“It feels almost like murder” is how the 21-year-old composer Jonas Tarm described the recent cancellation of a performance by the New York Youth Symphony at Carnegie Hall of his award-winning piece March to Oblivion. Describing his piece as “devoted to the victims who have suffered from cruelty and hatred of war, totalitarianism, polarising nationalism – in the past and today,” the winner of the prestigious First Music competition had quoted musically from both Ukraine’s Soviet-era anthem and the Horst Wessel Lied, the official song of the Nazi party. Tarm did not make it clear that he was doing so – or why – in his programme notes.
In a lengthy public statement, the Youth Symphony’s executive director declared that “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”. Tarm vigorously defended the right of music to “speak for itself” and described the move by NYYS as an act of censorship. (It is, by the way, still illegal to play the Horst Wessel Song in Germany.)
The question of whether music, a collection of sonic vibrations, can ‘mean’ anything – and if so, how we should respond to that meaning – is an old and vexed one, which we are still no closer to answering. Classical music may have the reputation of being a refined and rather genteel genre, but controversies and scandals abound in its history – consider the ongoing provocations of Wagner, or Stravinsky, whose Rite of Spring sparked the most legendary riot in musical history. Here are some other classical works that have caused a hullabaloo – whether for political, textual or aesthetic reasons – over the past few centuries.
St John Passion by JS Bach (1724)
We don’t exactly think of the father of classical music as a scandalmonger – although, as John Eliot Gardiner’s outstanding 2014 biography proves, nor should we think of him as a saint simply because he wrote such sublime music. But Bach’s ravishing setting of the Gospel of St John, a cornerstone of the classical canon, leaves a bitter taste in the mouth for some. In 1995, a student protest broke out at Swarthmore College in Philadelphia, after members of the choir refused to sing what they considered anti-Semitic words. (The gospel in question refers to the enemies of Jesus as “the Jews, the Jews, the Jews”; the word is repeated 70 times throughout the 110-minute work. In 2000, the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death, there were public demonstrations against a performance of the Passion at the Oregon Bach Festival, with one rabbi picketing the event and another resigning from a festival planning committee. Critics have weighed into the debate: Michael Marissen’s study Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach's St John Passion expertly probes Bach’s handling of the “challenging” gospel text. Most commentators, however, reflect the esteemed Bach scholar Robert L Marshall’s view that the St John Passion “gives voice to some of the loftiest sentiments of the human spirit [and] neither that supreme masterpiece nor its incomparable maker needs any apology.”
Symphony No 3: ‘Eroica’, formerly known as ‘Bonaparte’ by Ludvig van Beethoven (1804)
The story behind the dedication of Beethoven’s third symphony is the stuff of musical legend. As BBC broadcaster Tom Service writes: “Imagine if events hadn’t intervened, and Beethoven had stuck to his original plan, and his third symphony had been called the ‘Bonaparte’. Imagine the reams of interpretation and analysis that would have gone into aligning the piece with the Napoleonic project, its humanist ideals and its all-too-human historical realisation.”
‘Napoleonic’ certainly describes the scale on which Beethoven conceived the work – he even sketched out a programme of Bonaparte’s life within the symphony’s movements – until the moment in 1804 when he was informed that Napoleon had styled himself Emperor. The original dedication to Bonaparte was defaced: Beethoven announced that Napoleon was “a tyrant”, who “will think himself superior to all men”, and re-named the symphony the “Eroica”.
The symphony was also controversial musically, causing Beethoven’s great admirer Hector Berlioz to exclaim at one point “if that was really what Beethoven wanted… it must be admitted that this whim is an absurdity!”
Absurd or otherwise, the Eroica stands as one of the most important cultural monuments of all time.
Parade by Erik Satie (1917)
“Sir and dear friend – you are not only an arse, but an arse without music.” Such was the verdict of Erik Satie on the critic Jean Poueigh, who had slated his music to Parade, a 15-minute ballet commissioned for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, which also brought together the iconoclastic modernist imaginations of Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso. Poueigh subsequently sued Satie in a bitter court case – and won. Ever the offbeat and eccentric composer, Satie’s score utilised then-radical sound effects such as a typewriter clacking, milk bottles clanging, gunshots, foghorns and sirens. Avant garde? Certainly, but the audience at the Paris premiere on 18 May 1917 sided with Poueigh: they booed, hissed, and even threw oranges at the orchestra.
4’33” by John Cage (1952)
Cage, who studied with Arnold Schoenberg, declared 4’33” was his most “important” work; his critics declared it a very bad joke. The score of the three-movement piece instructs performers not to play for the entire duration, in order to encourage the audience to engage with the ambient sounds of the concert hall. Cage, who was hugely influenced by Zen Buddhism, had first broached the idea of composing an entirely silent piece during a lecture at Vassar University in the late 1940s. He predicted, however, that such a piece would be "incomprehensible in the Western context," and was apparently reluctant to write it down: "I didn't wish it to appear, even to me, as something easy to do or as a joke,” he said at the time. “I wanted to mean it utterly and be able to live with it.” In 1951, he spent time an anechoic chamber at Harvard University, and the resultant experience gave him the intellectual confidence he needed to proceed with the idea. "I heard two sounds, one high and one low,” he explained. “When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation."Triumphantly, he added: "Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.”
Some audiences, however, would say the future of music has never been under such threat. Ever since the first performance, in Woodstock, New York, in 1952, detractors have been baffled, angered, and irritated by 4’33”. “They missed the point,” said Cage, of that first audience. “There's no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.” But as Julian Dodd’s recent TED talk proves, the debate rages on. Is it even music? You decide.
Four Organs by Steve Reich (1970)
New York classical concert-goers are generally a pretty demure bunch, but not so on 18 January, 1973. Reich’s piece, scored for four Hammond organs and maracas, had been commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s visionary young conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, who had no qualms including it in programmes alongside the likes of Mozart, Bartók and Liszt. (These composers had themselves once been the architects of musical revolutions.) But reactions in the audience that night at Carnegie Hall ran the gamut from “lusty boos”, according to one critic, to yelled threats, to someone running down the aisle screaming “All right, I confess!”, to an old lady banging her shoe on the stage in a bid to get the BSO to shut up.
Cut to 2011, and Carnegie Hall was mounting a landmark celebration of the 75th birthday of “one of American’s greatest living composers”. You guessed it, Steve Reich…
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