Classical music has a genteel reputation – but controversies and scandals abound. Clemency Burton-Hill selects some of the fiercest rows.
“It feels almost like murder”is how the 21-year-old composer Jonas Tarm described the recent cancellation of a performance by the New York Youth Symphony at Carnegie Hall of his award-winning piece March to Oblivion. Describing his piece as“devoted to the victims who have suffered from cruelty and hatred of war, totalitarianism, polarising nationalism – in the past and today,”the winner of the prestigious First Music competition had quoted musically from both Ukraine’s Soviet-era anthem and the Horst Wessel Lied, the official song of the Nazi party. Tarm did not make it clear that he was doing so – or why – in his programme notes.”
In a lengthy public statement, the Youth Symphony’s executive director declared that “given the lack of transparency and lack of parental consent to engage with this music we could not continue to feature his work on the program”. Tarm vigorously defended the right of music to “speak for itself”and described the move by NYYS as an act of censorship. (It is, by the way, still illegal to play the Horst Wessel Song in Germany.)
The question of whether music, a collection of sonic vibrations, can‘mean'anything – and if so, how we should respond to that meaning – is an old and vexed one, which we are still no closer to answering. Classical music may have the reputation of being a refined and rather genteel genre, but controversies and scandals abound in its history – consider the ongoing provocations of Wagner, or Stravinsky, whose Rite of Spring sparked the most legendary riot in musical history. Here are some other classical works that have caused a hullabaloo – whether for political, textual or aesthetic reasons – over the past few centuries.