When music programming becomes morally fraught
Washington Post classical critic Anne Midgette writes today about the many worthy but little-known composers whose works may make it onto CD but rarely get programmed in concert. I had my own say about the legion of "unjustly neglected composers" a few blog entries ago. But the first two composer names in Midgette's articles reminded me of a different, more fraught dilemma music programmers for all media must face sooner or later.
"You may not have heard of Hans Gál," Midgette writes in her first sentence (actually, the WaPo leaves out the diacritical, but we at NEPR are rather persnickety about such things). I'd guess that's true of most listeners and readers, who can fill in the blanks on Wikipedia or on the official Hans Gál site. In very short, Gál (above left), an Austrian Jew who directed a conservatory in the German city of Mainz, was one of the composers whose works were banned by the Nazis when they took power in 1933. Luckier than many, Gál departed for Britain, where he taught at the Edinburgh Conservatory. A new series of recordings on the Avie label called "Kindred Spirits" has been pairing the Gál's Symphonies with those of another Austrian, Franz Schubert.
The next composer named by Midgette, Alfredo Casella, has also received some excellent new recordings lately, in this case from Naxos and Chandos. Again, for those not in the know, Casella (above right), a composer conductor and pianist, was one of the most all-around important and influential Italian musicians of the first half of the 20th century. He also preceded Arthur Fiedler as conductor of the Boston Pops! And, in the late 1930's, Casella openly supported Mussolini and fascism, a fact that remains true no many how many caveats (his wife was half-Jewish, he was politically naive, others did the same thing, he later saw the error of his ways) his supporters come up with.
You see where this is going. Whatever their relative merits as composers, programming the music of Hans Gál can be seen as morally redemptive, whereas programming Casella's music opens one to accusations of moral callousness or worse. (Several other names could be substituted for either, but we'll use Gál and Casella as our test cases at present.) So does that mean we should play Gál but not play Casella on WFCR?
Not necessarily, but the decision needs to be arrived at carefully and sensitively. However compelling his story, Gál's music doesn't exactly leap out of the speakers and grab you. While you want to be on his side, and it's great that his symphonies are being recorded, a programmer can fairly conclude that the time they would take up in our listeners' lives might more beneficially and enjoyably be taken up with something else. On the other hand, Casella may have been on the wrong side of history (not to mention human decency), but his music, which comes from an almost forty year span, has been revived by some presumably aware and sensitive musicians. And while his large output is inconsistent in quality, the best of it is very good music indeed, filled with energy, color and personality. Here, at last, is an "unjustly neglected" composer worth reviving. Yet to play his music without at least acknowledging his collaboration with fascism would be to ignore the elephant in the room. We don't have to harp on it. Just to point it out, allowing the listener to find out more, is sufficient. The same goes with morally suspect composers like Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss and performers like Herbert von Karajan and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. We don't have to bring their unsavory politics or sketchy pasts every time we play them. But any even brief bio has to take their dark sides into account. It's only fair to the Hans Gáls of music history, even if we're not going to play them that often.