Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Forbidden Music

Well, its official – the folksong Beautiful Jasmine Flower is now being blocked by China’s internet firewall. According to the latest issue of the Economist, Googling the folk song’s name would now only produce an error message. As ridiculous as this sounds, this is all part of the Chinese dictatorship’s efforts to suppress any stirring of a Tunisian-style “jasmine revolution”.

Of course, throughout history, one sees dictators or dictatorships banning specific pieces of music, or certain types of music. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, the music of Chopin was banned. The Nazis also forbade what they refer to as Entartete Musik, or degenerate music. This included music or the composers of such music who did not fit inside the Nazi’s political world view. Music by Jewish composers like Felix Mendelssohn, Arnold Schoenberg, Franz Schreker, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Gustav Mahler were all banished from German concert halls and opera houses. Music with Jewish or African characteristics, like the music of Ernst Krenek, was also banned, as was music by composers of modernist music, such as Paul Hindemith, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. The Nazi applied similar criteria to visual artists, and considered certain art works Entartete Kunst.

In the Soviet Union, Stalin hated Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, wrote an article in Pravda stating his views, and hounded the composer for many years. Shostakovich only later redeemed himself in the eyes of the Party with his triumphant sounding fifth symphony. Throughout their lives, Shostakovich and Prokofiev had to walk the fine line between their creative impulses and not exceeding the aesthetic boundaries set by the Party. Shostakovich said that he always had a suitcase packed and ready, just in case he was going to be sent to the prison camp.

Back in China, all Western Classical music was banned during the Cultural Revolution, as being bourgeois. Even today, with the seemingly enormous numbers of musicians coming from China, the tradition of Classical music in China began actually relatively recently, and it will take many more generations before Classical music really become a part of people’s lives.

Any government that has to resort to controlling even art and music no longer has any legitimate claim to govern. The Nazis and the Soviets had come and gone, and the Chinese government is worried that their number may be up as well. It is indeed a sad state of affairs when a government has to worry about a syrupy little folksong inciting revolution.

I cannot help but wonder whether Puccini’s opera Turandot, which directly quotes Beautiful Jasmine Flower, is now banned in Chinese opera houses?

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