Why cancel Tchaikovsky?

Ian Pace

The conductor Valery Gergiev, a known ally of Vladimir Putin who appeared in one of his election campaign videos, has had concerts and contracts cancelled with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Vienna and Munich Philharmonic Orchestras, La Scala Opera House in Milan, the Edinburgh Festival, the Verbier Festival and more. The soprano Anna Netrebko, facing the prospect of similar prohibitions, has cancelled all performances until further notice. She has spoken admiringly of Putin and posed with the flag of pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists.

The Royal Opera House and the Met have cancelled appearances from the Bolshoi and Mariinsky Ballets. Piano competitions in Dublin and Calgary have refused to accept Russian competitors. The amateur Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra has withdrawn a Tchaikovsky concert including the 1812 Overture. The Swiss Théâtre Orchestre of Bienne Soleure has cancelled its remaining performances of Tchaikovsky’s opera Mazeppa.

Some Russian musicians, including the pianists Evgeny Kissin and Alexander Melnikov, the conductors Vasily Petrenko and Semyon Bychkov, and the soprano Natalia Pschenitschnikova, have spoken out against the war. They do not face cancellations. At the same time there have been efforts to lionise music and musicians who can be categorised as Ukrainian rather than Russian, difficult though it may be in some cases to make a clear distinction.

There’s nothing new about the enlisting of music and musicians to political causes. When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870, the centenary of Beethoven’s birth, his music was presented in Germany as embodying purity, health, strength and moral soundness, in contrast with the alleged moral decline, debilitated health and decadence of French culture.

From the other side, following the outbreak of the First World War, Debussy wrote to a pupil that ‘we are going to pay dearly for the right to dislike the music of Richard Strauss and Schoenberg’ and ‘French art needs to take revenge quite as seriously as the French army does!’ He began to call himself musicien français and developed a new musical idiom rooted in ideals of antiquity and classicism, further away from Germanic music (especially that of Wagner) than previously.

During the Second World War, by contrast, the British pianist Myra Hess gave regular concerts at the National Gallery in London, even at the height of the Blitz, often playing Austro-German music, including Beethoven.

At the end of the war, however, the situation became more complicated again. German composers, conductors and performers including Richard Strauss, Hans Pfitzner, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Eugene Jochum, Walter Gieseking and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf found themselves under intense suspicion and their ability to perform limited. Denazification was applied inconsistently: Gieseking for a while could perform in the French Zone but not the British or American ones; Carl Orff found himself unable to work in Munich, but permitted in Stuttgart, where one of the local theatre and music officers was one of his former students – both cities were under US administration.

Less suspicion fell on compromised citizens of other nations, such as the Romanian conductor George Georgescu or pianist Dinu Lipatti, who had undertaken concert tours of areas occupied by Nazi Germany, or the Japanese conductor Hidemaro Konoye, who regularly conducted the Berlin Philharmonic and even recorded the Horst-Wessel-Lied with them. Many key figures involved in the development of new music in Germany after 1945 were also presumed to belong to a realm apart from Nazism, such as Werner Meyer-Eppler, the phoneticist, physicist, proponent of electronic music and teacher of Stockhausen. But Meyer-Eppler had been a prominent figure in the National­sozialistische Fliegerkorps, and one of a group of elite scientists working on major military programmes during the last year of the war. The British occupiers forbade him from working at his university in Bonn. Only by reinventing himself as a different type of scholar, looking at phonetics and speech synthesis (without which the history of elektronische Musik might have been very different), could Meyer-Eppler return to a full university position.

Most of these musicians had been involved in activities that in some sense glorified or propagandised for a genocidal regime. Yet concerns quickly receded, denazification was relaxed, and German conducting in particular was dominated for decades after the war by men with tainted personal and political histories. The Cold War quickly became a much more charged arena. The propaganda value of music competitions had been apparent to the Central Committee of the Communist Party since Lev Oborin’s victory at the first International Frederyk Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1927. There was a shock when the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958 was won by the Texan pianist Van Cliburn, who had studied with the Russian exile pianist Rosina Lhévinne at the Juilliard School in New York. Cliburn became a US national hero, receiving a ticker-tape parade for his triumphant return home. The Soviets paid increased attention to their strategy for selecting competitors. The competitions had become not only about the finest performers, but which political system was better for nurturing talent.

Soviet musicians’ international travel was carefully limited. Sviatoslav Richter, born in Ukraine, was not allowed to visit the West until 1960, at the age of 45, because his father, of German origin, had been arrested as a suspected spy in Odesa in 1941 and executed. Other pianists such as Maria Yudina, Vladimir Sofronitsky or Samuil Feinberg were rarely if ever allowed to travel, and became known to a few Westerners only through hard-to-obtain recordings made in the Soviet Union. Those who defected, including the pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, received intense attention as propaganda for the greater artistic freedom claimed by the West. When Soviet musicians did manage to travel, their concerts were often embroiled with politics. After the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 there were demonstrations outside a performance by the State Orchestra of the USSR at the Proms in London. A planned British tour by the violinist David Oistrakh in 1971 was cancelled following tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats, journalists and academics by the UK and the Soviet Union. In the late 1980s, musical and ballet events by Soviet artists in San Francisco were met with protests as part of a campaign against the USSR’s policies preventing Jewish emigration to Israel.

The state control of music-making in Putin’s Russia is not on a level with Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. A musician does not automatically ‘represent’ the country or the regime, though the opportunities for those still in Russia to speak out against the government are already limited and likely to become more so. Putin’s nationalism differs in some respects from that of the 19th-century, when ‘Westernisers’ and ‘Slavophiles’ argued about the country’s musical future as well as its interactions with the West. But it cannot be wholly separated from those roots, which informed the musical language of Musorgsky, Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov and to an extent Tchaikovsky, some aspects of which were perceived as specifically ‘Russian’, opposed in particular to what were thought to be Germanic norms.

During a time of war, it is inevitable and not necessarily inappropriate to limit some cultural interactions with an enemy nation, not least as part of a strategy of isolating an aggressor. If Russians cannot compete in international sporting events, should musical competitions be different? Is it any more unreasonable to want to postpone a performance of the bombastic and militaristic 1812 Overture than it was for the British conductor Mark Elder to express doubts about conducting the Last Night of the Proms following the outbreak of the 1991 Gulf War? (Elder was promptly replaced.)

Moral and aesthetic considerations cannot be assumed to mirror one another. Too little has been said about the roots of Geräusch-Musik (noise music) in the militaristic and misogynistic worldview of Fascist-aligned Italian futurists, in particular Luigi Russolo; this is a vital consideration, but I would not wish the whole genre to be dismissed as a result. Conversely, there is no reason to expect ‘good’ people to produce important art, or that works which explicitly align themselves to a worthy cause – as with countless 9/11 memorial pieces; no doubt more than one lachrymose ‘Lament for Ukraine’ for string orchestra is currently being composed – should automatically be thought to have any wider value.

In the hoped-for event of an ultimate ceasefire and Russian withdrawal, what happens to Russian music and musicians then? To ‘cancel’ them in the long term would be futile and culturally impoverishing; I hope that there will still be further chances to hear performances by Gergiev of music by Musorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev and others outside Russia. But we should not harbour the delusion that such music stands above politics in some transcendent realm.

With thanks to my doctoral student Sarah Innes for information relating to Soviet artists visiting the UK.


  • 11 March 2022 at 12:11pm
    chris Castle says:
    The cardiff Orchestra has a Ukranian member. Playing the 1812 was deemed insensitive and upsetting - especially with the cannon fire.
    Future concerts with other Russian music will go ahead as scheduled.
    You should edit your piece to reflect this context

  • 11 March 2022 at 1:20pm
    Higgs Boatswain says:
    Where does this end, though? Should all Chinese musicians be required to condemn the genocide in Xinjiang? Should all Jewish musicians have to criticise the occupation of the West Bank before we let them perform? If we hold individuals responsible for the failings of their nations or governments, few of us will be safe.

    • 11 March 2022 at 3:41pm
      OldScrounger says: @ Higgs Boatswain
      "Jewish" is an indicator of ancestry. I could envisage a situation where the organisers/sponsors/financiers of a concert might demand a declaration such as you describe of any Israeli citizen who wished to perform.

    • 12 March 2022 at 12:42pm
      Delaide says: @ Higgs Boatswain
      I take your point, but I think the stark immediacy of Putin’s war warrants special emphasis.

    • 15 March 2022 at 7:06pm
      Rowena Hiscox says: @ Higgs Boatswain
      The current vogue for pressuring people into issuing statements condemning things is dubious at any time – such statements have no value if they're extracted on pain of cancellation, and they risk cheapening genuine statements of protest – but particularly so in this case. There's something a little disturbing about Westerners, from a culture where public figures are expected to condemn seventy different things before breakfast every morning (extra points for condemning something you don't even understand), requiring the same from citizens of an authoritarian country where the security forces have a record of terminally cancelling official enemies.

      Given the sheer unlikelihood of any of this having the slightest impact on the course of the war, a more proportionate approach seems in order. No sympathy for those who actively support dictators, but I'm not inclined to denounce those who just want to keep their heads down and avoid attracting attention. Besides, nowadays, the quality of just wanting to keep your head down and avoid attracting attention deserves protection for its rarity value alone.

    • 16 March 2022 at 5:22pm
      fbkun says: @ OldScrounger
      Jewish or Israeli, it's equally unlikely to happen and you know it.

    • 17 March 2022 at 1:26pm
      stettiner says: @ fbkun
      "A Spanish music festival demanded Jewish-American reggae star Matisyahu endorse Palestinian statehood, and then canceled his upcoming show after the singer declined, Spanish media reported Saturday.

      The Rototom Sunsplash Reggae Festival called off the formerly Hasidic rapper’s August 22 show, with organizers saying Matisyahu had refused to comply with their demand to pen a statement or a video message backing “the Palestinians’ right to a state.”"

      "The author’s (Richard Zimler) personal publicist, who asked not to be named, confirmed that two organisations had pulled out of initially enthusiastic discussions about events with Zimler, whose latest book The Gospel According to Lazarus was published in April. They feared his Jewishness would alienate Palestinian sympathisers among their clientele and could result in protests, the publicist said."

      It happens all the time... I don't know what OldScrounger knows, but you know nothing.

    • 23 March 2022 at 4:34pm
      fbkun says: @ OldScrounger
      Not quite.
      You are probably aware that when the western media speak of "Israeli" victims at the hand of Palestinians, what they actually should say is "Israeli Jews". No Palestinian with the Israeli citizenship lives in the illegal settlements of the West Bank, nor routinely oppresses Palestinians of the West Bank or Gaza.

    • 24 March 2022 at 2:16pm
      stettiner says: @ fbkun
      Wrong again...
      According to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, the much hated "settlement" of Ariel has 600 Arab residents; in another "settlement", around Mount Scopus where the Hebrew University is based and many non-Israeli Arabs study, about 16 percent of residents are either Arab citizens of Israel or other Jerusalem Arabs.

      These are just two examples of many.

  • 11 March 2022 at 2:41pm
    Seth Edenbaum says:
    Considering the ongoing destruction in Yemen and the mass starvation in Afghanistan, perhaps the earnest people of the world should consider cancelling the Beatles and Beyoncé, at least for now.

    • 15 March 2022 at 3:14pm
      Lexa Hypatia says: @ Seth Edenbaum
      Good point. Our outrage can be selective. When the Russians used white phosphorus in Ukraine there was horror that this terrible weapon, which can burn flesh for days, was employed against civilians. When the Israeli Defence Force used white phosphorus against heavily populated areas of Gaza, the silence was deafening.

    • 23 March 2022 at 4:35pm
      fbkun says: @ Lexa Hypatia
      Palestinians should be whiter, blonder and more blue-eyed, that would help.

  • 12 March 2022 at 9:15am
    Bungaroosh says:
    In the third episode of John Berger's 'Ways of Seeing' there's a montage of film from one of Myra Hess's wartime concerts at the National Gallery, and one conducted by Furtwangler in Berlin (it's on YouTube at about five minutes in). In cutaways between the two concerts, as well as the musicians, we see members the audiences, including Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon at the London one, and Heinrich Himmler at the one in Berlin. A nice illustration of the dubious use of high culture in propaganda, and how good art doesn't necessarily make good people. But perhaps the montage is a bit of propaganda in itself. The future Queen Mother is seen sitting next to Kenneth Clark, whose 'Civilisation' was, at least to an extent, in Berger's sights in 'Ways of Seeing'.

    • 12 March 2022 at 6:16pm
      ben cosin says: @ Bungaroosh
      Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon? Isn't that the woman who both gave Nazi salutes and encouraged her little daughters, also an Elizabeth ('Lilibet') and Margaret Rose, to give similar salutes - recorded on film.
      I wonder what happened to them?

    • 15 March 2022 at 6:54pm
      Richard Wallis says: @ Bungaroosh
      Are you implying that both clips in "Ways of Seeing" have ties to Nazi propaganda? Dame Myra Hess, to my knowledge, never renounced her Jewish religion. Are you saying that she used her National Gallery recitals for "dubious" purposes? She was not the only musician performing at the gallery concerts, nor was Beethoven the only composer represented.

    • 21 March 2022 at 3:17pm
      Bob K says: @ Bungaroosh
      Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon? Isn't that the woman who was Queen of England at the time?

  • 14 March 2022 at 3:03am
    Marcus Adamson says:
    Although Mr Pace's survey of morally compromised artists and the morally fluid arrangements within which they 'operated' is rather formidable (and despite the emphasis he herein puts on Russians - i.e. there is no mention of Karajan or other Nazi conductors: e.g. Bohm, Jochum, the overall impression he leaves us with that any 'blame' pigment is decidedly greyish.
    While that may be the case, 'artists' such as Gergiev and Netrebko are not, in this instance, within that tint radar, if only because they have been 'seen' to have endorsed Putin's regime - indeed this either verbally or via images - while their siding with a corrupt and now much more murderous dictator further to him having had 'undesirable individuals' killed, puts them firmly into the darker noir tent. Russian art and culture will eternally prevail (and especially when it, and in particular, pre-Soviet art and culture, has naught to do with the kind of 'neo-Sovietism' that Putin is attempting to reimpose on sections of the old Union), while so-called artistes such as Gergiev and Netrebko simply don't pass the moral test given their failure to realise that art and the wider world ARE 'the same thing' following the tacit approvals they have given Putin when refusing to criticise him following the requests made to each of them recently and in the past! Indeed, and subsequent to Ian Pace's wish to hear a Gergiev performance again 'one fine day', Gergiev and Netrebko should very justifiably be 'cancelled' and this until such time as they have denounced Putin and ceased any association with him! Sorry Ian, but as Beethoven knew when he was writing the 'Emperor' concerto, "moral and aesthetic considerations 'can' and 'must' be assumed to mirror one another" lest this important value become (as with almost everything else nowadays) part of what Milan Kundera calls the 'culture of forgetting'!

    • 18 March 2022 at 8:26pm
      Ian Pace says: @ Marcus Adamson
      You say 'there is no mention of Karajan or other Nazi conductors: e.g. Bohm, Jochum'

      But note this from the article: 'German composers, conductors and performers including Richard Strauss, Hans Pfitzner, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Eugene Jochum, Walter Gieseking and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf found themselves under intense suspicion and their ability to perform limited.' There are of course many others, including Böhm, Karajan, Knappertsbusch, Krauss and so on - this is just a selection.

    • 25 March 2022 at 1:53am
      Marcus Adamson says: @ Ian Pace
      My apologies, Ian: I did indeed notice Jochum's name in the Nazi sympathiser list which you provided after I reread your piece - albeit this after I'd sent it - while regrettably there is of course no edit button, even if that was not an excuse for not having written an addendum to one's comment! With thanks to you and Sarah Innes (following her work) for a great article, while my problem with Gergiev and Netrebko is that - and this in contrast to those other Russian artists you have mentioned, and ones/groups who certainly ought not be 'cancelled' - they have stood alongside Putin and praised him, while in fairness to the gang of 'Fuhrer groupies' very few of them actually show up in pictures with Hitler or even Goebbels in solidarity with Nazi aims and aspirations, despite the photos of Strauss with G. and Furtwangler bowing to H. after, I think, a Beethoven 9. That said, that is no excuse of course for the moral "slipping and sliding" that Strauss's librettist, Hofmannsthal prophesised (along with too, Stefan Zweig) in the pre-Great War period and which thereafter percolated down via those relativism deluges which have been the assortment of genocides and wars that characterised the 20th century. Anyway, it has always seemed to me that the German persons you’ve mentioned (and more recently nowadays both Gergiev and Netrebko) have sought to anesthetise criticism via what have always been the dual furphies that “art is above politics”, or “I was only obeying orders”, with them - and this after the kitchen thermostat was turned up more fully - also making reputation rehabilitation excursions into those absolution lands which, in our now post-relativist culture, are much more accommodating of M. Voltaire's paradoxical phrase of "Croyez moi l'erreur aussi a son merite"!

  • 14 March 2022 at 2:40pm
    Isaac Segal says:
    Russia has always been justly proud of its arts, not the least of which is its music. And Putin, like hos Soviet forebears, has has certainly been willing to deploy Russian culture to project his power—witness the concerts Gergiev very publicly conducted in Syrian and Ossetia. I see no problem with denying him this or any other export as long as his war crimes continue. I love Russian music, but right now I have a hard time listening to it without hearing bombs and artillery. And not just in the 1812.

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