Japanese orchestras ditch Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812 Overture’

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Some Japanese orchestras have decided to stop performing a piece by Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93) that celebrates Russia’s defense against a French invasion in 1812.

Popular among Japanese classical audiences, Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” is being pulled from some concert programs amid concerns about performing the piece while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is ongoing.

The overture contains Russian hymns and folk tunes as well as the French national anthem “La Marseillaise,” which is gradually drowned out by the national anthem of Imperial Russia, symbolizing victory by the Russian troops against the French invaders led by Napoleon Bonaparte.

Percussion instruments are struck to resemble cannons and the triumphant sound of bells ring out in the finale. Real cannons have even been used during some outdoor performances.

The Hyogo Prefecture-based Akashi Philharmonic Orchestra was planning to perform the overture at a concert on March 21 but hastily removed it from the program.

“We decided that it was not appropriate to play a piece that celebrates Russia’s victory over another country,” an orchestra official explained.

At the Tokyo Metropolitan Hakuo combined junior and senior high school, the brass band has also decided not to perform the overture at an April 4 concert, following a meeting in which students voiced their concerns about the situation in Ukraine, with some stressing that the music was not to blame.

“The students, who have been practicing very hard, held a discussion and reached the decision. We’d like to respect that,” said principal Akiko Miyata.

The Chubu Philharmonic Orchestra in Komaki, Aichi Prefecture, has dropped the overture from its March 26 concert, replacing it with “Finlandia” by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, who wrote the piece in 1899 as a tribute to people resisting imperial Russia’s oppressive rule.

During a demonstration in front of the Russian Embassy in Helsinki on March 1, hundreds of protesters sang lyrics from the piece in a sign of solidarity with Ukraine.

A Chubu Philharmonic Orchestra official said: “We chose the piece to show our support for Ukraine. But we are not disavowing Tchaikovsky’s music.”

Excerpts from the Russian composer’s ballet suite, “The Nutcracker,” have been added to the program.

“Art should not necessarily be affected by politics, but performing this grand overture when the Russian military invasion is sending shockwaves around the whole world strikes a nerve,” music critic Kazushi Ishida said. “Moves to ditch the piece from concert programs are unavoidable.”