Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is in the news. In fact, he’s in the sports pages. Russian athletes were in need of an anthem. But doesn’t Russia have a national anthem? Yes, but Team Russia is forbidden to use it at the upcoming Olympics and other international sporting events. This is one of the penalties for doping.
“Katyusha” . . . is a Soviet folk-based song and military march. It was composed by Matvey Blanter in 1938, and gained fame during World War II as a patriotic song, inspiring the population to serve and defend their land in the war effort.
But the Court of Arbitration for Sport said no to “Katyusha.” Why? Because, under the penalties, the athletes may not use “any anthem linked to Russia.”
That’s where Tchaikovsky comes in. Russian officials proposed his Piano Concerto No. 1 in B minor, Op. 23—and this was kosher. What part of the concerto, by the way? Reports do not specify, but I suspect it is the sweeping theme that we hear almost at the beginning of the concerto.
What music might you have proposed, if you had been a proposer? I think of Glière and The Red Poppy. Is the Sailors’ Dance too nationalistic? Too corny? How about Mussorgsky? Something from Boris Godunov? Something from Pictures at an Exhibition? The Great Gate of Kiev? No, too Ukrainian. (Or maybe that would be a positive, in the minds of some officials?)
You can seldom go wrong with the Russian Easter Festival Overture, the Rimsky-Korsakov hit. (This, however, might have been ruled out by the arbitration court, as an “anthem linked to Russia.”) Speaking of festive overtures: the Festive Overture, by Shostakovich?
Tchaikovsky offers a wide range of choice all by himself. Just think of the finale to his Symphony No. 4, which incorporates a Russian folk song: “In the Field Stood a Birch Tree.” Also, to speak personally for a moment, I use another finale for a podcast I do, Q&A: that to Glazunov’s Symphony No. 5, “Heroic.” A splendid, stirring piece of music.
Needless to say, all the music I have cited—Russian though it may be—belongs to the whole world. This is true of great music at large. I think of Van Cliburn, that Texan, winning the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958—playing, among other things, the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1.
Music and nationalism—and internationalism—is a big theme, a big subject. I have addressed it before and will again. Meanwhile, Tchaikovsky is in the news—which is kind of neat.