The Oblique Censor, Part 1 of 3

By James Conlon

The following 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 for Recovered Voices at the Colburn School in Los Angeles with the cooperation of the Orel Foundation.

The history of Classical Music has been interwoven with various forms of censorship, however benign some may have been. There is a continuum from complete freedom to write and present music to a public, through a large gray area of constraints designed to please an exacting patron or appeal to the tastes of a specific audience, all the way to the point of the suppression to a totalitarian force that literally dictates what may or may not be presented in public.

This address will posit that although censorship in the strict sense is virtually absent in our country (though not entirely), box office demand has replaced it as a potent force in selecting out what music will or will not be performed for a large segment of our concert-going public. As it is not adjudicated by any established ruling body, driven by any political or religious viewpoint nor presided over by any individual, its source is intangible and invisible. Its effect nonetheless, is real. However oblique its trajectory, its effect is widespread.

The long history of censorship implies a tacit recognition that music has the power to move us, affect our emotions, our hearts and our brains, alter our perceptions, and influence our religious and political views.  Or at least it appears capable of doing so, or is feared by persons in authority who feel musical expression can upset the status quo.

Plato thought so, too. Chapter 36 of the Book of Jeremiah tells the story of the burning of Jeremiah’s writings, said to be too dark and pessimistic.  Similarly Confucius’ works were destroyed in 250 B.C.E. by an unsympathetic subsequent dynasty. The arm of Michelangelo’s David dropped off when irate Florentines threw rocks at it; Venus de Milo was censored; The Bowdler Family gave rise to the eponymous practice of cleansing great but “impure” works and was responsible for ‘The Family Shakespeare” and “The Family Gibbon.”

Lily Hirsch, in her book Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment, also reminds us:

One of the earliest philosophers of music, Plato, recognized music’s potential use toward good and bad: “Music, the most celebrated of all forms of imitation . . . is the most dangerous as well. A mistake in handling it may cause untold harm, for one may become receptive to evil habits.”  To avoid music’s potential danger to society, recognized in ancient Greece and thereafter, Plato thus had advocated the censorship of musical activity and the punishment of transgressors by force if necessary. During the Roman Empire, this recommendation was implemented in the position of the censor, who, among other duties, monitored singing. If singing was found insulting or “evil,” the singer, according to the legal code of the Twelve Tables, 450 B.C.E, could be punished with death by clubbing. But Plato extolled music’s ethical effects when handled “correctly”— for example, in his discussion of music education in the third book of the Republic, which maintains that music education helps man become “noble and good.”

She continues:

…During the nineteenth century, within Romantic aesthetics as conceived by Hegel, music was more consistently assigned an unrivaled, though vague, power over the soul. At this time, Plato’s conception of music— as moral and immoral— was cut in half, and philosophers celebrated music’s redemptive powers. This thinking was not lost on Romantic composers such as Felix Mendelssohn. He wanted more than success: He wanted to further humanity, communicating ethical meaning through music. This goal, a part of what the music scholar and conductor Leon Botstein terms the “Mendelssohnian Project,” resulted in several compositions, including the Lobgesang Symphony and the oratorios Paulus and Elijah. In these works, Mendelssohn sought to promote a sense of community, foster ethical sensibilities and faith in God, and educate society about tradition. In his use of music to promote morality, Mendelssohn may have also been influenced by his grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, and the aesthetics and theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher, who believed music should heighten emotion in the service of religious faith.

 …As the author of Poetry and the Romantic Musical Aesthetic, James H. Donelan, argues, “Before Mozart, Western art music had two fundamental purposes: to proclaim the glory of God in his churches and to provide musical decoration for the powerful in their courts and homes.” In this way, before the Romantic era, music was valued based on use. Moreover, the value of music in use was generally not high. The arts associated with contemplation and theory were privileged above music making, which, connected to the use of the hands, was related to manual activity rather than mental pursuits. In the wake of the Romantic era, however, music was theorized as the ideal art. Part of music’s changing valuation had to do with the sudden end of the patronage system toward the close of the Classical era. For survival as an independent artist, composers had to justify and promote themselves and the worth of their art form. This promotion gave way to ideas that music both performs good and is good. With this change in status, Romantic writers also established the concept of classical music— a term introduced in the nineteenth century to classify preceding works by Bach and Beethoven, among others, as great. The initial idea of classical music therefore corresponded to other attempts to valorize music in keeping with the general repositioning of music as high art.

In America we pride ourselves on being an open-minded society (whether or not we are as much as we imagine is another subject), and on our constitution and laws that largely uphold freedom of speech (and expression). But our history provides many examples of the opposite:  Anthony Comstock’s 1868 raid on an “offensive” bookstore, and the 1873 Anti Obscenity Act which he inspired, are 19th Century examples. With the support of police, Comstock swooped down on the Arts Student League in 1906 objecting to nude models and “obscene, lewd and indecent” photos that are “commonly but mistakenly called art.” A year earlier he had condemned George Bernard Shaw as an “Irish smut dealer.” Shaw rewarded him by creating the term “Comstockery,” which he defined as “the world’s standing joke at the expense of the U.S.  Europe likes to hear of such things. It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the Old World that America is a provincial place, a second-rate, country-town civilization after all.”  H.L. Mencken was even more succinct on Comstock and his zealotry: “More than any other man, he liberated American letters from the blight of Puritanism.”

Books are no longer banned, though sometimes burnt in postwar rural America–a type of vigilante substitute motivated by the same censorious impulse.  Robert Atkins, in his 1994 essay “A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Censorship” chronicles some of those book burnings in recent decades in rural America.  A compilation of six surveys by librarians and libertarian organizations identified the ten most attacked books in the U.S. between 1965 and 1994; they were The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank), Black Like Me, Brave New World, The Catcher in the Rye, The Good Earth, The Grapes of Wrath, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Go Ask Alice, and A Farewell to Arms.

The McCarthy era spared neither composers nor performers if they appeared on its zealous radar: Eisler, Copland, Bernstein and a long list of Hollywood producers and actors exemplify the use of blacklisting as an effective form of censorship.

Despite these and other similarly negative examples, American composers and performing arts institutions have never been subject to the powerful censorship historically exercised by, for instance, the Roman Catholic Church (especially in Italy). As early as 1703 Pope Clement XI banned opera as immoral. The oratorio developed partially out of the prohibition against setting biblical and religious subjects in theaters. Nor have our composers been subject to the type of years of unrelenting interference that Giuseppe Verdi continually faced with the censors on the not-yet-unified Italian peninsula. None faced a Stalinist regime as Shostakovich did, nor, as we are discussing at length this weekend, the cataclysmic suppression of the Nazi Regime.

Is it justified to speak of censorship in our country, which was founded on the principle of freedom of speech and whose history, with occasional deviations, has upheld the values flowing from it?


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