“It feels like murder to me,” says composer Jonas Tarm, whose piece includes a musical quotation from the “Horst Wessel” song. The New York Youth Symphony had commissioned the piece but will not play it at Carnegie Hall.
Jonas Tarm had won the kind of opportunity most young composers can only dream of: the New York Youth Symphony had commissioned a piece from him and planned to play it this Sunday at Carnegie Hall. But the youth symphony pulled his piece this week after learning that it includes a musical quotation from the “Horst Wessel” song, the Nazi anthem.
Tarm, a 21-year-old junior at the New England Conservatory of Music, said that his nine-minute piece, which is about conflict, totalitarianism and nationalism, also incorporated the anthem of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, with each one quoted for about 45 seconds. In a telephone interview he said that he was stunned by the symphony’s decision to pull the piece, which he described as an act of censorship.
“I was devastated,” Tarm said. “It’s one thing to have a concert canceled because of weather, or financial issues; that’s kind of like death by natural causes. But canceling because of something that it’s saying — it feels almost like murder to me.”
Shauna Quill, the executive director of the youth symphony, said that the organization had been unaware that the piece quoted from the “Horst Wessel” song until after the youth symphony orchestra performed its premiere last month at the United Palace Theater, and a member of the audience wrote a letter of complaint that was signed “a Nazi survivor.”
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She said in an interview that the organization pulled the piece after deciding that it was inappropriate for a youth orchestra, whose members are between 12 and 22.
In an email that Quill sent this week to students and parents, she said that the decision had not been taken lightly. “It was a highly unusual step for us — one which was taken thoughtfully, but firmly, as soon as we learned the piece incorporated significant portions of music written by others that we determined were problematic for an orchestra such as ours to be asked to perform,” she wrote, adding that it was still illegal to play the “Horst Wessel” song in Germany.
The orchestra’s decision was criticized by the National Coalition Against Censorship.
“Some audience members may have painful memories associated with the official music of oppressive regimes, but that should not mean that any work that references this music must be silenced,” Svetlana Mintcheva, the coalition’s director of programs, said in a statement. “Attempts to sanitize contemporary art do not protect young people or survivors of oppressive regimes; they can only succeed in suppressing the voice and violating the vision of creative artists, as well as in impoverishing public conversation about important, though disturbing, issues.“
The controversy shook the youth symphony’s widely respected composer’s competition, of which Tarm was one of this year’s winners. It is called First Music and has awarded commissions to 139 young composers since it began in 1984. Quill, at the Youth Symphony, said that Tarm had declined to discuss what his piece was about, even when she called to speak with him after receiving the letter of complaint. “Without this information and given the lack of transparency, we could not continue to feature his work on the program,” she said in the email she sent to students and parents.
Tarm said Quill had told him that the piece would not be played because it was offensive.
The program note he sent for the piece, which is called “Marsh u Nebuttya,” or “March to Oblivion” in Ukrainian, simply quoted several lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.”
Tarm said he was still reluctant to explain what the piece is about, saying the music should speak for itself. “I strongly believe in Gustav Mahler’s quote — that if a composer could say what he wanted to say in words, he wouldn’t bother writing the music.”
But when pressed, he said, “It’s about conflict, it’s about totalitarianism, it’s about polarizing nationalism.”
He said that some students in the orchestra had recognized the Nazi theme, and asked him about it. Quill said that Joshua Gersen, the symphony’s music director who conducted the work’s premiere last month, and who was recently named an assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic, had not recognized the theme. Gersen declined to comment.
The “Horst Wessel” song has been quoted a number of times by classical composers. Tarm likened his use of it to Tchaikovsky’s use of part of “La Marseillaise” in his “1812” Overture. Tarm, who was born in Estonia and has had a number of his works performed elsewhere, said that the experience had left him discouraged.
He cited the old joke that the way to get to Carnegie Hall was to practice, practice, practice, and offered an addition: “Apparently you also have to self-censor.”