Top Five Infamous Bans on Classical Music

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Joseph Stalin and Dmitri Shostakovich Joseph Stalin and Dmitri Shostakovich (Wikipedia Commons)

Daniel Barenboim once told the Index on Censorship, "music is very powerful. It is very difficult to remain unmoved by music." The conductor was explaining the reasoning behind Israel’s unofficial boycott of Richard Wagner’s music, which was supposed to be broken with an orchestra concert in Tel Aviv on June 18. Tel Aviv University then announced Monday that it has canceled the concert, following protests by the Israeli public.

Since Kristallnacht in 1938, the country (formerly Palestine) has shunned the German composer, a notorious Anti-Semite whose famous melodies were favored by Hitler. Whether because of music’s intrinsic power or a distaste for its composers, the art form seems to be scrutinized more than others, as these five examples illustrate:

1. Germany During the Third Reich

Israel’s ban of Wagner came in part as a response from the even greater and more notorious attack Hitler staged on music by Jewish and other out-of-favor composers. Labeled degenerate, works by Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer, contemporary Jewish composers like Arnold Schoenberg, and political adversaries such as Paul Hindemith, were all considered unplayable. Over the past several years, producers and musicians have been bringing attention to many of these lost works.

2. China's Cultural Revolution

With the amount of classical music talent emerging from China these days, it’s hard to believe that Western music was all but outlawed in 1966 during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Bach, Beethoven and Brahms—not to mention most other European composers—were considered decadent and shunned, while traditional Chinese pieces were preferred. In 1978, the Central Conservatory in Beijing reopened, and allowed western music to penetrate the country once again.

3. 17th-Century Italy

We think of Italy as the cradle of opera, nurturing early masters of the art form such as Claudio Monteverdi and even the librettist Giulio Rospigliosi (who would become Pope Clement IX in the 17th century). However, Pope Clement XI wasn’t as tolerant of the theater as his predecessor and banned all public opera performances. This turn of events inspired Cecilia Bartoli’s Opera Prohibita album, on which she sings works written by contemporaries of Clement XI: Scarlatti, Handel and Caldara.

4. Medieval Europe (for the Tritone)

The Catholic church’s ban on opera didn’t last nearly as long as a prohibition on the tritone, the so-called Devil's Interval. The augmented fourth (or diminished fifth) was considered as Satan’s work, and outlawed through the Middle Ages. The dissonant interval wasn’t employed much until Romantics, such as Richard Wagner, used the eerie chord to spooky effects.

5. The Soviet Union

Practically every Soviet composer felt the heavy hand of the USSR’s culture censors from Shostakovich (whose Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was outright banned) to Igor Stravinsky (who left the country only to return once, in 1962). However, none may have suffered as much as the contemporary Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt, who offended officials with overt references to Jesus Christ in his Credo (1968). Pärt endured a self-imposed silence and stopped writing music for the next eight years.

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Comments [15]


Please check your facts more carefully. The tritone was avoided until the Renaissance and after, but it was never prohibited, neither by the Church nor any other authority. Musicians simply avoided it because they thought its dissonance unpleasant.

Apr. 10 2015 02:17 PM
william pagenopf from Flushing, NY

I would ban calling it music the junk on radio by people who never learned music but are called musicians.
Would call upon wqxr to play less Dvorak who does not merit so much time. Are his recordings cheap? They seem to be mostly recorded by the Prague symphony which is not an orchestra entitled to so much attention.

Jun. 09 2012 07:26 PM
Mimi Michel from Queens, NY

Actually, even the great Renaissance composers of liturgical music indulged in the use of the tritone. They just incorporated it so skillfully that the censors never caught it. Try Palestrina's "Tu es petrus" -- at the words "Et portae inferi" -- at the gates of Hell. As Sheldon Cooper would say, Bazinga! Tritone! There are many more examples. They just didn't land on it obviously enough, at a srong enough point, to make it obvious. Genius in expression won out over censorship.

Jun. 09 2012 01:20 PM
Rudy Robinson from Providence

(Formerly Judea)

Jun. 08 2012 09:14 PM
Michael Meltzer

Ms. Angel:
The tritone was also used, melodically and harmonically, by J.S.Bach and all his sons, D. Scarlatti, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and others. I'm sure we can find it in Monteverdi, although I haven't looked.

Jun. 08 2012 08:41 PM
Elle Stern from Northern California

After Vivaldi died, a Duke, who despised him, bought up all the rights to Vivaldi's music and forbade the
music to be performed anywhere as long as the Duke's living lineage was still alive. The last Duke of that line died in 1927. So Vivaldi was not heard for almost 150 years!

Jun. 08 2012 04:42 PM
Lynn Dion from New York

What foolishness is this? This interval is the working dissonance in every plain dominant seventh chord, between the leading tone and the fourth degree of the major scale. It has never been banned for theological reasons. The interval does not appear so much in modal music before the modern era because the leading tendency tone is not exploited functionally as it is in tonal music. Let's have a little intellectual integrity on one of the last surviving art music stations in America, please.

Jun. 08 2012 04:07 PM

How about Richard Strauss' Salome - banned in both New York and London at the turn of the last century.

Jun. 07 2012 08:26 PM
Henry Riger from New York

Finlandia, by J. Sibelius, was banned in 1917 by Russia, of which Finland was then a province.

Jun. 07 2012 02:09 PM
Les Bernstein from Miami, Florida

Hindemith's "Mathis der Maler" was banned, though Furtwa"ngler wrote a letter to the editor urging that Hitler stay out of it and leave music to the musicians. I think the suite was extracted because of that. Krenek's "Jonny spielt Auf" because of an interracial plot and the use of jazz; and Weill's "Die Dreigroschenoper" and "Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny" similarly because the composer was Jewish and because of the jazz elements of both. I think Orff wrote his "Midsummer Night's Dream" incidental music at the time when all of Mendelssohn was banned.

Jun. 07 2012 09:12 AM
James Bauer from still NYC

In a lighter vein, I recently saw a film called "Land Without Music," touted as an "[a]llegedly true story from early 19th Century involving a Ruritanian singer, a Princess who dislikes his music, and a Police Chief with a sideline in smuggling musical instruments." The movie with Richard Tauber was interesting, i.e. not very good but I liked it anyway.

Jun. 07 2012 12:27 AM
George Jochnowitz from New York, NY

Plato, in Book III of "The Republic," wrote that he would ban the flute and other instruments “capable of modulation into all the modes.”
Plato was the grandfather of totalitarianism.

Jun. 06 2012 09:57 PM
Jason Martin from Montclair, NJ

Under the Colonels in Greece, Mikos Theodorakis was, I believe, jailed and also kept under house arrest. I doubt that much of his music was performed during those years.

Jun. 06 2012 08:18 PM
Judith from Brookline, MA

VR, David Ben Gurion declared the establishment of a Jewish state to be known as the State of Israel on May 14, 1948.

Jun. 06 2012 07:40 PM

Please check your historical facts.
Israel as a country did not exist prior to 1949.
Thank you.

Jun. 06 2012 05:13 PM

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