The Tchaikovsky and Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra controversy, explained

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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Getty Images)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Getty Images)

The Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra has pulled pieces by Tchaikovsky from an upcoming concert, claiming it was “inappropriate” to perform work by the Russian composer during the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

A concert at St David’s Hall on March 18 was set to include the 1812 Overture, written in celebration of Russia’s fight-back against Napoleon’s invasion and famous for including a volley of cannon fire, but will now feature works by Antonín Dvořák, John Williams and Edward Elgar instead.

The move has caused controversy on social media and beyond, with some claiming this amounts to a “cancellation” of the long-deceased composer. But what’s the story behind it? Here’s the context.

Who was Tchaikovsky?

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a Russian composer who lived between 1840 and 1893. He is arguably Russia’s most famous composer and he has written some of today’s best-known classical music, such as that for the ballets The Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, both of which are regularly performed all around the world.

His compositions are known for being melodic, animated, harmonious and memorable — and for their distinctively Russian flavour (though some Russian critics considered his work rather too Western for their liking). You’ll most likely recognise Violin Concerto in D major, or The Seasons Op.37a, even if you have no interest in classical music.

Why has the Orchestra dropped this piece now?

The world has been watching as Russia invaded Ukraine, with various solidarity movements emerging — from protests and refugee support to murals and fashion shows. And although the statement on the Cardiff Philharmonic’s website didn’t explicitly say so, this move appears to be an attempt to show support to embattled Ukrainians.

“In light of the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra, with the agreement of St David’s Hall, feel the previously advertised programme including the 1812 Overture to be inappropriate at this time,” the statement read. “The orchestra hope you will continue to support them and enjoy the revised Classics for All programme.”

Why has this decision garnered controversy?

A number of commentators feel there is too much emphasis being placed on anti-Russian sanctions and sentiments, when ordinary Russians have very little – and most often nothing – to do with the war.

For them, there needs to be a distinction between the Putin regime and Russia as a whole, and decisions that ban or remove Russian artists, musicians or writers lack the necessary nuance.

On the other hand, for Ukrainians, the idea of hearing a Russian composition celebrating Russian military might, along with cannon fire, would at a minimum feel in bad taste, and at most, incredibly painful. It seems that the Cardiff Philharmonic’s decision was tilted towards sympathy with the Ukrainian experience.

Why is the example of Tchaikovsky complicated?

There always have been, and continue to be, different schools of thought around the style and influences of Tchaikovsky’s work.

During his life, Tchaikovsky was criticised for producing music that many Russians felt was too Western or non-Russian. Tchaikovsky was originally educated to go into a career in the civil service, and at the St Petersburg conservatory he attended, there was a more formal, Western-orientated teaching style. Many felt this education seeped into the way he approached his compositions.

While some European critics at the time seemed to support this sentiment, lauding his work for its Western elements, just as many dismissed his music for not following Western principles. And it was this rich, complex musical style that meant Tchaikovsky was often considered separate to Russian nationalist movements.

Other criticisms of the Cardiff Philharmonic’s decision was around Tchaikovsky’s own relationship with Ukraine. His grandfather was born in what is now modern-day Ukraine, and his brother-in-law had an estate in the country, where Tchaikovsky spent the summer in 1875. And as one Twitter user pointed out, the composer even “incorporated a lot of Ukrainian folk music and stories into his work”.

Will the Orchestra play him again?

Yes. In a further statement, the Cardiff Philharmonic said the decision was just made in reaction to the “here and now”, suggesting that if the “here” changes, Tchaikovsky will be reintroduced to their programme.

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