Should an artist have to explain his work?

A kerfuffle in the world of classical music is testing the parameters of artistic freedom.

Jonas Tarm, a 21-year-old junior at the New England Conservatory of Music, was to have his commissioned work played Sunday by the New York Youth Symphony. It won’t happen, however, because Tarm has refused to explain why he included a segment of the Nazi anthem “Horst-Wessel-Lied” in his work, “March to Oblivion.”

“I strongly believe in Gustav Mahler’s quote — that if a composer could say what he wanted to say in words, he wouldn’t bother writing the music,” the composer told the New York Times this week, then said it’s about totalitarianism.

“We believe deeply in a free creative process. But along with freedom comes responsibility, even more so when young people are involved. We continue to be committed to champion new young composers through our ground-breaking First Music composition program, which has commissioned over 137 composers since 1984. We are proud that First Music commission winners have been recognized by the Rome Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and Guggenheim Fellowship,” Shauna Quill, the executive director of the orchestra, said.

Here’s her full statement..

Ed Siegel, the art critic and reviewer at Boston’s WBUR, isn’t buying it.

In his commentary today, he says the move is another attempt to “to coddle students and audiences from having to encounter anything they might find distasteful.”

It is no doubt difficult for Jewish musicians, in particular, to play “Horst Vessel” no matter what the context. It wasn’t easy for me to read the descriptions of Fagin in Dickens but I’m certainly glad that the coddlers and censors weren’t around in the ’60s to keep it off the curriculum.

Not that Tarm belongs in that Dickensian context. Probably more like Kander-Ebb. The most chilling moment in their musical, “Cabaret,” was the moment the young innocent-looking lad started singing, “The sun on the meadow is summery warm. The stag in the Forest runs free.” It then turns into the Nazi anthem, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” as the good Germans all join in.

Should high school students not be exposed to “Cabaret”? Should high schools not perform it? Should John Kander and Fred Ebb, the composers, have been made to explain the context?

The New York Youth Symphony should declare victory and bring back Tarm’s piece. They could easily say that Tarm has now provided the context they were looking for by talking about totalitarianism.

NPR says the program notes for the piece also contained five lines of poetry.

Between the conception

And the creation

Between the emotion

And the response

Falls the Shadow

It’s from The Hollow Men by T.S. Eliot, an anti-Semite.