Is Tchaikovsky dangerous?

Great Masters Stuck in No Man's Land 

Martin Bartels

31 March 2022

Many artists, scientists and engineers are compelled to spend long periods of their lives at the sacrifice of wealth and lack of recognition until the fruit of their labour becomes visible. Many of them live with the risk that the value of their life's work will be recognised only after their demise. This is why they need not only talent for their achievements, but qualities of determination, absolute concentration on their field, perseverance, the ability to constantly question what they have achieved in order to improve it, as well as discipline to a degree that is hardly imaginable for uninitiated people.

Artists, scientists and engineers are pioneers of human progress and without their contributions, societies become culturally desolate, dull and lapse into technical regression.

When the great masters appear in public, they may smile. Behind their friendly faces, however, may also be the continuous experience of pressure from a variety of directions. This élite is vulnerable.


War Drums

Since the nation states have not yet learned to settle differences of opinion in a civilised way, i.e. through a continuous and respectful dialogue and, if necessary, through the International Court of Justice, we hear the war drums again and again.

Although politics is not their area of expertise, the present terrible noise has persuaded various masters to turn to one side in a visible way.

That is their right. Maybe their bets will work out, or maybe they will suffer great damage in the end. However this group of partisan masters is not the object of this post.

Our focus here is solely on the masters who distance themselves from acts of war or do not take positions. In fact, withholding public criticism is often the only possible reaction when one fears that relatives back home may be subjected to reprisals. 


Indiscriminate rage

In times of serious conflict, overpowering adrenaline flows determine not only how many people feel, but increasingly also how they think. The masses’ collective reactions generate an experience of ostensible legitimacy that drowns out scruples. This goes hand in hand with the fact that nuanced thinking, supposedly the pride of citizens of nations that perceive themselves as particularly civilised, is on the wane. Regardless of the level of education, the impact is mighty. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine empathy has suddenly become a scarce resource.


Institutions taking action against Russian artists

The following examples illustrate typical situations. This does not imply any claim to completeness. The scope of developments is considerable and only isolated incidents have become known to the public.

On 9 March the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal cancelled three performances of the Moscow-born young pianist Alexander Malofeev who had unequivocally distanced himself from the invasion of Ukraine. 

The artful explanation is unique : “The OSM feels that it would be inappropriate to receive Mr. Malofeev this week. We continue, however, to believe in the importance of maintaining relationships with artists of all nationalities who embrace messages of peace and hope. We look forward to welcoming this exceptional artist when the context allows it.”

His and five other Russian pianists’ invitation to take part in an international competition slated to have the finals in Calgary later this year were revoked.

This fate is shared by the Russian pianist Roman Kosyakov, a graduate of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, who was excluded from the Dublin International Piano Competition along with all other participants of Russian nationality. Kosyakov disclosed the email with the cancellation to the press:“We appreciate the efforts and commitments of every hopeful competitor. We hope that shared cultural values will help to once again bring the world together peacefully in the future. . . . We wish you all the best as you pursue a rewarding career as a pianist.” 

There are similar reports about a film festival. 


Institutions taking action against Russian art

While Ukrainian artists find it natural to play Tchaikovsky even when they are sheltering in bunkers, the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra has decided to cancel the performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture from a concert scheduled for 18 March, because it felt “the previously advertised programme including the 1812 Overture to be inappropriate at this time.” 

In early March, the Irish Trinity Orchestra and the UCD Symphony Orchestra announced that they will remove all works by Russian composers from their repertoires.

The Russian pianist Ludmila Berlinskaia, who has lived in France for 30 years and has also suffered cancellations despite her condemnation of the invasion, commenting on the banning of Russian culture, pointed out that, “it is discrimination that does not lead us to peace but even more to war” and “You can't ban reading Tolstoy and playing Tchaikovsky.”


Institutions supporting Russian art

Nevertheless, while some have reacted to the drums of war with censorship, more clearer heads have prevailed throughout the arts world.

For instance, the Vienna State Opera has firmly committed itself to keeping Russian and Ukrainian artists on its stage.

La Monnaie/ De Munt in Brussels announced its plan to create a season of Russian operas to underscore its role as “an anti-war and pro-peace institution”. 

When the promoters of the "Ittlinger Sunday Concerts" in Germany bluntly cancelled a concert with the cellist Anastasia Kobekina because of her Russian nationality, there was a strong public backlash. Now, as part of the "Boswil Master Concerts", she will participate at the "Concert for Humanity and Peace" together with artists from Ukraine and Switzerland. 

The Russian pianist Anna Vinnitskaya, whose grandfather was chief conductor in Odessa and who has been working in Hamburg for 20 years, made it clear in a moving radio interview what suffering the invasion of Ukraine has inflicted on her. She contributed to a very emotional charity event in Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie, where the Ukrainian national anthem was played. It is clear that her concern is humanity, not politics.

Kirill Petrenko, the Russian chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, made no secret of his stance and held concerts to express solidarity with Ukraine. One of them took place in the Federal President's Palace


World Federation of International Music Competitions

The organisation issued a statement that “using the universal language of music, we encourage young artists to act as ambassadors of dialogue, understanding and bridge building between people.” , . . . and “artists from Russia and Belorussia are fighting for a better future, and they are in dire need of all the support we are able to extend to them.” 


Scientists and engineers in the crosshairs

It is not just artists who have found themselves in uncomfortable positions, but other professions too. While a great many scientists and engineers in Russia have shown courage by signing a resolution against the war, many of their colleagues in the West have gotten into trouble if they are of USSR origin or just have Russian names. For example, their employers, especially in the defence industry, have started removing them from "sensitive areas of work".

The word "anti-Slavism" strikes a very sensitive nerve with Germans. 

In this time of erratic geopolitics, it is not only Russians or persons of Russiann origin that are facing this discrimination, but people of Chinese origin as well. Time and again, there are investigations against researchers with Chinese roots who are suspected of espionage.

Example 1  The judicial authorities functioned correctly, but they cannot repair the damage done to the person concerned.

Example 2 

How would you feel if, many years after a dramatic, difficult, and mostly involuntary emigration, following a struggle to get to the top of your field in research and engineering, you were suddenly publicly suspected of being disloyal? Does such humiliation strengthen loyalty? What conclusions might other immigrants draw from this? What is the message to a society that is in urgent need of many more highly skilled immigrants to defend its competitive position among industrialised nations?

In fact, in most cases the highly skilled immigrants appreciate the quality of their new home country better than the citizens who were born there and take it for granted. Such immigrants are deeply loyal.

Clearly, the suspicious approach of of some employers is extremely harmful to society as a whole.


Who sets the rules?

Like a game of football or an argument in private, the attacker is the one who sets the tone of engagement. Almost instinctually and often in small increments, we tend to follow their lead, until finally we end up playing within the framework they created.

In order to truly win, however, it is preferable not to follow that impulse, but to reflect rationally and in keeping with one's own ethics so that we may push back against irrational framing and impose our own rules. In this way, the probability of winning goes up significantly. And in doing so, we prevent the values of our societies from being diluted. It is the test of these values that they can be applied in stormy as well as fine weather.

The aforementioned institutions, which support Russian artists and do not put Russian art on hold, are those who have defined their own rules with sovereignty. They will win.