USA: Symphony censored over its comments on totalitarianism

16 March 2015


In March 2015, 21-year-old composer Jonas Tarm was about to reach a profound career milestone: His original composition was going to be performed at New York’s Carnegie Hall. But at the last minute, the New York Youth Symphony told Tarm that his Carnegie debut – commissioned by the orchestra as part of its prestigious First Music competition – was cancelled.


Jonas Tarm’s piece – ‘Marsh u Nebuttya’, Ukrainian for ‘March to Oblivion’– is a comment on war and totalitarianism. As such, it quotes two other pieces of music: A Soviet-era Ukrainian anthem and the ‘Horst-Wessel-Lied’, the famous Nazi anthem.

After the composition was performed in late February 2015, the NYYS received an anonymous complaint about the inclusion of the Nazi anthem. NYYS claimed that Tarm did not adequately explain the inclusion of this music, and they decided they had to remove his piece from the Carnegie program because it was “problematic for a student orchestra such as ours.”

Jonas Tarm was disappointed. As he put it in a statement on his website: “The old joke about how do you get to Carnegie Hall – you practice. Apparently you also have to self-censor.”

Jonas Tarm told New York Times’ Michael Cooper 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.”

The orchestra’s decision was criticised by the National Coalition Against Censorship. 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.”

NCAC stepped in  – and brought international media attention to the story. The story of Tarm’s censorship was reported in the New York Times, WBUR, the Daily Mail and many other outlets.

NCAC sent a letter to the symphony’s executive director and its board of trustees on 5 March 2015 in protest of their decision:

For a talented young composer – and for the young musicians in the symphony – to receive the message that a work can be arbitrarily suppressed for its content goes against the precious principles of free speech.

The letter was co-signed by several prominent artistic freedom organisations, including Article 19, PEN American Center and the Index on Censorship.

In a 6 March – “An Argument for Hearing a Work With a Nazi Reference”– New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe slammed the NYYS, writing that the “misguided, mishandled decision is a blot on the reputation of the youth symphony.”

Woolfe argued that it was “pernicious to cloak censorship in the guise of child protection,” and he pointed out that the “Horst Wessel” has been widely cited, and that after examining Tarm’s score, “it is simply impossible that someone could hear Mr Tarm’s sour take on ‘Horst Wessel’ as a neutral or sympathetic presentation of this material.”

Woolfe’s piece did offer a solution: The symphony should add Tarm’s piece to its next Carnegie performance, so that audiences can hear the work and decide for themselves.

NCAC proposed a similar resolution in our letter, suggesting that the NYYS could hold a post-performance discussion that “would give a space for audience members to express their concerns in ways more productive than a demand for silence.”

So will the New York Youth Symphony let the public make up its own mind – or will it stand by its censorship?

» Wall Street Journal – 4 March 2015:
Youth Symphony Drops Commissioned Work, Cites Nazi Element

» National Coalition Against Censorship – 4 March 2015:
Silenced By The Symphony? Young Composer’s Piece Yanked from Carnegie Hall Debut

» National Coalition Against Censorship – 5 March 2015:
Art and Free Speech Groups Speak Out Against Symphony Censorship

» Seattle Times | New York Times – 5 March 2015:
Youth symphony quashes new work, citing Nazi anthem

» National Coalition Against Censorship – 10 March 2015:
“Censorship in the Guise of Child Protection:” Jonas Tarm and the NY Youth Symphony
By Peter Hart

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