What responsibility does the composer have?

The New York Times‘ Zachary Woolfe offered his thoughts on “l’affaire Horst-Wessel” in today’s paper, reaching a not totally dissimilar conclusion to the one I stated in my recent blog on the same subject.  If you’re new to this, you may want to read up by clicking on the above links before continuing.

True, Woolfe was more critical of the commissioning organization, the New York Youth Symphony than I was:

This misguided, mishandled decision (by the NYYS to drop Jonas Tarm’s “Marsh u Nebuttya” from their upcoming Carnegie Hall program) is a blot on the reputation of the youth symphony and its justly praised First Music competition, which has awarded commissions to 139 young composers since it began in 1984. An institution so adept at fostering new work should be particularly protective of artists and the ways they choose to express themselves. And it is pernicious to cloak censorship in the guise of child protection: If “Marsh u Nebuttya” is playable by any orchestra, it should be playable by an orchestra “such as ours.”

But Woolfe also faulted composer Tarm for not being more forthcoming about his piece:

Mr. Tarm told The New York Times this week that his piece is “about conflict, it’s about totalitarianism, it’s about polarizing nationalism.” Why couldn’t he have just said something like that in a program note, and perhaps avoided this whole mess?

But in Woolfe’s concluding paragraphs:

Mr. Tarm’s work revels in that ambiguity. In addition to “Horst Wessel,” he also quotes Ukraine’s Soviet­era anthem. So does that mean he intends to equate the Soviet domination of Ukraine with Nazi totalitarianism? Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, is widely despised in Estonia. Do Mr. Tarm’s charged references have to do with the region’s present­day politics?

I respect and even admire the composer’s choice not to answer these questions directly. But I’d like a chance to think about them for myself. The New York Youth Symphony should program “Marsh u Nebuttya” on its next Carnegie program and give me, and the rest of the audience, that opportunity.

There is where I most strongly disagree with Zachary Woolfe.  When he says that he “respect(s) and even admire(s) the composer’s choice not to answer these questions directly,” I think he is letting the composer off too easy.

I know that some of my composer friends will strongly disagree, as you might as well.  Perhaps my viewpoint comes from my years on the presenting side of music, a side with priorities and stresses quite different from those on the artistic side.

But in my view, when a composer accepts the privilege, and the fee, of a commission for a new work, the composer should be obliged to let the commissioning organization know if it contains potentially controversial elements.  This is especially true of instrumental works, which obviously lack an explanatory text.

Let me state this clearly, to thwart accusations to the contrary:  I do not believe an organization should tell a composer how to compose.  Other than agreeing on such parameters as length and instrumentation, the composer should be left alone.  If the presenting organization doesn’t like the work it receives, it probably chose the wrong composer in the first place.  Too bad.

But really, now — have we reached the point of artistic inviolability that a 21-year old composer can quote a Nazi anthem in his piece and have no responsibility whatsoever to give the commissioners a heads-up on it?  And is it really such a horrible violation of artistic principles for the commissioners to ask what the Nazi anthem was doing there, and why they hadn’t been informed?  For Tarm to act all aggrieved that the orchestra would dare ask him to explain himself is really too much.

There are two sides to any commissioning project.  And both sides, it strikes me, have rights that deserve to be upheld.  Those rights don’t have to be in conflict if each side can respect the needs of the other.  What struck me in the present case is that Jonas Tarm, in particular, failed to show such respect.  Yes, the orchestra perhaps overreacted.  But in all honesty, I’m not sure I wouldn’t also have dropped the piece until the composer was more forthcoming about his intent.

Every once in a while during my radio career, I’d play a piece or song, unaware that it contained the some potentially offensive phrase.  That doesn’t always mean I shouldn’t have played the song, or that I never did again.  But when it happened the first time, I was frankly embarrassed and a little angry that I hadn’t known what I was doing ahead of time.  And I made damned sure to flag the song and give it a brief explanation before I played it again.  It wouldn’t mean that no one would take offense.  But I had protected myself and my station in the case of a serious complaint.  I think the New York Youth Symphony should have been afforded the same protection.


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