The Oblique Censor, Part 2 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. 

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?

Strictly speaking, the answer would be no. The subject of my enquiry today is not any visible authorized body of censorship that affects what classical music is played or written, but a less visible factor that strongly influences performing arts institutions on their choices of what they produce.

This less tangible factor is the economic return or the popularity generated by a particular composition or composer; better known in everyday parlance as “box office appeal.”

Whereas overt official bodies of censorship have existed (whether governmental or religious, or offshoots of political opportunism or vigilantism) they have largely disappeared or have a diminished function, only to be surreptitiously replaced by very practical economic factors.

Most performing arts organizations are habitually faced with trying to calculate which works will do well at the box office, and which will not. Gradually those that do not sell adequately are performed less often. They become, so to speak, less popular. And then a vicious cycle comes into full play: the less well known a work, the more likely it will not be performed: the more rarely it is performed, the less known it will become.

For a piece of music to be played regularly, it must be popular. That is very a tidy construction, fulfilling both the Founding Fathers’ vision of democracy (the vote of the populace will rule) and our economic credo: the best product will sell the best.  In other words, it is as American as apple pie.

But, viewed from the perspective of a performing artist, or a serious lover of classical music, it is simply unacceptable to confuse a work’s popularity with its inherent quality. Galileo’s vision of the universe was a minority opinion, for which he was condemned, but he was right. I refuse to believe that the works of Alban Berg, Leos Janacek and Benjamin Britten are intrinsically inferior to, for example Carl Orff.

As an insider, I see how choices of repertory are made across the spectrum of performing arts organizations in our country. Box office considerations have had, and continue to have, a profound effect on the dampening of our musical culture. There is no question that in times of economic difficulties, all institutions, intensifying their risk-averse impulses, will move toward the “tried and true,” responding to their perception of what the public will buy. Experiments, unfamiliar works, world premieres, outside-the-box projects, unknown composers–all are put on hold, sometimes indefinitely.

There is no malice. There is no authoritarian body judging the political, philosophic or religious validity or danger of a given piece of music and its suitability for performance. Is adherence to box office “values”” literally censorship? Absolutely not. Does such adherence have similar results? Absolutely yes.

The problem as I see it, is that the intrinsic values of pieces of music are now being judged by their commercial viability. The number of classical music lovers in the U.S. is already a small fraction of the population; but even those with more than a passing interest are influenced by a given piece’s “popularity” or salability. Lack of familiarity, a cumbersome title or even a work’s length become confused with quality.

A somewhat amusing example from one of my early experiences might serve as an illustration. More than three decades ago, I was making a program with the artistic administrator of one of America’s leading orchestras for a program that would also feature its very fine chorus. I proposed Benjamin Britten’s Cantata Misericordium, a work I love. After several days of reflection, the administrator contacted me and said it would be best if we did not include it on the program. Any work with the word “misery” would be a “downer” at the box office. I tried in vain to explain that Misericordium came from a Latin root meaning compassion or pity, that the cantata was a retelling of the parable of the Good Samaritan, and that there was nothing “miserable” about it. The cantata went unplayed–at least on that occasion.

The word “long” has become synonymous with boredom in many minds. One hears often: “I don’t like Wagner; it’s too long.” Or “I wouldn’t go to a performance of the Matthew Passion; it’s too long.” Cultural differences play a role in these perceptions. German audiences are generally more capable of sitting and concentrating at a concert or opera than we are (the word Sitzfleisch is testimony to this). In my years as Music Director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, we presented the Matthew Passion every year on the Thursday and Friday preceding Easter to sold out houses; the audiences were filled by people who only went to a concert once a year. “Long” is not a value judgment in those two cases.

But unfamiliarity, either with a composer’s name or with a particular lesser-known work, is perhaps the leading culprit at the box office.  The very presence of such a name on a program is deemed capable of emptying the house, even when it is shares the program with “big sellers” like Tchaikovsky or Beethoven. It takes no leap of imagination to understand why this is a major stumbling block in attempting to introduce the music of composers suppressed in Nazi Germany.

More as collateral damage than by design, the voice of many compositions is stifled by these phenomena. Although not censorship in any literal meaning of the word, the results are the same. The problem will intensify in the future, if this trend continues, because less familiar, will become unfamiliar, and unfamiliar will be unknown.

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