davydov and his unit await the arrival of the French…
A ‘Last Hurrah ’ before battle ensues…
Following defeat at Smolensk in August 1812, the Russian Army was forced to withdraw eastwards. Despite the romantic idea of the life of a cavalryman, much of the time their horses were used as transport for the army. On the retreat from Smolensk the horses of the Cuirassiers and Dragoons (Heavy Cavalry) were used to pull the guns of the remaining Russian artillery regiments.
After the defeat at Smolensk the Russian Imperial Army withdrew to defensive positions and awaited the arrival of Napoleon’s forces…
As the French draw near, Davydov and his band of partisans and Cossacks display the cavalryman’s devil-may-care attitude to life as they dance, sing and drink…
On 7 September 1812, the French Army located the Russian positions just outside the town of Borodino. French, German and Polish cavalry charged the Russian positions, which was countered by the full force of Russian Cuirassiers, Dragoons, Hussars, Lancers and Cossacks. This is their charge into battle - their ‘gallant attack’…
The battle that followed was one of the bloodiest of the Napoleonic campaigns, and ended in victory for Napoleon (Russian casualties were 43,000 out of an army of 120,000). Despite this, the losses inflicted on the Grande Armée were so great that they were unable to recover sufficiently, and despite capturing Moscow a week later, Napoleon was forced to start his retreat by mid-October.
Davydov’s career continued, as soldier, poet and writer. He died in 1839 and was buried at Novodevichy Convent, in Moscow.
He sang Mars and Temira
and he hung his martial lyre
twixt his true sword and his saddle”