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Play it, Keith

The traditional capstone of Boston’s July Fourth celebration is an ode to the Russian military. The Boston Pops should play it anyway.

Members of the public look on as a ceremonial cannon shot is prepared during the 2017 Fourth of July Pops celebration on the Esplanade.Nicholas Pfosi for The Boston Globe/The Boston Globe

This July Fourth, orchestras in the United States face a dilemma: Should their Independence Day celebration include the traditional performance of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”?

The much-loved work, famous for including church bells and cannon fire in the score, has long been the finale of the Boston Pops’ performance on the Esplanade. Indeed, the Pops’ legendary former conductor Arthur Fiedler, was largely responsible for popularizing the work in the United States and performing it with actual cannons, suggested by the late philanthropist David Mugar.

The choice was inspired: As generations of Bostonians can attest, there’s nothing quite like watching fireworks explode in the sky as the overture reaches its climactic passages and howitzers thunder over the Charles. So perfectly suited is the work for the day that it can seem like Tchaikovsky wrote it with July Fourth in Boston in mind.


But in fact, he wrote it to celebrate Russia’s military victory over a French invasion in 1812. The overture is a monument to Russian nationalism; it incorporates various Russian hymns, folk songs, and patriotic tunes, including “God, Save the Tsar,” and ends with the Russian anthem overwhelming and smothering “La Marseillaise” in a fortissimo hail of cannons.

Now a smattering of orchestras have canceled performances of the work because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the brutal war it has unleashed. The moves come not because Tchaikovsky was Russian, but because of the specifically nationalist nature of the overture. One musicologist, defending the decision of a Welsh orchestra to drop the overture, called the work ”a hollow symbol of Russian triumphalism, ill-suited to our times.”

In Japan, an orchestra took a creative approach, replacing the overture with a performance of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’s “Finlandia,” which was written in 1899 about his country’s struggles against czarist Russia.


A spokeswoman for the Pops would not say whether Fiedler’s current successor, Keith Lockhart, would perform the overture this year, telling the Globe that the July Fourth program hadn’t been finalized yet.

As this page has argued before, the Ukraine war and the ongoing Russian efforts to blot out Ukraine’s identity should prompt museums, orchestras, and other cultural institutions to elevate and preserve Ukrainian art and music. Playing works that were written to oppose Russian imperialism, like “Finlandia” and some of Chopin’s music, is another subtle way for performers to signal their sympathies. The Lithuanian pianist who performed Chopin in the ruins of the Ukrainian town of Irpin after its liberation was making a resonant artistic choice.

But the “1812 Overture” transcended its original meaning long ago for most listeners and has become merely a rousing patriotic favorite. Depriving people of that joy would be a shame. The Pops and other American orchestras should be able to play Tchaikovsky’s composition on July Fourth with a clean conscience. (Using simulated cannon-fire, though, instead of the real thing, might be an appropriate nod to the Ukraine war.)

In the decision of whether to perform the “1812 Overture,” there is more at stake than just a single piece of music on a summer night. Part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rationale for the war is the notion that Russia faces a worldwide threat of “Russophobia” that must be combated with military force. Canceling Russian artists and refusing to allow Russians to compete in sporting events unwittingly plays into that narrative.


What is objectionable is Putin’s criminal behavior, not Russia as a country or long-dead Russians like Tchaikovsky. Thanks to Fiedler and Mugar, a Russian composition about overcoming a military superpower has become a part of America’s Independence Day celebrations. Hopefully, someday soon, Ukraine’s orchestras will have the same triumphant story to tell.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.