The Music They Didn’t Want You to Hear (1/2)

Ever since Plato said it was dangerous to the state, music has been censored. Erik Levi reveals the composers who suffered and the masterpieces left behind.

In a period of political repression, it’s easy to understand how a provocative literary work, painting, or film might fall victim to official censorship. That a similar fate could happen to a piece of music is more difficult to explain. After all, one assumes the written word, a visual image, or a series of actions on screen would offer a more potent symbol of defiance than music which, in essence, appears to be a purely abstract form of artistic communication. Yet such a view can be misleading, for however much one might broadly agree with Stravinsky’s dictum that ‘music expresses nothing other than itself’, there are certain circumstances, surely, where the very ambiguity of music’s emotional message can be just as subversive.

The potentially subversive nature of music was certainly recognised by Plato. In The Republic, the philosopher tackles the issue head-on, condemning the use of specific intervals, and even going so far as to suggest there are occasions when music could become a danger to the state. Plato’s views may appear somewhat extreme to contemporary listeners, many of whom have become almost desensitised to the most grinding of dissonances. But one can easily point to many instances throughout history where those in power feared music’s capacity to destabilise the very fabric of society, seeking to ban the work of any composers who failed to conform. In the mid-sixteenth century, for example, the cardinals and bishops attending the Council of Trent attempted to push through a programme of reforms which effectively outlawed the composition of polyphonic sacred music – a move that was only foiled, according to popular legend, by the persuasive compositional endeavours of Palestrina. The composition of sacred music was also a political issue in post-Reformation England, where a number of musicians, such as William Byrd, risked their lives by composing liturgical works in secret for the Roman Catholic Church.

Subversive Mozart escapes the censors
During the baroque and classical eras, composers largely escaped official censure through a willingness to satisfy the tastes of different aristocratic patrons and an adherence to clearly delineated stylistic parameters. But while such limitations proved liberating in the case of Haydn, they were more problematic for Mozart, whose considerable output of clandestine music composed and performed for the Freemasons, aroused suspicion in the highest circles. Surprisingly, Mozart escaped proscription despite the fact that in satirising the aristocracy, his opera The Marriage of Figaro manifested unequivocal revolutionary sentiments. Later operatic composers had to be more wary, however – Auber (in La muette de Portici) and Verdi (in Un ballo in maschera), for example, being forced to tailor the libretti of their respective operas in order to avoid the possibility of political censorship.

Despite the problems encountered by Palestrina, Byrd, Mozart and Verdi, most people still regard the censorship of music as an essentially twentieth-century phenomenon. The process almost certainly evolved during the First World War, when, for example, the British banned all performances in the country of works by living composers such as Richard Strauss. Similarly, the Germans outlawed music by British and French composers. But the most overt and damaging manifestation of musical censorship took place during the 1930s in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

Stalin – ‘Your music will be removed’
In the Soviet Union, it was Stalin’s rise to power which put a stop to the creative experimentation that had characterised musical developments during the early years of the Russian Revolution. The clampdown originated in 1932 when conservative factions managed to seize control of the country’s musical organisations and began to suppress the music of avant-garde composers such as Roslavetz and Mosolov. Other prominent musical figures like Miaskovsky and Shostakovich were also drawn into the fray, the latter being singled out for particular condemnation in an official newspaper article, after Stalin had attended a performance of his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1936. As a result of such action, Shostakovich’s opera was immediately withdrawn from the repertoire, while the composer himself wisely withdrew his controversial Fourth Symphony before it could reach public performance.

After the Second World War Shostakovich, along with other composers such as Prokofiev, Miaskovsky and Khachaturian, was to experience further reprisals from the Soviet regime when Stalin’s henchman, Zhdanov, mounted a new and more vicious campaign against the presence of so-called formalist or modernist influences in their music. As a result, many works, including Shostakovich’s Eighth and Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphonies, were summarily removed from the repertoire, only to be rehabilitated after Stalin’s death. The Stalinism of musical culture extended to Poland, where the music of both Lutosławski and Panufnik fell foul of the official regime. But whereas Polish musical life experienced a cultural thaw during the 1950s, developments in the Soviet Union were still hindered by censorship. This affected composers of all generations from the young avant-garde to Shostakovich, whose Symphony No. 13 was quickly withdrawn from performance due to the setting of Yevtushenko’s poem, Babi Yar, which proclaimed Soviet complicity in the slaughter of Jews during the Second World War.

The racial and anti-modernist policies inflicted by the Nazis had a much more widespread and devastating impact. Within the first six months of Nazi rule, Hitler had succeeded in proscribing the majority of composers who had attained prominence during the Weimar Republic. Anti-Semitism drove out Schoenberg, Weill and Eisler, all of whom were forced to emigrate, and the regime concurrently passed laws forbidding the performance of any music by Jewish composers. Official circles supported a sustained propaganda campaign against jazz and musical modernism that reached its climax in 1938 with the Degenerate Music Exhibition in Düsseldorf, in which music by prominent composers was pilloried.

The effects of censorship on the future
After the outbreak of war, many leading European composers sought refuge in the United States at a time when Nazi musical censorship entered an even more sinister phase. Once again music by composers from enemy countries was officially banned, while modernists and Jewish musicians still living in the occupied territories of Poland and Czechoslovakia were faced with deportation that in may cases ended in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. It was inevitable after the demise of the Third Reich, that some composers originally outlawed by the Nazis would experience almost complete rehabilitation. At the same time, one ought to reflect on the long-term effects of Nazi censorship which succeeded in removing from public view a whole repertoire of marvellous music that is only now beginning to be recognised for its true worth.

Classic CD magazine, 1997


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