Commentary Magazine


“Bad Hijab”

On August 29 and 30, Germany’s Osnabrück Symphony Orchestra, led by the conductor Hermann Bäumer, performed much-publicized concerts in Tehran of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and Brahms’s Symphony No. 4. Described by one Osnabrück cultural official as a “very small step in improving relations between the people in the two countries,” the concerts also represent some curious cultural compromises.

In December 2005, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad officially banned “indecent and Western music” on state radio and TV. The Associated Press reported that the Osnabrück Symphony’s female musicians were forced to “wear headscarves” in Tehran. An informed article in the San Francisco Chronicle notes that the much-discussed hijab or chador can be seen as a symbol of patriarchal oppression.

Hundreds of Iranian women have been arrested for “bad hijab,” disobeying Islamic dress codes. In the “Islamic Republic of Fear” (as the Economist recently termed Iran), posters outside hospitals announce that women patients must wear the head-to-floor chador (not just the headscarf) in order to be examined by doctors. (Fortunately for the Osnabrück women musicians, the dress code for concerts is slightly less strict.)

The Associated Press also tells us about the works being performed by the Osnabrück musicians: “the program was submitted to Iranian authorities ahead of time.” Given Ahmadinejad’s calls for Israel to be “wiped off the map” and his statement that the Holocaust is merely a “myth,” it’s no surprise that the Osnabrück cultural honchos made sure no Mendelssohn, Mahler, or Bernstein sullied the program. But they scored a few points, if perhaps unintentionally: Edward Elgar, a staunch believer in the British Empire, could hardly be termed an advocate of Islamic revolution. And Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) was unsually philo-Semitic for his time and place, according to his biographer Jan Swafford: “Toward the end of his life,” Swafford observes, “responding to the anti-Semitism that had become endemic in Austrian politics, Brahms was heard to growl, ‘Next week I’m going to have myself circumcised!’”

Making political compromises for the sake of music has some precedent. In 1937-1938, Mozart’s Magic Flute was recorded in Nazi Germany by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Thomas Beecham. Nazi cultural officials rejected some of Beecham’s chosen star singers, like the Ukrainian Jewish bass Alexander Kipnis in the role of Sarastro; Austrian Jewish tenor Richard Tauber as Tamino; and Hungarian Jewish baritone Friedrich Schorr as the Speaker. Beecham acquiesced, and an all-Aryan cast made the recording, which remains in print even today. Before acquiescing, Maestro Bäumer—who has recorded a number of praiseworthy CD’s for prominent labels like BIS, including a lively program of British music for brass—really should have given this tour further thought.