The President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has decided to ban all Western music from his nation's state radio and TV stations. The website of the Supreme Cultural Revolutionary Council, of which Ahmadinejad is the head, explained that "blocking indecent and Western music from the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting is required."
Ahmadinejad isn't just banning Eminem, Fifty Cent, and Arnold Schönberg's Moses und Aron, which might be reasonable; nor banning the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Weber, which would be positively commendable. No, Ahmadinejad is banning Bach's St. Matthew Passion (obviously); Wagner's Tristan and Isolde; the wonderful songs of Harold Arlen, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and Jerome Kern. Also forbidden are Handel's endlessly diverting Concerti Grossi, Opus 6, Gabriel Fauré's chamber music, Eric Clapton's guitar, and Anton Bruckner's vast cathedrals of sound.
Equally outlawed are Schumann's Dichterliebe, Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, Lerner and Lowe's My Fair Lady, along with The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and the complete works of Lully, Couperin, and Rameau. No more will the music of Verdi, Tupac, and Petula Clark be heard in the land of the Islamic faithful. None of the feet of the true believers will tap to rap or dance to the ballets of Tschaikovsky. No one will sway to the beguiling Cole Porter when he begins the beguine; no one will be hypnotized by Ravel's Bolero. Out with Puccini, out with Irving Berlin -- who will care about the tear-jerking fate of Madame Butterfly, or the much happier one of the Annie who got her gun? No one in Iran will be allowed to.
This is not the first time that Western music has been banned by ideologues. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the same thing happened, where the mere playing of Brahms' Lullaby could land you in the unspeakable squalor of a "re-education" camp. Indeed, it is not the first time that Western music has been banned in Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini did the same thing during the 1979 revolution. Yet, to Khomeini's credit, he at least offered a semi-plausible reason for the ban, arguing that Western music was "intoxicating" -- a sure sign that he himself had felt its intoxicating power at some time in his life.
Is the ban on Western music merely the personal quirk of the extremely quirky Ahmadinejad, akin to the whims of old-fashioned Oriental potentates, or does it go deeper? The evidence, sadly, is that it does go much deeper.
Just this last November, the conductor of Tehran's symphony orchestra, Ali Rahbari, chose to perform Beethoven's Ninth Symphony over the course of several nights. The hall was said to be thronged with people who had not been permitted to hear a live performance of this piece since the 1979 revolution. Yet, according to reports, the mere playing of Beethoven's last symphony was enough to get many Islamic conservatives up in arms. Newspaper columnists attacked Ali Rahbari for "promoting Western values." Early in December, Ali Rahbari resigned his post and left Iran. No one knows when there will be another live performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony again in Iran, or even when people of Iran will be able to hear it on the radio.
It is remarkable how often real life ascends to the level of poetry and parable, as it has done in this case. There were many other great symphonies that Ali Rahbari could have played, but he chose the one that will forever be identified with precisely those "Western values" that we in the West have come to cherish the most -- a humanitarianism that embraces peoples of every color, of every creed, of every nation.
In the final movement of his last symphony, Beethoven did something he had never done before: he concluded the work with a vast choral setting of a poem. The poem was by the German author, Friedrich Schiller, and it is entitled "Ode To Joy," and it describes the "intoxicating" effect that joy has upon all living creatures, from lowly worms to the highest of seraphim. But its main focus is on the effect that joy has on human beings. Joy brings together those who are separated by all the various barriers that divide man from man. "All men will become brothers," the poem assures us, "whenever joy spreads her wings."
Note that Schiller does not say all Germans, or all Europeans, or all Christians, or all Westerners will become brothers -- when he says all men he means all men. He is preaching in his poem that doctrine of the brotherhood of the human race, and it is a brotherhood that transcends all ethnic, cultural, and religious divides. A intoxicating vision? Yes. But indecent? Who could possibly think such a message was indecent, except those who did not wish to see a world in which all men are brothers?
We know already how Ahmadinejad regards this "Western value" about the brotherhood of man. For him, there can be no brotherhood that includes Jews or other infidels. The only brotherhood he recognizes is that of the Islamic faithful -- a position that is all too obviously shared by many of his countrymen. Ahmadinejad, let us recall, was The People's Choice, though he was probably not the choice of those who crowded into the hall to hear Ali Rahbari's performances of the Beethoven Ninth for the last time.
Yet Beethoven's Ninth can never really be heard for the last time. Even if Ahmadinejad were to burn everything tape, or LP, or CD version of the Beethoven's Ninth; even if he made the mere listening to it punishable by death, he could still never drive it out of the minds of those who were lucky enough to have heard it even once. Beethoven, as if planning ahead for this contingency, made sure that the melody that accompanies Schiller's poem, one of the most famous melodies in the world, would be so simple and so memorable that, even after a single hearing, it would remain indelibly imprinted on the mind of the listener, never to be effaced or forgotten.
Let The Supreme Cultural Revolutionary Council do its worst; it can never hope to erase either Beethoven's sublime melody or the poetry of humanitarianism with which it will forever be associated. As long as men can hum to themselves, it will continue to stir men's souls and to elevate them above all the pettiness that divides us. It will remain long after Ahmadinejad has become merely a footnote in the history of our dark and troubled times.