Politics and Music

03/16/2015 06:35 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2015

The following is inspired by the controversy over a piece by a young composer, commissioned by the New York Youth Symphony ("March to Oblivion," by Jonas Tarm). Many of the facts are now in dispute, and most people (including myself) have not heard the piece and thus cannot comment on its effect. But enough is known to raise some important issues about political art.

The piece quotes at least two political anthems, extensively enough for at least some listeners to recognize them: the official anthem of the Nazi party (the "Horst-Wessel-Lied" and the anthem of the Soviet Ukraine). As an aside, the scorn expressed by many commentators for the fact that the conductor and management of the orchestra didn't recognize these tunes seems to me misplaced. They are not required to be cultural historians. The composer, it is pretty clear, did not mention even that the tunes were present; nor did he explain why they were present, at least until the controversy reached a fever pitch.

There is no reason a piece quoting the Horst-Wessel-Lied should not be performed. The problem here is not that discourse is being censored, but rather that there are some boundary conditions to most discourse.

Here are two anecdotes that I think are relevant, concerning another tune associated with the Nazis. In fact, many commentators in the past few days have sarcastically raised the question of a tune written by Haydn as an ode to the Emperor of Austria, and then incorporated into his string quartet Opus 76, no. 3, "Emperor." People have written, "Now we suppose Haydn quartets can never be programmed!" The tune has a complex history. It was enormously successful in Haydn's time and thus was heard across Europe. In the mid 19th century, a liberal German poet wrote verses to accompany it. These verses begin, "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles!" The great hymn writer John Newton ("Amazing Grace") wrote English verses often paired with the tune. These are sung in Protestant churches the world over, beginning, "Glorious things of Thee are spoken." During the liberal Weimar Republic, the German verses and the tune became the national anthem of Germany. When Hitler came to power, he retained it, so these words and music were heard at the opening of all his ceremonies and rallies (often followed by the Horst-Wessel-Lied). After World War II, West Germany for a time had no anthem, but in the 50s, "Austria" was restored, generally not using the first verse, but rather the more anodyne third verse ("Unity and Justice and Freedom").

Anyway, here are two stories: my mother, who was a Presbyterian church music director, loved the hymn tune "Austria" with Newton's words. The first time she used it, in a church new to her, a parishioner came up afterwards and said that he had grown up in Holland and had been a teenager during the terrible war years. He said that he couldn't bear to hear that music, and asked that she alert him whenever she might use it again. Out of deference, she never did use it, during their time together in that church. Years later, I became an Episcopalian church music director. The first time I was planning to use the hymn, I wrote a paragraph for the program explaining the history, and why I thought we could "reclaim" the tune.

The second story is more poignant. A band director employed at Brandeis University didn't know the history of the tune (naïve, perhaps, but not malicious) and programmed a band arrangement of the Haydn quartet for a Brandeis commencement. The furor, anguish, and scandal was intense, as people listening had no clue whether a vicious joke was being perpetrated.

The trope of the "trigger warning" may be overdone, and may be easily exaggerated, but surely people attending Brandeis commencement had a right to know that they would be hearing this music, of possibly toxic pain to them, and to know why.

Thus I feel certain that the composer of "March to Oblivion" has a right to his quotations, and my expectation is that there was a strong structural reason for them. But he has an obligation to explain why he is lobbing this emotional firebomb at an audience. The piece ought to be heard, but he ought to understand the importance of context.

"Music speaks for itself" strikes me as a jejune formulation. Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mahler, to mention three composers frequently cited in this case, all changed their minds about explicit programs for some of their works. But the programs remain stubbornly present in many listeners' minds. The question of how much explanation ought to be given is not an absolute one.

For myself, I agree that much music depends on internal logic and structure whose effect is not improved by verbal explanation. But when composers hinge their work on extra-musical emotion, especially on symbols as powerful and conceptual as the Horst-Wessel-Lied, they are separating themselves from the genre of "absolute music." Unless some of the young people in the orchestra are outright liars about this, the composer facetiously referenced Pokemon when asked earnestly about the piece, and came nowhere near to explaining what was really happening.

Young composers need much coaching in how to use rehearsal talks, program notes, pre-concert talks, and interviews to give the right context. Bloviating is always wrong. Extremes of technical explanation are usually wrong. Coy misdirection is generally wrong. Self-congratulatory emotionalism is often wrong. But a lot of great information can be conveyed.

Another personal example: I wrote a very difficult string orchestra piece inspired by Shakespeare's "King Lear." In a late rehearsal, one of the young performers asked, "Is there anything you can tell us about this music that will explain why it's so insanely difficult?" And, in fact, there was. We spent some time talking about the play, which almost no one had encountered, and its setting in parallel physical and emotional worlds of chaos, violence, malevolence and goodness. I would have been ashamed to say, "It can be about Pokemon, if you want," and not to have given a candid answer to a serious question.

With the polarizing genius of Facebook, many commentators suspect that "donors" were behind the decision to drop the piece from performance, as if donors are some malevolent group of puppeteers behind the scenes. It is certainly possible that donors complained when they heard about the Nazi anthem, but my own experience as a presenter in an organization that owes its success in part to generous donors tells me that one can always explain. Some of ours might wish they could suppress Benjamin Britten, but that's another story.

I wish the New York Youth Symphony had decided to perform "March to Oblivion," with a thoughtful note. I wish they had convened their young players for a searching discussion of what the Horst-Wessel-Lied meant, and still means, in a world continuously racked by anti-Semitism. I wish the composer had sincerely taken part in that discussion.