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Top Five Infamous Bans on Classical Music

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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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