More Biebls in the Classroom

Does the First Amendment need protection from itself? A case from Washington State, although just rejected by the Supreme Court, suggests it might: Franz Biebl, a perfectly pleasant Bavarian composer, has been banned there, in Snohomish County. Worse, it was Biebl’s most popular work, his setting of “Ave Maria,” that was expelled from Henry “Scoop” Jackson High School.
To set the stage, understand that the Biebl Ave Maria is something of a “greatest hit” for choral societies, at least in the United States. Initially launched in the States by the Cornell Glee Club, it has been a major recording success for San Francisco-based Chanticleer (a perfectly secular men’s chorus), recently featured in the 150-year anniversary program for the University of Michigan Glee Club, and is all over YouTube — mainstream stuff.

Only Scoop Jackson High seems to have a problem. Overly pious secularists have, at previous commencement ceremonies, complained about the presence of religious (in this case, Christian) words and phrases in the texts of music. When the graduating members of the Jackson woodwind ensemble chose the Biebl composition to perform as their contribution to the 2006 ceremony, the school authorities clamped down: too religious (even without the lyrics, since their Latin text would be published) — or, at least, too much the appearance of something that someone in the audience might perceive as religious.
The ensemble caved and instead played a movement from Holst’s Second Band Suite. The swap didn’t upset the balance of musical quality, but woodwinder Kathryn Nurre decided her rights had been violated — and sued. Nurre got all the way to the Supreme Court, which didn’t want to hear her case (only one justice wanted to take it).
The legal issues, bearing on both freedom of expression and religious freedom, are quite interesting, and Nat Hentoff did an excellent write-up of the case in his syndicated column. But what about the aesthetic and cultural implications of this censorship by Snohomish County school authorities?
The problem is that Biebl’s “Ave Maria” was weeded out of the commencement program on supposedly religious (or anti-religious) grounds, albeit grounds predicated on the expectation of audience complaints. (There is no indication a security threat was feared, as if the secular humanists might storm the stage and seize the oboist.) Only late in the game did the school district e-mail principals insisting on “purely secular” commencement music.
The move is superficially innocuous, but if thought through (which the district apparently didn’t) it would have heinous consequences. What music is purely secular? If anything with a religious text is out, then Handel Oratorios, Bach Passions, all the requiems (Mozart, Verdi, Berlioz, Brahms, Faure, et al.) are disallowed, along with excerpts therefrom, even in instrumental transcriptions. Bernstein’s Mass and “Kaddish” symphony are out. Haydn’s “Creation” would be slashed. Spirituals couldn’t be performed, and lots of Motown would be banned. If we combed through every instance of music that includes a reference to God or has a hint of Jesus in it, Western music would be slashed to a pitiful trickle. Might someone even suggest the Goldberg Variations could be “too Jewish”? They certainly sound suspicious.
Considerations of sheer ignorance aside, to ask these questions is to point out the idiocy of what the Snohomish schools have done. If even a piece like the Biebl, which has proven its secular appeal (it’s darn good), is deemed too touchy for the modern sensibilities of government schools, a vast swath of Western culture has to be thrown out as well. It is rather like teaching the Middle Ages without the Crusades, or the story of Anne Frank without mentioning that she was Jewish.
The notion that First Amendment purity demands censoring some of the greatest achievements of western civilization is noxious. Biebl and Bach certainly don’t interfere with our free exercise of religion. Yet Washington State school authorities likely banned Biebl because they are cowed into secular correctness by a radical minority that displays an ironically religious zeal in pushing for freedom from, rather than of, religion. And if the First Amendment suffers, well, that’s collateral damage.
This secular sanitization of so much modern schooling falsifies history and elevates mediocrity over greatness. Dogmatic secularists seem to share with extreme creationists an inability to handle common sense and moderation. And while the issue of student rights is important, it can’t — and mustn’t — justify the trashing of our cultural heritage.


  • George A. Pieler

    George A. Pieler is an attorney and former classical DJ for WPRB, Princeton. Jens F. Laurson is editor-at-large of the International Affairs Forum and critic-at-large for Classical WETA, Washington, D.C.

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