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Tchaikovsky at the World Cup: Hidden Politics

Tchaikovsky in the opening credits of the World Cup - a subtle platform for LGBTQ+ rights in a hostile environment

As the FIFA World Cup tournament 2018 drew to a finish with France’s victory, fans across the world briefly reflected on the past few weeks, speculating how their teams’ journeys might have been different with an extra pass here or a few more risks taken there. But a far more serious risk was undertaken by many this summer simply by making the journey to the host country, Russia, whether to watch or play in the tournament: those who identify as LGBTQ+.  Even before the World Cup officially began, the dangers were evident. Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) produced a guide warning LGBTQ+ fans against openly displaying affection when visiting Russia for the World Cup, whilst various LGBT football societies such as Three Lions Pride received anonymous threats online before even embarking on their visits.

When the London Pride Parade fell on the same day that both Russia and England played in separate quarterfinal matches, it was difficult to ignore the stark contrast in LGBTQ+ rights between the two nations. Russian homophobia has intensified since 2013, when a law was passed condemning “gay propaganda” or any media which portrays a positive depiction of homosexuality. That same year, the Russian Minister of Culture, Peter Medinsky, denied the generally accepted view that Tchaikovsky, a famous Russian 19th century composer, was gay.

Yet in May 2018, English translations of Tchaikovsky’s letters published by Yale University Press revealed overwhelming evidence that Tchaikovsky was gay, evidence which had been previously censored and omitted by Russian publishers. Moreover, many of Tchaikovsky’s biographers had already acknowledged the composer’s sexuality ever since his death, and it is a well-known fact amongst classical music enthusiasts in England that Tchaikovsky was gay.

It seems to me that it may be no accident that the ITV Sport opening credits to the World Cup coverage featured Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake arrangement in an environment of  Russian homophobia and censorship. There is, of course, a large possibility that the decision to accompany the Russian-inspired opening titles with Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake was motivated by socially constructed notions of a Russian musical identity alone. It is true that Tchaikovsky’s music does evoke ideas of Russianness in the way that he is well-known enough for the average listener to recognize the theme’s creator, and thus make the connection with his nationality. However, Richard Taruskin, a musicologist, argues that Tchaikovsky had wished to fight his national identity and that by the end of his life, he was regarded as more universal than national. So the question remains: was his Russian identity the sole motivation for choosing this soundtrack for the opening titles?

Whether coincidental or intentional, what matters is that Tchaikovsky’s iconic Swan lake theme might have meant something to the LGBTQ+ football fans who were at risk of football violence and worse if they dared to hold hands with their partners. I would argue that the decision to use the Swan Lake theme  was a kind and meaningful one, however unintentional this kindness was. For years, Tchaikovsky was censored and treated like a dirty secret, and LGBTQ+ fans were likewise advised to hide their identities and their love. In the face of Russian homophobia, ITV Sport placed Tchaikovsky’s music in the foreground. Playing some Tchaikovsky isn’t the biggest step in the world, but the issues of censorship, homophobia and LGBTQ+ rights were given a small, subtle platform hidden in plain sight. Or should I say in plain sound?

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