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Amid Ukraine War, Orchestras Rethink ‘1812 Overture,’ a July 4 Rite

With its earsplitting rounds of cannon fire and triumphal spirit, Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” has been a staple of Fourth of July festivities across the United States for decades, serving as a rousing prelude to glittering displays of fireworks.

But this year many ensembles, concerned about the overture’s history as a celebration of the Russian military — Tchaikovsky wrote it to commemorate the rout of Napoleon’s army in Moscow in the winter of 1812 — are reconsidering the work because of the war in Ukraine.

Some groups have decided to skip it, arguing that its bellicose themes would be offensive during wartime. Others, eager to show solidarity with Ukraine, have added renditions of the Ukrainian national anthem to their programs to counter the overture’s exaltation of czarist Russia. Still others are reworking it, in one case by adding calls for peace.

For the first time since 1978, the storied Cleveland Orchestra is omitting the work from its Fourth of July concerts, which feature the Blossom Festival Band. “Given the way Russia is behaving right now and the propaganda that is out there, to go and play music that celebrates their victory I just think would be upsetting for a lot of people,” said André Gremillet, the president and chief executive of the orchestra. “Everyone would hear that reference, complete with the cannons, to the current war involving Russia. It would be insensitive to people in general, and certainly to the Ukrainian population in particular.”

The reconsideration of the “1812 Overture” is the latest example of the difficult questions facing cultural institutions since the war began.

Arts groups have come under pressure from audiences, board members and activists to cut ties with Russian artists, especially those who have expressed support for President Vladimir V. Putin. Some have also faced calls to scrap works by Russian composers, including revered figures like Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Mussorgsky.

Many groups have resisted, arguing that removing Russian works would amount to censorship. But there have been exceptions. The Polish National Opera in March dropped a production of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov,” one of the greatest Russian operas, to express “solidarity with the people of Ukraine.” The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra in Wales and the Chubu Philharmonic Orchestra in Japan have all recently abandoned plans to perform the “1812 Overture,” citing the war.

The overture, which runs about 15 minutes, is unabashedly patriotic, featuring Russian folk songs and a volley of cannon fire set to the former Russian national anthem, “God Save the Czar.” Some renditions include vocal lines from a Russian Orthodox text, “God Preserve Thy People.”

While Tchaikovsky was not particularly fond of his overture when it debuted in Moscow in 1882, it has since become one of classical music’s best known pieces.

Since the 1970s, when the Boston Pops began playing it before crowds of hundreds of thousands along the banks of the Charles River, the overture has become a popular part of Fourth of July celebrations across the United States. It is performed each year by hundreds of ensembles in big cities and small towns; local governments often supply howitzers for the overture’s stirring conclusion.

Interpretations of the piece have changed over time, said Emily Richmond Pollock, an associate professor of music at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While it was first used to celebrate the Russian empire, it later became synonymous with American democracy. Now, in some circles, it symbolizes authoritarianism in modern Russia.

“It has been used for different purposes throughout history,” Pollock said. “In 2022, with ambivalence about Russian power, it has come to mean something different. And it could mean something different again in the future.”

In recent weeks, more than a dozen ensembles in Connecticut, Indiana, New York, Ohio, Wisconsin and Wyoming and elsewhere have decided to forgo the piece because of concerns about backlash from Ukrainians and others opposed to the war. Some have replaced the piece with works by Americans, including the film composer John Williams, and standards like Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and “America the Beautiful.”

The Hartford Symphony Orchestra in Connecticut, which has played the overture since 1995, felt that “celebrating a Russian military victory is just too sensitive a topic right now” and removed the piece from its program, said Steve Collins, the ensemble’s president and chief executive.

“The risk of offending and running afoul of our Ukrainian American friends — the very people we want to support — far outweighed any benefit to playing this piece,” he said. “It just wasn’t that important, in our final analysis, to perform this piece this summer.”

The Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming decided to skip the work in part because it did not want to alienate Ukrainians, including those affiliated with the festival.

“We did not think it was appropriate to program a work that featured sounds of cannons accompanying ‘God Save the Czar,’ given what is happening in Ukraine,” said Emma Kail, the festival’s executive director. “We thought we’d build a new tradition and keep it all American this year.”

Other ensembles, including the Boston Pops and the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, which typically perform the overture before large audiences on live television spectacles, are planning to proceed with the piece this year.

“We play this to celebrate independence and freedom and people who are willing to sacrifice a lot to make that happen,” said Keith Lockhart, the conductor of the Boston Pops, which will also perform the Ukrainian national anthem.

Lockhart said that in a time of war, the overture could serve as a reminder of the perils of aggression. In 1812, he noted, Russia was fending off an invasion from a more powerful country, much like Ukraine is today.

“In that fight, the Russians were the Ukrainians of 2022,” he said. “It’s not just as simplistic as ‘Russia, bad.’ It is the attempt of authoritarian powers to dominate other powers that is bad.”

The question of whether to perform the overture has put arts leaders, largely unaccustomed to handling geopolitical matters, in an uncomfortable position.

In Massachusetts, the Plymouth Philharmonic Orchestra faced questions from patrons about whether it was appropriate to play the overture at its holiday concert. The orchestra decided to perform the piece, worried that omitting it would feed a perception that the West was trying to stamp out Russian culture.

“Canceling it plays exactly into the narrative that Putin wants us all to believe: That the world wants to do away with the Russian culture,” said Steven Karidoyanes, the orchestra’s conductor. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Some ensembles, eager to show solidarity with Ukraine, but worried about canceling a cherished Independence Day tradition, have tried to find creative solutions. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will perform the overture, but it will add a statement before the concert discussing the piece’s history and expressing solidarity with Ukraine.

In Naperville, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, the Naperville Municipal Band this year sought to remove any references to Russia. At its holiday concert, an onstage narrator usually recounts the history of the overture, including its origins as a commemoration of the Russian victory against the French. This year, the narrator described the piece simply as a “depiction of all victories over oppression, including our own War of 1812,” and spoke about the Civil War battle at Gettysburg.

Ronald J. Keller, the band’s music director, who has led 44 performances of the piece since 1977, said he told colleagues it was important to avoid any discussion of Russia given the war.

“I said, ‘No, we’re not even going to mention Russia — none of it at all,” Keller recalled. “This thing with Ukraine and Russia is not very popular right now. We didn’t want to be involved. We wanted to keep the focus on America and our history and what we’re all about.”

Other ensembles have used performances of the “1812 Overture” to make political statements.

During a concert in mid-June, the Chorus of Westerly in Rhode Island sang an English text written by the group’s leaders instead of a traditional Russian prayer.

Andrew Howell, the group’s music director, said the chorus was looking to create a “nonsectarian prayer of hope and peace” that would maintain the spirit of Tchaikovsky’s music, but also reflect opposition to war.

The new text reads:

Let our voices now unite in song.

Voices rising, join with us to sing this song. Believe.

There is peace to come.

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