“Censorship is to art as lynching is to justice.” Henry Louis Gates
Perhaps it was the old newsreel footage, or the not so hidden item within an article. Or maybe it was something you heard about from a relative. The concept of book-burning has been around a long time. It goes back to the seventh-century, B.C., and over the years has come to symbolize a conscious effort to stifle free speech and artistic expression.
In music, the comparison is slightly different. Most people do not actually have the physical property to destroy sonic imagery, especially in the information age. Access to recordings, broadcasts and any public presentation makes this virtually impossible. And yet, we find ourselves in a quandary over what to do about certain composers and pieces of music that seemingly have nothing to do with the current social and political unrest that is overtaking our world.
In the twentieth century, and even today in some quarters, the music of Richard Wagner touches a nerve for those persons whose lives were partially defined by his anti-semitic writings, usually not expressed in his compositions. Guilt by association also created difficulties for performers who became conflicted between their careers and the politics that could ruin their lives.
More recently, we can look to the post 9/11 world, when most of the planet was supporting the invasion of Iraq. France refused to participate, and we were subjected to “Freedom Fries”, bans on some French products and the elimination of aspects in French history being taught in schools. This did not seem to deter those collectors of wine, and their cellars remained stocked with the foreign beverage.
Today, we have a similar dilemma when it comes to the world of music. Because of the horrific atrocities taking place in Ukraine, Russian composers and their works have come under fire as being inappropriate for presentation at this time. Of course, anyone has access to these pieces via personal collections or at the press of a button on any device.
Can we really lay blame on those who had nothing to do with events of our time? A masterpiece remains just that and banning it from performances is out and out censorship. However, the subject matter of a few of the works does make a case for a selective exclusion or postponement of certain pieces. Holding Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Shostakovich, and other Russian masters accountable does not really make sense, much in the same way that prohibiting people from reading “War and Peace” serves no purpose.
But there are some important issues that we will and are addressing regarding what gets played and what is eliminated for the time being. Here are some of the more popular works of the repertoire that are facing banishment.
- Prokofiev Alexander Nevsky
Although dating from 1938, this Cantata takes its cue from the film of the same name. Alexander was a 12th-century, Ukrainian-born leader, who successfully fought against an invading army of Swedish soldiers. The work is uplifting, colorful and a staple of the orchestral/choral repertoire.
The nature of the battle sequences probably makes this masterpiece unperformable for a while, as the musical imagery of even a defensive position will make many people uncomfortable. It will be interesting to see what those orchestras who have programmed the work in the upcoming season, do to replace this piece.
2. Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition
Usually found on every top-ten list, this piece now has a great deal of controversy surrounding the final movement. ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ has been a favorite of audiences since it first appeared in the orchestration by Maurice Ravel. The work has crossed over into the popular genre with versions in such diverse presentations by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Tomita, and even recordings by steel drum ensembles.
At first, it would seem like this is a very likely candidate for anthemhood, as it can be seen as a celebration of the Capital of Ukraine. But in fact, there is no such edifice. This was a painting by Viktor Hartmann, submitted to a competition honoring the failed assassination attempt on the life of Tsar Alexander II in 1866. The depiction won first prize but if one examines the drawing, it is fairly easy to see why this could not be built, as it defies the laws of physics.
Musically, we can certainly hear it as a paean to greatness and nobility, but historically, as with so many pieces of music, it can serve as a reminder of brutality, something that perhaps is not right for our time.
3. Shostakovich Symphony No.7 (Leningrad)
In what can now be interpreted as an almost complete reversal of history, this piece stands as a monument to bravery and stoicism in the face of brutality. But now the shoe is on the other foot. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about the symphony.
“At first dedicated to Lenin, it was eventually submitted in honor of the besieged city of Leningrad, where it was first played under dire circumstances on August 9, 1942, during the siege by German and Finnish forces. The Leningrad soon became popular in both the Soviet Union and the West as a symbol of resistance to fascism and totalitarianism, thanks in part to the composer’s microfilming of the score in Samara and its clandestine delivery, via Tehran and Cairo, to New York, where Arturo Toscanini led a broadcast performance (July 19, 1942) and Time magazine placed Shostakovich on its cover. That popularity faded somewhat after 1945, but the work is still regarded as a major musical testament to the 27 million Soviet people who lost their lives in World War II, and it is often played at Leningrad Cemetery, where half a million victims of the 900-day Siege of Leningrad are buried.”
How can we celebrate the heroics of the Russian people, innocent as they may have been, while the leadership of the country is doing precisely what the Germans did to them? We can only hope that the number of deaths comes nowhere close to those of 1942. This symphony goes on hold for now.
4. Tchaikovsky The “1812” Overture
This is the biggie, as the work is so ubiquitous that living in the world without it seems inconceivable. Frankly, at least in the United States, its popularity rests primarily on performances that take place around the Fourth of July. In 1974, just prior to the celebration of the nation’s bicentennial, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting began airing the concert given on that day by the Boston Pops, conducted by Arthur Fiedler. It was at the suggestion of staff member Tom Morris, that this be the concluding work and that in addition to the cannons, fireworks be added to make the visual effect more attractive for the viewing audience.
No one ever questioned why that piece of music was the one to do. After all, it celebrated a conflict that had nothing to do with America. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was the defining moment of his military decline, and the use of both Russian and French anthems makes it clear who was the victor. Nonetheless, one cannot escape this perennial favorite.
Clearly it is coming off all performances for the time being. But what will happen to the great celebration of Independence? Can we really leave this piece off the program? What could replace it? Will John Williams write the new concluding work, or should we play P. D. Q. Bach’s “1712” Overture?
Even though I have made a little bit of fun here, the matter of exclusion in art is quite serious. We speak about freedom of expression but when things get dicey, we seem willing to compromise our own ideals. A temporary moratorium can certainly seem politically expedient, but there must come a point when we say that the creative spirit should overtake the philosophy of the back story. And for the most part, it is the extra-musical nature that is the problem, not the notes themselves. Would I play any of the four pieces listed above at this time. Only if the orchestras involved felt that they were comfortable with this decision. But even though in the case of the Tchaikovsky I do not expect to conduct this piece again anyway, nothing will stop me from listening to these works. They have stood the test of time and that is not something that we can argue with.