With its breathtaking cannon fire and triumphant spirit, Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” has been a staple of July 4 festivities across the United States for decades, serving as a rousing prelude to sparkling fireworks.
But this year, many ensembles, preoccupied with the history of the overture as a celebration of the Russian army – Tchaikovsky wrote it to commemorate the rout of Napoleon’s army in Moscow in the winter of 1812 – reconsidering the work because of the war in Ukraine.
Some groups decided to ignore it, arguing that its belligerent themes would be offensive in times of war. Others, eager to show their solidarity with Ukraine, added renditions of the Ukrainian national anthem to their programs to counter the elation of Tsarist Russia’s openness. Still others rework it, in one case adding calls for peace.
For the first time since 1978, the legendary Cleveland Orchestra is omitting work from its July 4 concerts, which feature the Blossom Festival Band. “Given the way Russia is behaving at the moment and the propaganda that is out there, going to play music that celebrates their victory, I just think it would be upsetting for a lot of people,” said André Gremillet, president. and general manager of the orchestra. “Everyone would hear this reference, along with the guns, to the current war involving Russia. It would be insensitive to people in general, and certainly to the Ukrainian population in particular.
The questioning of the “1812 Overture” is the latest example of the difficult questions facing cultural institutions since the start of the war.
Arts groups have come under pressure from the public, board members and activists to cut ties with Russian artists, especially those who have expressed support for President Vladimir V. Putin. Some have also been called to remove works by Russian composers, including revered figures like Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Mussorgsky.
Many groups resisted, arguing that removing Russian works would amount to censorship. But there have been exceptions. The Polish National Opera dropped a production of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov,” one of Russia’s greatest operas, in March to express “solidarity with the Ukrainian people.” The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra in Wales and the Chubu Philharmonic Orchestra in Japan all recently dropped plans to perform the “1812 Overture”, citing war.
The overture, which lasts about 15 minutes, is decidedly patriotic, with Russian folk songs and a volley of cannon fire over the old Russian national anthem, “God Save the Czar.” Some renditions include vocal lines from a Russian Orthodox text, “God preserve your people”.
While Tchaikovsky was not particularly fond of its overture when it debuted in Moscow in 1882, it has since become one of classical music’s best-known pieces.
Since the 1970s, when the Boston Pops began playing it to crowds of hundreds of thousands along the banks of the Charles River, the overture has become a popular part of 4th of July celebrations across the United States. United. It is performed annually by hundreds of ensembles in big cities and small towns; local governments often provide howitzers for the overture’s moving conclusion.
Interpretations of the piece have changed over time, said Emily Richmond Pollock, an associate professor of music at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While first used to celebrate the Russian Empire, it later became synonymous with American democracy. Now in some circles he symbolizes authoritarianism in modern Russia.
“It’s been used for different purposes throughout history,” Pollock said. “In 2022, with the ambivalence of Russian power, this has taken on another meaning. And it could still mean something different in the future.
In recent weeks, more than a dozen ensembles from Connecticut, Indiana, New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, Wyoming and elsewhere have decided to drop the piece due to concerns by the reactions of Ukrainians and others opposed to the war. Some replaced the piece with works by Americans, including film composer John Williams, and standards like Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and “America the Beautiful.”
The Hartford Symphony Orchestra in Connecticut, which has played the overture since 1995, felt “celebrating a Russian military victory is too sensitive a subject right now” and removed the piece from its schedule, said Steve Collins, president. and Chief Executive Officer of the whole. .
“The risk of offending and clashing with our Ukrainian American friends — the very people we want to support — far outweighs any benefit to playing this piece,” he said. “It just wasn’t that important, in our final analysis, to perform this play this summer.”
The Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming decided to skip the work in part because it did not want to alienate Ukrainians, including those affiliated with the festival.
“We didn’t think it was appropriate to program a work with the sounds of cannons accompanying ‘God Save the Czar’, given what is happening in Ukraine,” said Emma Kail, executive director of the festival. “We thought we were going to build a new tradition and keep it all-American this year.”
Other ensembles, including the Boston Pops and the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, which typically perform the overture to large audiences on live television shows, plan to continue the piece this year.
“We’re playing this to celebrate independence and freedom and the people who are willing to sacrifice a lot to make this happen,” said Boston Pops bandleader Keith Lockhart, who will also perform the Ukrainian national anthem. .
Lockhart said that in times of war, the overture could serve as a reminder of the perils of aggression. In 1812, he noted, Russia was repelling an invasion from a more powerful country, much like Ukraine today.
“In this fight, the Russians were the Ukrainians of 2022,” he said. “It’s not as simplistic as ‘Russia, bad.’ It is the attempt of authoritarian powers to dominate other powers that is wrong.
How the war in Ukraine affects the cultural world
The question of whether to interpret the opening has put artistic leaders, unaccustomed to managing geopolitical issues, in an uncomfortable position.
In Massachusetts, the Plymouth Philharmonic Orchestra faced questions from patrons about whether it was appropriate to play the overture at their holiday concert. The orchestra decided to perform the piece, fearing that its omission would fuel the perception that the West was trying to eradicate Russian culture.
“Cancelling it is exactly the narrative that Putin wants us all to believe: that the world wants to get rid of Russian culture,” said conductor Steven Karidoyanes. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Some ensembles, eager to show their solidarity with Ukraine but worried about canceling a cherished Independence Day tradition, have tried to find creative solutions. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will perform the overture, but will add a statement before the concert discussing the history of the piece and expressing solidarity with Ukraine.
In Naperville, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, the Naperville Municipal Band sought this year to remove any reference to Russia. At his holiday concert, an onstage narrator usually tells the story of the overture, including its origins as a commemoration of the Russian victory over the French. This year, the narrator described the play simply as a “representation of all victories over oppression, including our own War of 1812”, and spoke of the Civil War battle at Gettysburg.
Ronald J. Keller, the group’s musical director, who has conducted 44 performances of the play since 1977, said he told his colleagues it was important to avoid any discussion of Russia in view of the war .
“I said, ‘No, we’re not even going to mention Russia – none of that,’” Keller recalled. “This business with Ukraine and Russia is not very popular right now. We didn’t want to be involved. We wanted to keep the focus on America, our history and who we are.
Other ensembles used the performances of the “1812 Overture” to make political statements.
At a concert in mid-June, the choir from Westerly in Rhode Island sang an English text written by the leaders of the group instead of a traditional Russian prayer.
Andrew Howell, the group’s musical director, said the choir sought to create a “non-sectarian prayer of hope and peace” that would maintain the spirit of Tchaikovsky’s music, but also reflect opposition to war.
The new text says:
Let our voices unite now in song.
The voices are rising, join us to sing this song. To believe.
There is peace to come.