Bojan Bujic on the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra’s decision to remove the Russian composer’s work from its programme
‘It is important to bear in mind that Tchaikovsky wrote the piece to a commission; he did not like the finished work and, with justification, considered it of doubtful value.’ Photograph: EPALettersSun 13 Mar 2022 18.25 GMTLast modified on Mon 14 Mar 2022 05.24 GMTThe cannon effects in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture – a bombastic adornment to a piece of music written for the 70th anniversary, in 1882, of the Battle of Borodino – are sending a wrong message in the light of the tragedy now unfolding in Ukraine (Cardiff orchestra defends move to cut Tchaikovsky from concert, 12 March)
Furthermore, the finale of the overture, with the Marseillaise being triumphantly overpowered by the Russian national anthem, might have had a specific meaning in the Russian imperial context of the time, whereas the basic opposition between the “bad” French anthem and the “good” Russian one is now but a hollow symbol of Russian triumphalism, ill-suited to our times. It is important to bear in mind that Tchaikovsky wrote the piece to a commission; he did not like the finished work and, with justification, considered it of doubtful value.
n comparison with the intense musical nationalism of the St Petersburg school of composers, Tchaikovsky was indeed an internationalist, though within Russia he could be as exclusively great-Russian as the rest of them. In summer 1865, staying at the country estate at Kamenka near Kyiv, he started collecting Ukrainian folk songs, intending to use them in his compositions, but soon gave up, finding them to have been “corrupted” by “western” (for which read Polish) influence.
Theodor Adorno may have had a point that ethnic nationalism in music poisons it both socially and aesthetically, and in that regard the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra was right to remove The 1812 Overture from its programme. As one of the pieces replacing it, John Williams’s The Cowboy Overture sends a wrong message of a different kind. The piece may be good as film music, but in a concert hall its cliches become too obvious and reveal it as being no more than an example of mass-produced consumer music.