The Oblique Censor, Part 3 of 3

 By James Conlon

The following post is adapted from James Conlon’s Keynote Address at the symposium “Music, Censorship and Meaning in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union: Echoes and Consequences” on August 9, 2014 presented by the Ziering-Conlon Initiative at the Colburn school with the cooperation of the Orel Foundation.

A public cannot clamor for what it doesn’t know. It can only be hoped that a public can be motivated by curiosity, and made to be open to what it doesn’t yet know.

And so, oblique as it may be, there is a powerful invisible force that is actually functioning to separate out works based on their monetary worth. Classical music, from the time of the Medicis has always depended on patronage. It has never–and I believe cannot–stand the test of a for-profit business venture. It loses, not makes, money. The decisions made in performing arts administrations is rarely about what will make money, but rather, what will lose less.

Which brings me to the point of some of the challenges of bringing “Recovered Voices” composers into the contemporary environment. The problems encountered are not unique to the lesser-known composers who were suppressed during the Nazi Regime. They are extensions of phenomena already described.

The eventual goal of “Recovered Voices” is to integrate this music into concert programming so that it need not fall under any category related to the life experiences of the composer, nor the historical conditions under which they wrote.

The most common obstacles I have encountered in trying to interest people in “Recovered Voices” are attitudinal. Their refrains are familiar. “There are no lost masterpieces” (what would they have said to Felix Mendelssohn in 1829, when he first presented the Matthew Passion in Leipzig; do they think that only masterpieces survived the destruction of Pre Columbian Art by the Conquistadores?), and the corollary, “How good can it be if I have never heard of it?” (Implying that one’s own acquaintance with a piece of music is a prerequisite for any possible worth it might possess.) That many so-called music lovers ignore certain works is due to …yes, their ignorance of the works. The oblique censorship in those attitudes aggravates the difficulties in interesting the public in lesser-known works.

The problems are not limited to the public. Many musicians themselves are very conservative in their tastes, and also resistant to new music, whether contemporary or something from the past that is new to them. Some of the press is well informed, objective and constructive. Unfortunately not all: some are content with facile and flippant reactions, passing judgment on the basis of limited knowledge of the terrain.

When asked, as I often am, how this music is received, my answer is: generally, quite well. The problem is not so much getting people to like it, but getting them to listen to it in the first place. At LA Opera we generally gave a maximum of four performances of each “Recovered Voices” opera, but the audience that was there was vociferous in its appreciation. There were some who returned more than once to hear these operas. Many people still will not buy a ticket, but those who have tend to return for more.

I am not now, nor have I ever suggested, that under the very broad umbrella term of “Recovered Voices” that there are hundreds of lost masterpieces. First, I am not inclined to throw that term around promiscuously. Every piece cannot, by definition, be a masterwork.  Nor need it be.  We do not live by masterworks alone. A Rembrandt pencil sketch is not the Night Watch, but it is still Rembrandt. Bastien und Bastienne or Mitridate, Re di Ponto are not Don Giovanni, but they are still Mozart. My mission is to play many of the compositions that were weeded out, not by objective musical judgment, but by the Nazi regime for self-serving political and racist motives.

When they are played and listened to by a larger segment of our concert-going public, and played repeatedly by fine, committed musicians, it will be a more appropriate time to make judgments about their ultimate worth and where–and whether–they fit into that ever-evolving canon of works which are referred to as classical.  Those judgments are now being made mostly on the basis of fleeting acquaintance if not downright ignorance. I am advocating that we make more of an effort to play a sizeable amount of very good music that had been arbitrarily removed from our cultural patrimony by unqualified individuals.

The oblique censor militates against this. I am not insisting that everyone like every piece from this period. De gustibus non disputandum est. I just want to be sure that everyone has a chance to taste this music before they decide whether or not they want it as nourishment on a more regular basis.

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