Many Westerners, in light of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine are doing everything they can to distance themselves form President Vladimir Putin or those who support him. Some gestures seem more like showmanship.
Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra has announced it will remove Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky music from its concert featuring all Tchaikovsky. It called this “inappropriate at the moment.” A cozy relationship with Russian President has resulted in conductor Valery Gegiev’s departure and the loss of artistic affiliations for superstar soprano Anna Netrebko.
Tchaikovsky has little in common with Gergiev or Netrebko, except for his nationality and extraordinary talent. These two men are still alive today and were beneficiaries of autocratic favoritism. Tchaikovsky passed away over 100 years ago.
Another reason why the composer should not be blamed is that he was the only Russian composer to abandon Russian nationalism. He also made music for the West and became what historians consider to be one of Europe’s few links between European and Russian artistic expression.
He was also a fan of Ukraine.
The public and political pressures to choose the opposite path were strong. Tchaikovsky’s primary contemporaries were a group of Russian composers nicknamed “The Five”—Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Alexander Borodin—who dedicated their musical lives to constructing a distinctly Russian-nationalist style. Tchaikovsky was the exception. Tchaikovsky was born in Saint Petersburg Conservatory. He studied at this institution, which had a lot of Western European influence. However, he used themes from Russian folk music to create his music, but his operatic and balletic style is more his own than his neighbor’s.
His ability to share his music with others was perhaps more significant. Tchaikovsky wanted to participate in the global music scene, even though many Russian composers were isolated from each other. He embarked on a three month tour that included the unveiling of his music to Western Europe. He met Brahms on this trip, who he disapproved of and to whom he attributed his fangirling. The exchange between them is instructive and shows how Tchaikovsky desired his music be received. It could not be identified. All it needed was to be great.
That left him on the outskirts—an allegory for his life, in some sense, which was marred with depressive episodes as well as inner torment over his homosexuality (the latter of which, I’ll add, would not make him very popular in Putin’s Russia). He performed the opera premiere in opposition to some nationalist cultural elite. Eugene Onegin to a group of students as opposed to a grand Russian theater. And when Rimsky-Korsakov of “the Five” had an about-face and took a job at the Western-influenced Saint Petersburg Conservatory—seen in some corners as a betrayal of sorts—it was Tchaikovsky who supported him.
Tchaikovsky’s deprogramming decision by the Cardiff Philharmonic may be supported by those who note that his selection was on one of the programs. 1812 Overture,A 15 minute piece that celebrates the victory of Napolean Bonaparte’s Russian attempt to invade. This piece seems inappropriate considering the facts. These comparisons are not very accurate when you consider the historical context. The piece isn’t about Russia being the aggressor. It celebrates a nation that has defeated an invader. As such it was embraced by America and enjoyed by many Americans during the 4th of July festivities. These are some lessons that can be learned.
Even so, it doesn’t make sense to scrub Tchaikovsky of his entire body solely due to where he was born. This is particularly true when one considers what was supposed be the main course in this program, his. Symphony No. 2, which, in a sort of cosmic irony, is built around…three Ukrainian folk songs.
It won’t shock anyone familiar with Tchaikovsky. He spent many months in Ukraine over a period of a year and maintained close family connections to the area; his grandfather, whose paternal grandfather was born here. He wrote that he found “the peace of mind I was looking for in Ukraine” despite having been an outsider.
Even in death, it appears Tchaikovsky will continue to play that part, the anti-nationalist again ostracized—this time by the people who purport to agree with the core of what he stood for. This isn’t surprising in a world where many can’t distinguish between Putin support and Russian citizenship, and theaters, embassies, and other structures are desecrated and vandalized solely for their flag. It’s still a terrible thing.