The composer who got cancelled at Carnegie Hall

The composer who got cancelled at Carnegie Hall


norman lebrecht

March 06, 2015

Was this a political decision? Read this statement by the Boston-based Estonian-Armenian composer, Jonas Tarm:

It has been an honor and pleasure to rehearse my music with the New York Youth Symphony and conductor Joshua Gersen. These fellow young musicians are some of the most artistically advanced and mature musicians I have been able to work with.

I am disappointed and confused by the decision of the president of the board and the executive director of the NYYS to cancel my Carnegie Hall debut. This composition, titled “Marsh u Nebuttya” (Ukrainian for “March to Oblivion”), is devoted to the victims who have suffered from cruelty and hatred of war, totalitarianism, polarizing nationalism — in the past and today.

To emphasize that point in musical form, I briefly incorporate historical themes from the Soviet era and from the World War II Germany. The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (UkSSR) national anthem lasts about 45 seconds and the German Horst Wessel Lied also lasts about 45 seconds in the nine-minute work. This piece was not meant to provoke but to evoke.


jonas tarm

This is the program note I provided to the NYYS in September, 2014:


Марш y Hебуття [Marsh u Nebuttya]

Dedicated to the victims of hunger and fire

Completed August 1st, 2014.

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

—T.S. Eliot

NYYS had no complaints regarding the program note being too short or insufficient until six days before the Carnegie Hall concert.

The NYYS has had the score to “Marsh u Nebuttya” since September. They’ve rehearsed this piece for over three months; and I attended several of those rehearsals. They performed the piece on Feb. 22, 2015 at the United Palace Theater in New York. On March 2nd, just days before its Carnegie Hall performance, the executive director of the NYYS told me that these themes, these instrumental quotes, are potentially offensive. Concerns about the content in this work were never mentioned to me until March 2nd.

The old joke about how do you get to Carnegie Hall – you practice. Apparently you also have to self-censor. I’m disappointed that this work will no longer have the ability to speak for itself.

I’d like to sincerely thank the people who have supported me and asked my work be heard.

— Jonas Tarm
March 4, 2015


And here’s the orchestra’s rapid response:

NYYS Statement on Removal of Commissioned Orchestral Work

The New York Youth Symphony’s decision to remove a commissioned work from Sunday’s performance was not a decision taken lightly. It was a highly unusual step for us—one which was taken thoughtfully, but firmly, as soon as we learned the piece incorporated significant portions of music written by others that we determined were problematic for a student orchestra such as ours to be asked to perform without prior knowledge or discussion.

The first time the composer revealed the source of his music was on March 2, in response to our inquiry. We were told that of the three sources that he used, one is the Horst-Wessel-Lied, the anthem of the Nazi Party from 1930-1945, which is illegal in Germany and Austria. When asked to explain the context and meaning of the piece, which would justify his use of this source, he refused.

This was his obligation to our orchestra as a commissioned artist and particularly important given the fact he was working with students, ages 12-22. Had the composer revealed the sources of his piece and the context under which they were used upon submission of the final commission in September 2014, the piece and the notes could have served as an important teaching moment for our students.  However, without this information, and given the lack of transparency and lack of parental consent to engage with this music, we could not continue to feature his work on the program.

Again, if the composer had been forthright with us from the start, this situation would not have transpired. He was chosen last spring for the commission from among a strong group of candidates by an impartial panel of seven composers and music educators. The new piece he created in response to receiving the commission received its first hearing when it was given to the orchestra to rehearse in December.

We believe deeply in a free creative process. But along with freedom comes responsibility, even more so when young people are involved.   We continue to be committed to champion new young composers through our ground-breaking First Music composition program, which has commissioned over 137 composers since 1984. We are proud that First Music commission winners have been recognized by the Rome Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and Guggenheim Fellowship.

Our mission at the NYYS is to educate and inspire young musicians, composers, and conductors. We also encourage creativity within a culture of mutual respect and honesty. This situation, while unfortunate in so many ways, has taught us to remain true to our values as we serve the best interests of all our students.

All of us at the NYYS are deeply disappointed that this decision was necessary knowing how much time and effort the students put into preparing the piece for performance. We thank them for their wonderful contributions to making the NYYS such a special place, and we appreciate the ongoing interest in the success of our performers and the NYYS from all of our alumni, supporters, and the wider music community.


  • SVM says:

    Disgraceful act of censorship — Stockhausen would turn in his grave. I hope this orchestra experiences mutiny from within the ranks, and litigation from the composer.

  • May says:

    Carnegie Hall is not entirely correct in stating that the Horst-Wessel-Lied is banned in Germany. There is a clause in the law which allows it to be heard in educational settings, and for its inclusion in art works, as long as it is clear from the context that the Horst-Wessel-Lied is not being portrayed in a positive light. Ths is precisely that which the composer was doing. All in all, it sounds like the composer didn’t play his cards right, but after the recent Met-Klinghofer episode, Carnegie Hall seems to be excessively paranoid and is taking the wrong stand. Hopefully the young orchestra musicians will protest the spineless decision by Carnegie Hall.

    • Michael B. says:

      Ridiculous. What about Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s “Requiem für einen jungen Dichter”? That contains fragments of recordings of Hitler’s speeches. There is absolutely no reason why the work should be banned.

  • Milka says:

    Didn’t Hitler and his band of merry lunatics as also madman Stalin get into the business of deciding what was good music and art and what was not .Should Mr.Tarm be surprised ?
    That Mr. Gersen did not speak up is most telling ,it does take testicular fortitude to speak out
    to stupidity.As for the NYYS statement one may view it is a crock of ….
    Look at it this way Mr. Tarm …you got more mileage out of the work unplayed than you would have if played , I suspect now many more will be interested to hear the work and
    it will find its way to being played . As for the stupids running NYYS they might remember the laws of Karma , which in one aspect shows them to be unrivaled dim wits.

  • SVM says:

    It is, of course, interesting to know about the legal status of the Horst-Wessel-Lied in Germany (it explains how Stockhausen got away with including it in Hymnen), but not especially relevant, since Carnegie Hall is actually under the jurisdiction of a country that claims to pride itself in upholding freedom of speech as a fundamental right (which, in view of its imperialist foreign policy, brutal free-market capitalism, and unprecedented spying regime, is one of its few redeeming features).

    • William Safford says:

      You have repeated a common misconception. (You are not alone in this.)

      The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protects the people from *government* infringement of free speech. It says nothing about private entities. (It can be a bit more complicated than this.)

      To the best of my knowledge, neither the New York Youth Symphony nor Carnegie Hall is a government entity.

      This does not invalidate arguments for or against the abovereferenced action, but to couch it in terms of First Amendment rights (“upholding freedom of speech as a fundamental right”) is a red herring.

  • Gustav Mahler says:

    Carnegie Hall didn’t cancel the work. The orchestra did.

  • David Leibowitz says:

    Just to be clear, this is not a decision by Carnegie Hall management. It is a [very bad] decision made by the management of the New York Youth Symphony Orchestra. NYYSO traditionally performs in Carnegie Hall, but, I suspect, simply rents the hall for their concerts.

  • Robert Holmén says:

    45 seconds is a long time to be quoting something in a merely 9 minute work.

    Hard to think of any major composers who let something run that long in an otherwise original work, outside of Tchaikovsky and his 1812 Overture.

    • A Person says:

      45 seconds is not a long quote at all. The Berio Sinfonia, for example, uses much more quoted material.

    • Anon says:

      This is a troll, right?
      But assuming someone reads it seriously, let’s give a serious answer.
      Is the objection the length of the quotation or the proportion of the quotation to the piece? The song itself takes about 45 seconds to unfold a verse of the melody. It’s not exactly the Dies Irae, so how many seconds of the music do you think need to sound before it’s recognized as the Horst-Wessel Lied? And how long do you think a tone poem by a 21-year-old student should be? The proportion of quote to overall length of the piece seems reasonable to me.
      For some other examples you can’t think of: how about Razumovsky quartet 2/mvt 3? The entire B section is built around the Russian hymn tune (so, about 25% of the movement). Or the Academic Festival overture- how many drinking songs are in that? Honestly, I’m so done here.

  • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

    I would appear that Jonas Tarm would have done well to study the score of Miecyszlaw Weiberg’s opera “The Passenger”, in which the composer quotes various known sources of all kinds of music, often only within a few bars (or seconds, for that matter) – the one and crucial exception being Bach’s Chaconne. Especially since Tarm set out to write a piece dedicated to the victims of hunger and fire, Weinberg could teach him plenty.

  • Milka says:

    There was once upon a time a musical correctness put into practice by the likes of Hitler and Stalin .The NYYS statement strikes one as specious a statement as one can read inviting outright ridicule if not worse

  • Bill Doerrfeld says:

    Leslie J. Garfield, Chair
    Board of Trustees
    New York Youth Symphony

    March 5, 2015

    As a former New York Youth Symphony (NYYS) First Music award recipient (my work “American Slick” was premiered by NYYS in Carnegie Hall in 1987), I am appalled to learn of the decision to pull Jonas Tarm’s “Marsh u Nebuttya” (“March to Oblivion”) work from this Sunday’s Carnegie Hall premiere performance. I strongly disagree with the purported reasons behind this decision and implore you to reconsider said decision and continue with the initial plan to perform the piece.  

    At present, social media is ablaze with numerous composers—including some former NYYS First Music award recipients such as myself—who strongly disagree with NYYS’s action. 

    The NYYS executive director is on record stating that the reason for withdrawing the piece is due to what she considers the lack of transparency on the part of the composer in response to requests for information on the context, motivation, and/or purpose behind use of public domain musical thematic material referenced in the piece and/or the exact meaning behind the piece itself. I find it odd that such a request would be demanded after the initial public premiere of the piece and just before the Carnegie Hall premiere. Why was due diligence on these topics not performed prior to the initial performance? And, more importantly, why is such due diligence even required?

    I further find the accusations of “lack of composer transparency” odd in light of the non-transparent letter from an anonymous source which sparked NYYS’s actions. Have the motives of the sender of the anonymous letter been questioned in the same manner as that requested of Mr. Tarm?

    It is a very dangerous and slippery slope taken when an organization pulls the plug on programming a work. It can also have devastating impact on a composer’s career as well as cause harm to the organization by calling into question their capacity to understand and support freedom of expression. It also calls into the question their guidelines for working with composers.

    As for the content of the material which purportedly has made one particular person feel uncomfortable, is it not possible said person completely misunderstood the context in which the musical references were made? It seems that this is the case here. The Tarms work makes two short 45 second references to two musical themes in support of the “March to Oblivion” narrative. One of the themes (The “Horst Wessel” song) has been quoted a number of times by classical composers over several decades. It was also famously used by the Nazis during World War II. As such, this thematic material is emblematic of the egregious acts committed by the Nazis during World War II. The other theme is of Soviet era ilk and is accordingly emblematic of that totalitarian regime. As Estonia was deeply affected by both Nazi and Soviet aggression during the early to mid 20th century, it only makes sense that these themes resonate strongly within the mindset of an Estonian-American composer. No further explanation should be required. In fact, an educated student of history should know this to begin with and not demand explanation of why the musical references exist in the work.

    As for any reference or association to current events in Ukraine (as inferred from the title being in Ukrainian), I have no idea on what Mr. Tarm’s political views are. In fact, we may completely disagree. If he is attempting to draw association between what is going on in modern Ukraine and past egregious acts committed by Nazis and Soviets, again, while I may fully disagree with said comparison, I fully support his artistic expression, whether literal, implied or hidden. But, most importantly this is all fully irrelevant to his musical piece. Music transcends words and must be allowed to stand on its own and not forced to be described by words under threat that failing to do so will prevent said music from being heard. I vehemently disagree with such demands.

    If the problem is simply that the person who identified themselves as a “Nazi survivor” who sent the anonymous letter thinks “March to Oblivioun” is somehow championing the horrid march to gas chambers suffered by countless Jews, Poles, gypsies, gays, social and physical misfits, communists and political dissidents perpetrated by the Nazis during WWII, said argument is wrought with naiveté. I don’t buy any argument which suggests that withholding a piece containing these musical references prevents people from feeling uncomfortable. In fact, such censorship actually increases discomfort in an even greater number of people—specifically those millions of people who cherish freedom of expression. As a result I believe NYYS’s decision to censor this work will cause considerable backlash against NYYS.

    Arguments which contend that challenging topics such as those referenced here are not suitable for youths aged 12-22 are ignorant of the fact that these very topics—as they should be—are taught in middle schools, high schools and colleges across this country and beyond. NYYS is not protecting the youth from uncomfortable topics, it is in fact manifesting the very repressive policies exemplified by the repressive regimes in question here. In short, NYYS is showing young people that repression is still alive, and very close to home.Teaching students it’s okay to repress certain views, either out of disagreement of said views, or out of fear that said views might make someone feel uncomfortable, is actually teaching them the wrong thing. It’s not teaching them freedom of artistic expression. It’s not teaching them to not cower to misunderstood associations. It’s teaching them that if someone complains, you can be censored. Is that the best lesson to teach our youth? 

    It is virtually impossible to not make some people feel uncomfortable. A true artist’s job is to challenge views and inspire transformation. It is impossible to challenge without touching the heart of deep issues. By discouraging or disallowing this, NYYS fades  from being relevant to the true meaning of artistic expression in favor of some watered-down “feel good” institution concerned more with “politically correct” expression on non-challenging issues. I say to this, what a bore. That is not what true art is about. 

    I see no practical reason why NYYS has withdrawn Mr. Tarm’s work from its’ Carnegie debut. I feel NYYS has drawn much attention to this issue by censoring it, and that it can and will work against NYYS unless you quickly change your mind.

    I strongly believe NYYS should reverse it’s decision immediately and perform Mr. Tarm’s work this weekend. 

    Lastly, should NYYS continue with its plans to censor this work, I must respectfully request that it also censor any association I have had with NYYS. I would request you remove from any of your marketing materials—either online or in print—any mention of my association with your organization.

    I hope the better part of reason will cause NYYS to frown upon anonymous letters from people who misunderstand artistic expression and fully embrace and support freedom of expression.

    Sincerely and Non-Anonymously Yours,

    Bill Doerrfeld
    Composer and Pianist

    P.S. In the spirit of transparency, this is an open letter that has been widely shared.

    • Milka says:

      Mr. Doerrfeld’s letter to NYYS cannot be faulted in any respect . Mr. Lebrecht by
      publishing it has done the art of music a great service .Sadly it exposes the underbelly
      workings of the art to be seemingly run by incompetent fools and that whatever good
      comes of groups like NYYS one may very well view it an accident .

  • david conway says:

    May I quote from what I have written in another forum – Let’s clear away guesswork and start from scratch. The piece is called ‘March to Oblivion’ and quotes a Nazi song and the Ukranian national anthem. It’s by a composer of Estonian origin. He’s stated it’s “devoted to the victims who have suffered from cruelty and hatred of war, totalitarianism, polarizing nationalism — in the past and today.” To me, (without knowing the music itself) this suggests that the composer sympathises with the struggle that Ukraine is now going through today (as Estonia faces a similar threat from Russia) and refers also to the genocidal devastations of Ukraine carried out by both the Soviets (through famine and starvation, the ‘holodomor’), and by the Nazis against its Jewish population. I don’t need the composer to prompt these references to me verbally (though I accept that others might). I can’t say I thrill to the idea of hearing the HW song in the concert hall, but then the music of Carl Orff also gives me the creeps. My overall conclusion is that the composer here has suffered from a knee-jerk reaction. It would have been interesting to test this analysis by hearing the piece and the context of the two themes….but that apparently will never now happen, as others have decided that their aesthetic taste trumps everyone else’s. Er….Isn’t that censorship? By the way, Joseph Horowitz cited the HW song in his 5th Quartet (1969) and no one, thank goodness, implied that he was acloset Nazi…..