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Classical 101

An Old Song Sadly Resung

Jonas Tarm
Elena Snow
Composer Jonas Tarm

A new work by composer Jonas Tarm, commissioned by the New York Youth Symphony has had its Carnegie Hall performance canceled when it became clear the piece quotes a Nazi Hymn. Tarm, 21, is a student at the New England Conservatory. His name and music were unknown to me until this cancelation was reported in the press. Investigating his website, I found his music to be colorful, energetic, and a bit of a throwback to the musical bad boy eras of the 1960s. He is a gifted young man with a lot to contribute, and with age he will only get better.


I have never heard March to Oblivion, the nine minute work at the center of this controversy.

So what’s the Horst Wessel Lied doing in a new symphonic work by a very gifted 21-year-old composer?

You can hear Horst Wessel lied on You Tube. I am not posting it here.

Horst Wessel was shot in an argument over unpaid rent when he was 30-years-old. The Nazis made him a heroic martyr. Young and tough looking, never mind he accomplished nothing in his short life but party membership)

It’s not at all unusual for a composer writing on a theme or in a program piece to quote music from other eras, good and horrible. Tarm wasn’t doing anything new or especially daring. He made no mention of incorporating the Nazi hymn into this work to be played by kids. “The music speaks for itself,” and so it always does, be it Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, Strauss’ Salome or Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique which was inspired by an opium trip.

But here’s the difference. Tarm by his youth and his silence has opened himself up to the ‘nervy kid’ label. People may be shouting, he should have known better even at 21! It’s a stunt!
He’s a brat calling attention to himself! He’s ridiculing the adults who run the Youth Orchestra, wanting to catch out their ignorance. Apparently that’s what happened, because again the orchestra had performed and lived with for several months before an audience member complained.

I understand the complaint. The horror of Nazism will not go away in several lifetimes, and that’s a good thing. There are people alive who lived – barely – through those times, who suffered devastating loss and abuse. Who needs to be reminded? Is the grief of one person, never mind thousands, worth censoring a new music?

No. It is not. Censorship should never happen. What about reverse censorship? The Nazis sang this ranchmen lustily and you’d be shot if you did other wise. Human rights and human dignity were being censored Human decency became illegal.

But if censorship is always wrong so is insensitivity. It was insensitive, if not brutal to weave a nasty tune into an otherwise worthy work. People go to concerts to be uplifted, to feel better on exit than they did on arrival. The purpose of art is to throw up a mirror but also to inspire and to uplift. The orchestra did pass up a teaching moment which would have been more powerful than downright cancelling the piece.

Young Mr. Tarms should be spanked, and then go on with his career. Ultimately, the audience decides.

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.