It seems as if the culture wars just aren’t going to go away. The latest blast has been sounded by the New York Youth Symphony as it pulled the plug on a New England Conservatory student’s commissioned piece because it quoted from the Nazi anthem “Horst Wessel.” The piece, “Marsh u Nebuttya” (or “March to Oblivion”), had been scheduled to be played this Sunday at Carnegie Hall.
However you parse it, this was a horrible decision by the symphony. They can jump up and down and call Tarm a naughty boy for not playing the game the way they wanted him to play it, but at the end of the day it looks a whole lot like censorship. The National Coalition Against Censorship agrees.
First of all, meet Jonas Tarm who, to judge from the snippets below, is a very talented composer. If nothing else, the cancelation of the piece should alert New Englanders that we should be paying more attention to NEC students like Tarm.
Now it may be that Tarm was too cute in claiming that musicians shouldn’t have to talk about what their music means. In Thursday’s New York Times article he cited Gustav Mahler’s dictum that if a composer could say what he meant in words he wouldn’t bother writing music.
Nevertheless, he claims that he was never given a chance to explain the context of the piece, that he received a phone call from Shauna Quill, executive director of NYSS, on Monday saying that she and the board chairman had decided to pull the piece because it was inappropriate for young people to play.
Quill has a different version of events. A statement on the group’s website says:
This was his obligation to our orchestra as a commissioned artist and particularly important given the fact he was working with students, ages 12-22. Had the composer revealed the sources of his piece and the context under which they were used upon submission of the final commission in September 2014, the piece and the notes could have served as an important teaching moment for our students. However, without this information, and given the lack of transparency and lack of parental consent to engage with this music, we could not continue to feature his work on the program.
Click here for the full statement.
Whichever version of events is true, pulling the nine-minute piece was the last thing that should have been done. While there’s no link to enable us to listen to the music, it’s fairly obvious in talking to Tarm that the intention of using the German music was hardly celebratory. As he told the Wall Street Journal, the piece was about “cruelty and hatred visited on so many victims of war and totalitarianism.”
The Estonian-born composer is also right that verbal explanations only go so far. There is an ongoing debate about whether Shostakovich’s bombastic symphonies were currying favor with Stalin and pals or whether they were putting the Soviet dictator down.
“The most important thing is the music,” he told us yesterday. “There was a musician who walked up to me in rehearsal and we talked about the Nazi themes. There were no concerns brought up in rehearsal. The musicians knew the context, they knew what the music is saying. They’re [the NYYS administration] taking it out of context. That music has been used in artwork before. For example, a symphony Pavel Haas was working on in Auschwitz [where he died] contained the ‘Horst Vessel Lied.’ ”
The National Coalition Against Censorship has reacted very strongly. According to a statement released yesterday:
The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) has been joined by prestigious national and international groups in protesting the cancellation of a performance by the New York Youth Symphony (NYYS) this weekend at Carnegie Hall. The piece … includes brief references to well-known Nazi and Soviet themes. After an anonymous complaint about a February performance of the piece, NYYS abruptly canceled Tarm’s Carnegie Hall debut.
In a letter sent today to the New York Youth Symphony’s board of trustees and executive director, NCAC urges the organization to reverse its decision. The letter is co-signed by several prominent organizations devoted to artistic freedom, including PEN American Center, Freemuse, Article 19 and Index on Censorship.
Click here for the full press release.
Tarm also hopes that the youth symphony will rethink its decision, if not for this Sunday then for a future date.
The NYYS decision does seem to be part of an ongoing trend to coddle students and audiences from having to encounter anything they might find distasteful. Witness the attempts to shut down John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer” at the Metropolitian Opera. (The Met did cancel the worldwide telecast.) Amherst Regional High School censored a performance of “West Side Story” in 1999 because some students said it was demeaning to Puerto Ricans. It seems to me that it’s up to administrators to say no to censors, to provide the necessary context for art themselves, whether it’s Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” or Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.”
It is no doubt difficult for Jewish musicians, in particular, to play “Horst Vessel” no matter what the context. It wasn’t easy for me to read the descriptions of Fagin in Dickens but I’m certainly glad that the coddlers and censors weren't around in the '60s to keep it off the curriculum.
Not that Tarm belongs in that Dickensian context. Probably more like Kander-Ebb. The most chilling moment in their musical, “Cabaret,” was the moment the young innocent-looking lad started singing, “The sun on the meadow is summery warm. The stag in the Forest runs free.” It then turns into the Nazi anthem, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” as the good Germans all join in.
Should high school students not be exposed to “Cabaret”? Should high schools not perform it? Should John Kander and Fred Ebb, the composers, have been made to explain the context?
The New York Youth Symphony should declare victory and bring back Tarm’s piece. They could easily say that Tarm has now provided the context they were looking for by talking about totalitarianism.
If not, perhaps a Boston musical organization will take it up, the way the Huntington Theatre Company championed performances of Stephen Karam's play “Columbinus,” about the school killings, when Lexington High School censored its student production. Maybe the New England Conservatory’s Youth Philharmonic Orchestra? Who better to champion the NEC’s gifted composer if the New Yorkers wimp out?
Ed Siegel is the editor and critic at large for The ARTery.