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Strike up the banned!

November 28, 2014

Sticks and stones will break my bones
But words will never harm me.

Tell that to the censors, who are hard at it every day around the world serving repressive regimes with their literary cuts. History has its own examples. Pierre Beaumarchais’ 1778 comedy Le Mariage de Figaro, for example, challenged the rights and privileges of France’s aristocracy and was soon seen as a powerful detonator for the French Revolution that followed a decade later.

Based on that comedy, Mozart’s opera Le nozze di Figaro got caught up in the ripples of the rumpus as revolutionary notions started to spread into neighbouring countries. You may recall Austria’s Emperor Joseph II in the film Amadeus censuring Mozart for having the temerity to compose the work when he had personally banned a performance of the original play in January, 1785. The opera transcended the blue pencil, however, and was successfully premièred in Vienna later that year.

This year is a suitable one for mulling over the artistic knee-jerks of controlling authorities, since it marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the German composer Richard Strauss, whose opera Salome caused outrage and met resistance at its first airings just over a century ago.

Based on the play of the same name by Oscar Wilde which, in turn, is based on the story in the Bible, audiences were incensed at the music’s daring harmonies and the depravity of the plot—that of Herod’s lust for his stepdaughter Salome, and her own perverted lust for an imprisoned John the Baptist, whose severed head is served up to her on stage by way of payment for an interlude of erotic dancing. Having recently seen a production, one wonders what all the fuss was about, notwithstanding the nudity and mental disorderliness on show. Following its 1905 première in Dresden, critics predicted the work would quickly fizzle out of the repertoire; the censors in Vienna tried to make sure it did by preventing the work from being staged there until 1918; while in New York, Salome was withdrawn after just one performance.

From the New York Tribune, January 1907:

“There is a vast deal of ugly music in Salome—music that offends the ear and rasps the nerves like fiddlestrings played on by a coarse file…There is not a whiff of fresh and healthy air blowing through Salome…The orchestra shrieked its final horror and left the listeners staring at each other with smarting eyeballs and wrecked nerves.”

Thirty years later, another opera was to provoke dictatorial fury. Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District had clocked up hundreds of successful performances in the Soviet Union, Europe and America following its première in 1934. All that came to nought, however, following the performance in Moscow attended by Joseph Stalin on January 26, 1936. Two days later Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party’s regime, lambasted the work for not fitting into its proletarian requirements of the arts:

“The music quacks, grunts, growls, strangles itself in order to present the amatory scenes as naturalistically as possible. ‘Love’ is smeared all over the opera in the most vulgar manner. The merchant’s bed occupies the central place on the stage. On it all ‘problems’ are solved.”

The opera subsequently disappeared for nearly thirty years and, in doing so, became a noted sacrificial lamb in the history of artistic censorship.

Sometimes it has been composers and styles, not individual works, that have been cast into the dark. Although the Nazi stance on the unacceptability of jazz seemed unequivocal, Joseph Goebbels significantly tempered it with pragmatism in the face of its popularity with the masses, and the economic potential it offered for the employment of musicians. However, Hitler’s blockades against Jewish composers such as Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer and Schoenberg were pretty obdurate. Tit for tat, Israel’s unofficial snubbing of the music of the anti-Semite Richard Wagner is an ongoing tug-of-war.

China’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76) went a step further by banning all vestiges of western music, which was considered decadent and a threat to the fibre of the nation. Considering the blanket heaviness of the censorship, it subsequently proved itself amazingly useless in that it took less than three decades for Chinese classical music stars to rebound and to start soaking up the limelight on the international stage.

From that tumultuous period in Chinese history comes a story on which to end today, not of a composer or a composition or a style, but of a humble instrument that was given a particularly censorious send-off. I refer to a church organ in the city of Qingdao in Eastern China. Most organs that had been imported from the West were cannibalised during the Cultural Revolution for their valuable alloy pipes, copper wiring and silver electrical contacts. But the Qingdao instrument escaped that particular axe to serve a more grandiloquent purpose. It was put on a boat, taken out and dumped in the Yellow Sea, a symbol of the rejection of religion and, by extension, the music it breathed.

The fact that China now boasts some of the most enormous organs around, built for their showcase venues by western companies, underscores the fickleness and futility of the dismal world of arts censorship.

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