I am appalled by what is happening in Ukraine, but I was sad to read the suggestion of Oleksandr Tkachenko, Ukraine’s minister of culture, that we should refuse to perform Tchaikovsky (As Ukraine’s culture minister, I’m asking you to boycott Tchaikovsky until this war is over, 7 December). During the second world war, the day after Germany invaded Holland, the German mezzo-soprano Elena Gerhardt, exiled in London, sang a programme of German song with the pianist Myra Hess at the National Gallery. Gerhardt had said to Hess that “nobody will want to hear the German language”, but Hess persuaded her to sing nevertheless.
As she stepped on to the platform, she received such an overwhelming ovation that it took her some time before she was able to sing. The audience understood that the great works of German music represented the best of German civilisation at a time when the Nazis were destroying it. Likewise, Tchaikovsky represents the best of Russian civilisation. Tchaikovsky himself wrote to a fellow composer “though born Russians, we are at the same time even more Europeans”. He too would have been appalled at what Putin is doing to Ukraine.
• Oleksandr Tkachenko falls into a trap that could have been prepared for him by Kremlin ideologues: “I can differentiate between my culture and yours, and mine is superior.” People have varied spheres of belonging, and no culture is unaffected by others.
Tchaikovsky is mentioned: his surname is of obvious Ukrainian origin, and comes from his Cossack forebear, Chaika. He grew up in what later became the little-known republic of Udmurtia: is he therefore the father of Udmurt music? The name of that great Petersburger, Shostakovich, is clearly Polish. By contrast the greatest 20th-century Kyivan writer, Mikhail Bulgakov, devoted to the city, hated Ukrainian nationalism. One could go on.
Delimiting culture, even in the most oppressive circumstances, helps no one and nothing, least of all culture itself.
Washington, West Sussex
• I agree that Russian musicians who openly support the war criminal Vladimir Putin should be banned from performing.
But while the ongoing boycott of the music of Wagner, who was a renowned antisemite, can still be defended, the same is not true of Tchaikovsky, Pushkin and other great Russian artists who have long been dead and cannot be asked for their opinion on the present war in Ukraine. Nor can they defend themselves when they are being abused by the Kremlin. Putin does not own Tchaikovsky, his musical legacy belongs to all of us and had nothing to do with politics. Classical music is largely apolitical and is supposed to bring people together.
One day after the invasion of Prague by Soviet forces in 1968, the Soviet State Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Yevgeny Svetlanov, performed in a scheduled concert in the BBC Proms. On the programme were Shostakovich’s Symphony No 10 and the Czech composer Dvořák’s cello concerto, played by Mstislav Rostropovich. At the beginning of the concert, voices of protest could be heard inside and outside the Royal Albert Hall. But Rostropovich, who had won his first competition in Prague and met his wife in that city, played the concerto with so much emotion, while tears streamed down his face, that after the concert the audience could only cheer the soloists and the orchestra.
I believe the best response musicians can give to this senseless war is a similar message of love and unity: how beautiful would it be if Ukrainian musicians were playing Russian music and vice versa?
Aerdenhout, The Netherlands
• Oleksandr Tkachenko makes an admirable case for pausing performances of Russian works for the duration of the war against Ukraine as he details how the destruction of Ukrainian culture and the idea of the singularity of Russian culture are both being used as weapons by Putin.
These are not words written in hatred. It is clear that he has respect for the best of Russian culture and that in time it will return to a free Ukrainian cultural scene. For me, culture is inextricably linked with human values. Of course the issue is complex. There are situations, as in the case of opera, where to pause puts organisations planning years in advance at risk. The world of ballet, however, has need to think about its recourse every year to productions of the Nutcracker. Other equally delightful ballets do exist.
On the concert platform I would miss Shostakovich, whose life was devoted to solidarity with the oppressed, but I consider it a price worth paying. To pause is not to reject. I cannot at present read Russian authors. Their time will return. But Putin has unwittingly opened up new treasures. I have found many Ukrainian novelists, poets and historians to read and composers and musicians to listen to. It feels particularly important to read and hear their voices unmediated by other sources. So I am glad to heed Tkachenko’s words.
• Presumably Oleksandr Tkachenko’s call for a boycott of Russian composers includes banning the symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich. This despite the fact that the Leningrad Symphony is a powerful protest against precisely the kind of invasion and cruel violence now being suffered by Ukraine, while the 13th Symphony – Babi Yar – drew the world’s attention to the hideous massacre of Kyiv’s Jewish population by Nazi forces.
It includes these lines by the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko: “Oh my Russian people, I know / that at heart you are internationalists, / but there have been those with soiled hands / who abused your good name. / I know that my land is good. / How filthy that without the slightest shame / the antisemites proclaimed themselves: ‘The Union of the Russian People.’”
Shostakovich took a huge personal risk in setting such words to music, but did so to express his own brave internationalism and passionate protest against all unjust wars. Far from proscribing such music, we all need to listen to it and its message more than ever.
Kirkintilloch, East Dunbartonshire
• My husband was born and grew up in Kyiv. His childhood friend has been killed in the Donbas; his family and friends are now either refugees or facing cold and bombs. Pace Mr Tkachenko, in this culture debate our thoughts turn towards the greatness of spirit of the starving musicians and choir in the siege of Leningrad who performed Beethoven’s Ninth and broadcast it to the besieging Germans in the winter of 1941.
Name and address supplied
• Is the culture minister aware that the Kyiv ballet have been performing Tchaikovsky on their Spanish tour, which I attended in Alicante in October? Perhaps he should be told!