THOUGHTS AND LINKS: Can a composer quote the “Horst Wessel” song in a piece?

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

Parts of the music world are abuzz over the decision by the New York Symphony to cancel a performance of a new work, Marsh u Nebuttya, by young Estonian composer Jonas Tarm (the title means March to Oblivion/ in Ukrainian).

Tarm was the latest winner of the orchestra’s “First Music,” composition but when the piece was played last month, an anonymous letter writer (who called him or herself “a Nazi survivor”) objected because the nine-minute work quotes 45 seconds of the Nazi’s infamous “Horst Wessel” song.

Norman Lebrecht, in his “Slipped Disc” Blog, has letters from the composer and the orchestra HERE (the comments are also illuminating). Zachary Woolfe has a thoughtful take in his New York Times HERE. Was the orchestra right to cancel? Not in my book (Woolfe nails the issue perfectly IMHO) but others may disagree.

(c) Copyright 2015, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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  • billworld

    Leslie J. Garfield, Chair
    Board of Trustees
    New York Youth Symphony

    March 5, 2015

    As a former New York Youth Symphony (NYYS) First Music award recipient (my work “American Slick” was premiered by NYYS in Carnegie Hall in 1987), I am appalled to learn of the decision to pull Jonas Tarm’s “Marsh u Nebuttya” (“March to Oblivion”) work from this Sunday’s Carnegie Hall premiere performance. I strongly disagree with the purported reasons behind this decision and implore you to reconsider said decision and continue with the initial plan to perform the piece.

    At present, social media is ablaze with numerous composers—including some former NYYS First Music award recipients such as myself—who strongly disagree with NYYS’s action.

    The NYYS executive director is on record stating that the reason for withdrawing the piece is due to what she considers the lack of transparency on the part of the composer in response to requests for information on the context, motivation, and/or purpose behind use of public domain musical thematic material referenced in the piece and/or the exact meaning behind the piece itself. I find it odd that such a request would be demanded after the initial public premiere of the piece and just before the Carnegie Hall premiere. Why was due diligence on these topics not performed prior to the initial performance? And, more importantly, why is such due diligence even required?

    I further find the accusations of “lack of composer transparency” odd in light of the non-transparent letter from an anonymous source which sparked NYYS’s actions. Have the motives of the sender of the anonymous letter been questioned in the same manner as that requested of Mr. Tarm?

    It is a very dangerous and slippery slope taken when an organization pulls the plug on programming a work. It can also have devastating impact on a composer’s career as well as cause harm to the organization by calling into question their capacity to understand and support freedom of expression. It also calls into the question their guidelines for working with composers.

    As for the content of the material which purportedly has made one particular person feel uncomfortable, is it not possible said person completely misunderstood the context in which the musical references were made? It seems that this is the case here. The Tarms work makes two short 45 second references to two musical themes in support of the “March to Oblivion” narrative. One of the themes (The “Horst Wessel” song) has been quoted a number of times by classical composers over several decades. It was also famously used by the Nazis during World War II. As such, this thematic material is emblematic of the egregious acts committed by the Nazis during World War II. The other theme is of Soviet era ilk and is accordingly emblematic of that totalitarian regime. As Estonia was deeply affected by both Nazi and Soviet aggression during the early to mid 20th century, it only makes sense that these themes resonate strongly within the mindset of an Estonian-American composer. No further explanation should be required. In fact, an educated student of history should know this to begin with and not demand explanation of why the musical references exist in the work.

    As for any reference or association to current events in Ukraine (as inferred from the title being in Ukrainian), I have no idea on what Mr. Tarm’s political views are. In fact, we may completely disagree. If he is attempting to draw association between what is going on in modern Ukraine and past egregious acts committed by Nazis and Soviets, again, while I may fully disagree with said comparison, I fully support his artistic expression, whether literal, implied or hidden. But, most importantly this is all fully irrelevant to his musical piece. Music transcends words and must be allowed to stand on its own and not forced to be described by words under threat that failing to do so will prevent said music from being heard. I vehemently disagree with such demands.

    If the problem is simply that the person who identified themselves as a “Nazi survivor” who sent the anonymous letter thinks “March to Oblivioun” is somehow championing the horrid march to gas chambers suffered by countless Jews, Poles, gypsies, gays, social and physical misfits, communists and political dissidents perpetrated by the Nazis during WWII, said argument is wrought with naiveté. I don’t buy any argument which suggests that withholding a piece containing these musical references prevents people from feeling uncomfortable. In fact, such censorship actually increases discomfort in an even greater number of people—specifically those millions of people who cherish freedom of expression. As a result I believe NYYS’s decision to censor this work will cause considerable backlash against NYYS.

    Arguments which contend that challenging topics such as those referenced here are not suitable for youths aged 12-22 are ignorant of the fact that these very topics—as they should be—are taught in middle schools, high schools and colleges across this country and beyond. NYYS is not protecting the youth from uncomfortable topics, it is in fact manifesting the very repressive policies exemplified by the repressive regimes in question here. In short, NYYS is showing young people that repression is still alive, and very close to home.Teaching students it’s okay to repress certain views, either out of disagreement of said views, or out of fear that said views might make someone feel uncomfortable, is actually teaching them the wrong thing. It’s not teaching them freedom of artistic expression. It’s not teaching them to not cower to misunderstood associations. It’s teaching them that if someone complains, you can be censored. Is that the best lesson to teach our youth?

    It is virtually impossible to not make some people feel uncomfortable. A true artist’s job is to challenge views and inspire transformation. It is impossible to challenge without touching the heart of deep issues. By discouraging or disallowing this, NYYS fades from being relevant to the true meaning of artistic expression in favor of some watered-down “feel good” institution concerned more with “politically correct” expression on non-challenging issues. I say to this, what a bore. That is not what true art is about.

    I see no practical reason why NYYS has withdrawn Mr. Tarm’s work from its’ Carnegie debut. I feel NYYS has drawn much attention to this issue by censoring it, and that it can and will work against NYYS unless you quickly change your mind.

    I strongly believe NYYS should reverse it’s decision immediately and perform Mr. Tarm’s work this weekend.

    Lastly, should NYYS continue with its plans to censor this work, I must respectfully request that it also censor any association I have had with NYYS. I would request you remove from any of your marketing materials—either online or in print—any mention of my association with your organization.

    I hope the better part of reason will cause NYYS to frown upon anonymous letters from people who misunderstand artistic expression and fully embrace and support freedom of expression.

    Sincerely and Non-Anonymously Yours,

    Bill Doerrfeld
    Composer and Pianist

    P.S. In the spirit of transparency, this is an open letter that has been widely shared.