Boycott Tchaikovsky?

Oleksandr Tkachenko, Ukraine’s minister of culture, in a commentary published by The Guardian, advocates “pausing performances” of music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky “until Russia ceases its bloody invasion.”

In calling for a Tchaikovsky boycott, the minister cites a decree by Vladimir Putin that Russian culture is to be (in Tkachenko’s words) “a tool and even a weapon in the hands of the government,” to be used in “all the opportunities available to it . . . in order to advance its interests.”

Ukrainian culture, meanwhile, is being “liquidated,” Tkachenko writes. His ministry has “recorded more than 800 cases of destruction: monuments and works of art, museums, valuable historical buildings.”

Tkachenko is not the first Ukrainian official to call for a cultural boycott of Russia during this war. It’s not hard to sympathize, given the evidently systematic campaign of the invaders to destroy or denude Ukrainian cultural institutions. (The minister did not, but could have, noted reports that the collections of his country’s museums have been looted and taken to Russia.)

Tchaikovsky is an odd target, though: This Russian composer was of partly Ukrainian ancestry (also French and German – the tsarist empire was a stew of ethnicities and nationalities), and he showed no antipathy towards Ukrainian culture. His Second Symphony quotes three Ukrainian folk tunes. (Its nickname, “Little Russian,” a then-common, belittling term for Ukrainian, was coined by a Moscow music critic.) Melodies of Ukrainian origin or inflection can be heard elsewhere in Tchaikovsky’s music.

Although he became an official icon of Russian culture – Tsar Alexander III was an admirer and bestower of honors – Tchaikovsky was apolitical, both personally and artistically. He had an uneasy relationship with the Russian-nationalist composers of “The Five” (Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Alexander Borodin, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov), and he sometimes was attacked for writing music that was insufficiently Russian. (The Five’s role model was Mikhail Glinka; Tchaikovsky’s were Mozart and Robert Schumann. Enough said.)

Certainly, performances of the “1812 Overture,” celebrating Russian military victory, would be an insensitive choice for civilized performers during Putin’s war on Ukraine. But “The Nutcracker?” “Eugene Onegin?” The “Capriccio Italien?” The Violin Concerto? The Fifth Symphony?

Given the agonies endured in this war, one day there may be a Ukrainian symphony that has the emotional power and ubiquity in performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth (“Pathétique”); but for now this music surely must resonate on both sides. I saw and heard that happen, in the rapturous and tearful ovation of refugees from Russia’s 1956 invasion of Hungary, following a Richmond performance of the “Pathétique” by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra.

Speaking of ubiquity: Minister Tkachenko, apropos of Christmas, points to the most widely (if seasonally) heard piece of Ukrainian music: “Carol of the Bells,” Mykola Leontovych’s 1914 adaptation of “Shchedryk,” a traditional Ukrainian New Year’s song. It’s one of the loveliest of carols, with a quality, both wistful and hopeful, that rings especially true this year:

Ukrainian classical music is well worth exploring, and Valentyn Silvestrov, the 85-year-old composer, currently a refugee in Berlin, is perhaps the best figure with whom to begin that exploration.

Rather like Poland’s Krzysztof Penderecki was, Silvestrov is conscious of his role as a cultural representative of his nation, but is not parochially “nationalist.” Much of his orchestral and chamber music dates from years of professional isolation, when he was estranged from both Soviet cultural officialdom and academic Western expectations of composers. This largely tonal music has been characterized as “neo-classical” and “post-modern.”

In more recent compositions, Silvestrov has addressed Ukraine’s ongoing struggle for independence – most poignantly, perhaps, in the choral work “Maidan 2014: Cycle of Cycles.” From an ECM recording by the Kyiv Chamber Choir, here’s his “Prayer for Ukraine:”

I’ve written previously about my ambivalence, or tempered selectivity, regarding treatment of the arts, artists and larger culture of an enemy in wartime. Earlier thoughts are here: and here: and here:

Boycotts are an old habit – recall cancellations of German art and language during the First and Second World Wars. Cultural appropriation, however, can be a more potent tactic – think of the WWII “V for Victory” motif that the Allied powers and resistance movements lifted from that most German of musical artifacts, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Supporting Ukraine’s struggle by boycotting Russian culture is misguided. Especially in classical music, because so many Russian works speak so directly and soulfully of wartime agony, officially sanctioned terror and oppression. Dmitri Shostakovich, in his Eighth String Quartet and Tenth Symphony, is as formidable an antagonist of what devolved into Putinism as any contemporary Ukrainian composer could be.

Whether your motives are political, aesthetic, emotional or some mixture, they can be well-served by speaking to the adversary in his own language.

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