Amid Ukraine’s War, Orchestras Rethink ‘1812 Overture’, a 4th of July Rite

With its deafening cannon fire and triumphant spirit, Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” has been a staple of the Fourth of July festivities in the United States for decades and served as an exciting prelude to glittering fireworks displays.

But this year, many ensembles are reconsidering the history of the overture as a celebration of the Russian army – Tchaikovsky wrote it in commemoration of the defeat of Napoleon’s army in Moscow in the winter of 1812 – because of the war in Ukraine .

Some groups have decided to skip it, arguing that the wartime wartime themes would be offensive. Others, eager to show their solidarity with Ukraine, have added renditions of the Ukrainian national anthem to their programs to counter the overture of tsarist Russia. Still others rework it, in one case adding calls for peace.

For the first time since 1978, the legendary Cleveland Orchestra omits the work from its Fourth of July concerts, which feature the Blossom Festival Band. “Given the way Russia is behaving at the moment and the propaganda out there, I think it would be disturbing for a lot of people to start playing music celebrating their victory,” said André Gremillet, the president and chief executive of the orchestra. “Anyone would hear that reference, complete 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 rethinking of the “1812 Overture” is the most recent example of the difficult questions cultural institutions have faced since the beginning of the war.

Art 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 faced calls to scrap works by Russian composers, including respected figures like Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Mussorgsky.

Many groups have argued that removing Russian works amounts 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 people of Ukraine”. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra in Wales and the Chubu Philharmonic Orchestra in Japan recently abandoned all plans to perform the “1812 Overture”, citing the war.

The overture, lasting about 15 minutes, is unabashedly patriotic, featuring Russian folk songs and a volley of cannon fire to the former Russian national anthem, “God Save the Tsar.” Some renditions include vocal lines from a Russian Orthodox text, “God Preserve Thy People.”

Although Tchaikovsky was not fond of his overture when it debuted in Moscow in 1882, it has since become one of the best-known pieces of classical music.

Since the 1970s, when the Boston Pops began playing it to hundreds of thousands of crowds along the banks of the Charles River, the overture has become a popular part of Fourth of July celebrations in the United States. It is performed every year by hundreds of ensembles in large cities and small towns; local governments often supply howitzers for the overture’s thrilling conclusion.

Interpretations of the piece have changed over time, said Emily Richmond Pollock, an associate professor of music at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Although it was first used to celebrate the Russian Empire, it later became synonymous with American democracy. Now in some circles it symbolizes authoritarianism in modern Russia.

“It’s been used for a variety of purposes throughout history,” Pollock said. “In 2022, with ambivalence about Russian power, it has come to mean something different. And it could mean something else in the future.”

In recent weeks, more than a dozen ensembles in Connecticut, Indiana, New York, Ohio, Wisconsin and Wyoming and elsewhere have decided to opt out of the play over concerns about the response from Ukrainians and others who oppose the war. Some have replaced the piece with works by Americans, including film composer John Williams, and standards such as 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 that “celebrating a Russian military victory is just too sensitive a topic right now” and removed the piece from its program, said Steve Collins, its president and chief. executive of the ensemble. †

“The risk of offending our Ukrainian-American friends and getting into trouble – the people we want to support – far outweighed the benefits of playing this piece,” he said. “It just wasn’t that important, in our final analysis, to perform this piece this summer.”

The Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming decided to skip the work in part because it didn’t want to alienate Ukrainians, including those affiliated with the festival.

“We didn’t think it was appropriate to program a work with cannon sounds at ‘God Save the Tzar’, given what is happening in Ukraine,” said Emma Kail, the festival’s executive director. “We thought we would build a new tradition and keep it all American this year.”

Other ensembles, including the Boston Pops and the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, who typically perform the overture to large audiences during live television shows, plan to continue the piece this year.

“We’re playing this to celebrate independence and freedom and people who are willing to sacrifice a lot to make that possible,” said Keith Lockhart, the conductor of the Boston Pops, who will also perform Ukraine’s national anthem.

Lockhart said that in times of war, the overture can serve as a reminder of the dangers of aggression. In 1812, he noted that Russia repelled an invasion from a more powerful country, much like Ukraine is today.

“In that 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 evil.”

The question of whether the overture should be performed has placed art leaders, largely unaccustomed to dealing with geopolitical matters, in an uneasy position.

In Massachusetts, the Plymouth Philharmonic Orchestra was faced with questions from customers about whether it was appropriate to play the overture during the holiday concert. The orchestra decided to perform the piece, fearing that its omission would create the impression that the West was trying to wipe out Russian culture.

“Cancelling it fits right in with the story Putin wants us all to believe: that the world wants to abolish Russian culture,” said Steven Karidoyanes, the orchestra’s conductor. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Eager to show solidarity with Ukraine but concerned about canceling a cherished Independence Day tradition, some ensembles have tried to find creative solutions. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will perform the overture, but it will add a statement before the concert discussing the history of the piece and expressing solidarity with Ukraine.

In a Chicago suburb of Naperville, Illinois, the Naperville Municipal Band attempted to remove all references to Russia this year. During his holiday concert, a narrator on stage usually recounts the history of the overture, including its origins as a commemoration of Russia’s victory over the French. This year, the narrator simply described the piece as a “depiction of all victories over oppression, including our own War of 1812,” and spoke of the Gettysburg Civil War battle.

Ronald J. Keller, the band’s music director, which has conducted 44 performances of the piece since 1977, said he told his colleagues it was important to avoid any discussion about Russia given the war.

“I said, ‘No, we’re not even going to talk about Russia – nothing at all,’ Keller recalled. “This thing with Ukraine and Russia isn’t very popular right now. We didn’t want to be involved. on America and our history and what we’re all about.”

Other ensembles have used performances of the “1812 Overture” to make political statements.

At a concert in mid-June, the Westerly Chorus in Rhode Island sang an English text written by the group’s leaders instead of a traditional Russian prayer.

Andrew Howell, the group’s music director, said the choir was seeking a “non-sectarian prayer of hope and peace” that would preserve the spirit of Tchaikovsky’s music, but also reflect resistance to war.

The new text reads:

Let our voices now unite in song.

Voices are rising, join us to sing this song. To believe.

Peace will come.

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