Just wrong

The New York Youth Symphony is concerned about exposing its members to music that was sung by Nazis:

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.

Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.”

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…

Ms. Quill said that Mr. 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.

Mr. Tarm said Ms. Quill had told him that the piece would not be played because it was offensive.

Does she think that playing music associated with the Nazi regime is going to turn her students into Nazis? Why is it “inappropriate” for a youth orchestra but presumably not for us older musicians? And do composers now have to explain to administrators what their music is “about”?

I guess we should hope that she never finds out that tune to the Deutschlandlied – which was sung throughout the Third Reich, along with the “Horst Wessel” song, as the national anthem – was composed by Haydn. She’d have to find out what Haydn thought it was “about” before allowing anyone in her orchestra to play it.

I wonder if the New York Youth Symphony has ever performed Carmina Burana?


About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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  • Robert,

    You have provided a very valuable and thought provoking post, though it only contains a few sentences of your own writing. Time spent standing in front of a mirror is good for Executive Directors and all of us

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