One of my great joys, if present in America on Independence Day, has been being out at the fireworks on the Fourth of July with my daughter, son-in-law, and my two grandchildren. The glorious denouement of the event has often been a final spray of brightly lit colours against the azure sky, with delighted crowds cheering along with the resounding crescendo of the volley of cannon-fire, the flamboyant finale of Pyotr Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture! Can those happy moments of such experience be at the risk of being altered or even eliminated from our lifestyle?
They very well may be. Particularly if one is to go by the logic of the prescriptions of the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra in Wales in the United Kingdom. On 18th of March at the City's St David's Hall a concert of the Russian composer was scheduled to be held. It was to have included his famous 1812 Overture that was composed to commemorate the battle of Borodino that managed to halt, albeit temporarily, another invasion at that time. It was that of Napoleon's Grand army, which was fiercely opposed by the Imperial Russian forces of Czar Alexander. Tchaikovsky and his historic piece celebrating that occasion, were considered inappropriate for the programme in Cardiff at this time, given Russia's current military operations in the Ukraine. This was although the composer, who had lived in and was much loved in the Ukraine, had striven to 'westernize' Russian music, and was never known to have been a nationalist. Furthermore, Tchaikovsky, who also gifted the world, apart from classical music immortal ballets like the 'Swan Lake' and the 'Nutcracker'. Sanctioning Tchaikovsky, who died in 1893, over the current crisis in the Ukraine would surely be taking the war a tad too far!
Incidentally, this is not the first time Tchaikovsky has been banned. It happened once before: By the Nazis in Hitler's Germany. Understandably this blatant weaponization of music drew immediate flak. The former British Member of Parliament George Galloway called it "fascistic book burning. The Bloomberg commentator Martin Ivens said: "Banning Tchaikovsky is not the way to win a war! "The Cardiff Orchestra authorities did offer an explanation though, about a member of their team having family directly involved in the Ukraine war, which was perhaps factually correct but lame as an excuse for the action. It is somewhat ironical that Tchaikovsky himself was a critic of this overture, whose fame reflected public fascination for the theatrical over quality. The composer had remarked thus about his composition: "very loud and noisy, completely without artistic merit". But the Cardiff Philharmonic did not base its decision on this account.
Tchaikovsky was by no means the only victim of the cancellation culture that occurred in the wake of the Ukrainian conflict. The Munich Philharmonic dismissed the Russian Valery Gergiev from the position of its conductor on the plea that the artist had failed to condemn the Russian action. Some other Russian artistes are confronting similar fate. As yet, however, things have not reached the level of what the English author, Graham Greene, described at the start of the First World War. It was that in a display of near-comical jingoism and fierce anti-German sentiments, the author's neighbors in England stoned a dachshund dog in his local high street!
But conflicts have brought out courage among ardent lovers of the arts as well. Also, during that war, the British conductor Sir Henry Wood informed the government that he would continue to perform Richard Wagner whose eulogies to the German blond-haired blue-eyed heroic legend was said to have inspired the ideas of Aryan racial supremacy. This noble spirit has also prevalent among common humanity during periods of stresses. My mother-in-law, a German, left a war battered country as a teenager to find solace and succour in England, among English friends. Years later she would hum the tune of the Marlene Dietrich version of "Lilli Marlene ", a German song about war-time love that had brought comfort equally to both Allied and Axis troops.
Art, music and literature have no nationality. They only serve to provide conduits of connectivity between peoples, even when divided and separated by conflict and war. Yes, unarguably there are products of artistic predilections that can do society harm, but the human intellect must be allowed to separate the wheat from the chaff. John Milton has made this telling point in the golden pages of his "Areopagitica", an immortal paean of praise to the freedom of expression.
History demonstrates that whenever the political institutions of the polity has sought to intervene to judge the arts nothing good has come of it. Alas, as the adage goes, the one thing we learn from history is that there is nothing that we learn from history. Yet we fervently hope that the day would never come when we must hide our copy of Tolstoy's "War and Peace" for fear that they may come to take it away from us and burn it!
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President and Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg
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