A young composer, whose work was to be premiered in Carnegie Hall, had it pulled at the last minute because the piece contained a snippet of a Nazi anthem, Horst-Wessel-Lied. The piece, Marsh u Nebuttya, or March to Oblivion, was composed by Jonas Tarm, a student at New England Conservatory. According to Tarm, the piece was devoted to victims of totalitarian regimes, extreme nationalism, hatred and violence. His purpose in including Horst-Wessel-Lied was designed to evoke the brutality of the Nazi regime. When the powers-that-be at Carnegie Hall discovered the inclusion of a Nazi anthem, they immediately pulled the piece.
This situation reminds me of the time when I was in high school, and the teachers wanted to include the newly released Schindler’s List in the history curriculum. A handful of parents found out and immediately contacted the superintendent, telling him that under no circumstances did they want that movie shown in the high school. Their reasoning? It had naked people in it.
Like those parents, the powers-that-be at Carnegie Hall completely missed the point. Spielberg did not include nudity in Schindler’s List in order to glorify nudity and create some sort of highly sexualized scene…it was included to show the depths that some will go to in order to degrade their fellow human beings. Tarm’s inclusion of a snippet of Horst-Wessel-Lied was intended to evoke the horror that the Nazis inflicted on Europe. Apparently his work also included a snippet of the anthem of Soviet-ruled Ukraine.
The cancellation brings up the question of Tarm’s First Amendment rights, and whether they were violated. Given that Carnegie Hall is a private organization, a First Amendment claim probably would not work. The First Amendment only applies to the government and those representing the government. It does not apply to a private person or organization. Put in other words, a private person or organization cannot violate a person’s First Amendment rights. It is important for all artists to understand this distinction when seeking a venue to showcase their art. However, what if Carnegie Hall was a venue controlled by a government agency? Would Tarm have a violation of his First Amendment rights? It depends. Speech that is considered offensive is not protected by the First Amendment. But what is the definition of offensive? There is none. The courts have always been reluctant to define “offensive” because it recognizes that changing societal norms will have very different definitions of “offensive”. (Think Gone with the Wind and the controversy over the word “damn”. Now it is in practically every movie.) However, given the context of the snippet as part of a larger piece designed to remind people of the horrors that one group of people can inflict on another, it would be hard to argue that its inclusion meets the definition of “offensive”.
But the bigger question is whether Carnegie Hall was right in cancelling the performance without speaking with Tarm first. It appears that Carnegie Hall wanted to censor a piece of music because they disagreed with the composer’s choice…which is exactly what the Nazis and other totalitarian regimes did in Europe. I hope the powers-that-be at Carnegie Hall will realize this dark irony.