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How Toronto Symphony board and musicians' union caved to American paranoia

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The TSO and music director Luigi von Kunits at Massey Hall, 25 years before the Red Scare (Toronto Public Library archives photo).

It’s easy to think that current U.S. border-crossing issues are something new. But today’s terrorist threat is yesterday’s communist menace. Paranoia is the ultimate shape-shifter.

Unfortunately, it’s too easy to give in to that paranoia, especially if pride and money have something to do with it.

That’s the lesson I get from a fascinating article published yesterday by the Torontoist, where Kevin Plummer takes us through the story of the “Symphony Six,” a half dozen members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra who were denied work permits in the United States in 1951.

There were no specific reasons given for the denied entry, but people assumed it was because of real or imagined associations with socialist organizations.

Because the Symphony and its music director, Ernest MacMillan, were interested in raising their international profile, the organization found six replacements for the tour. The six banned players discovered the following season that their contracts would not be renewed.

Here’s the part that really gets me:

The local union, the Toronto Musicians’ Association (TMA) agreed with the TSO in seeing the ability to tour as a contractual obligation that these six had not fulfilled. TMA president Walter Murdoch insisted that his union’s position had nothing to do with politics. “It is a straight contractual matter,” TMA president Walter Murdoch argued. “The Federation has always been keen on keeping contracts, but there is nothing wrong in the orchestra’s not rehiring musicians.” Appeals to the union’s parent organization, the American Federation of Musicians, were rebuffed because the federation forbade membership to Communists and sympathizers.

The Symphony Six also appealed to the local Civil Liberties Association and the City’s board of control for support. There was initially a loud outcry in the press and community, with the story making front-page headlines across the country. The press questioned why the TSO had not simply cancelled the entire tour, as Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra had done when a few of its musicians were denied entry by American immigration officials. Reporters asked why the federal government had not intervened with American authorities in November 1951. Globe and Mail critic Langford Dixon defended the six so vehemently that it led to his dismissal from the paper, according to Scher. And journalists claimed that the orchestra was putting money above the art of music. The United Church pressed the TSO to reconsider their decision.

Within the TSO board, Harry Freedman—also a member of the TMA board—argued: “Everybody was so afraid of standing up because they thought they’d be smeared with the same brush.”

“I was so sick of the whole thing and was so disgusted with Sir Ernest MacMillan, the conductor, for not standing up for the members of the orchestra,” Freedman added. “He could have been a real national hero at the time if he’d simply said, ‘If these people are not allowed to go into the States then the orchestra is not going. Period.” But Freedman too gave in to the pressure of the time and eventually voted to support the musician union’s passivity.

Two prominent TSO board members resigned; 31 subscribers cited the controversy in cancelling their TSO subscriptions.

There was, however, also a significant backlash against the Symphony Six and their supporters. When sympathetic artists, musicians, and writers—the Assembly for Canadian Arts—planned a rally at the Arts and Letters Club on May 29, the TMA responded by vocally forbidding its membership from attending. On the day of the meeting, the TMA even posted members outside the event to intimidate members from entering. As a result, few musicians attended. The Telegram characterized it as a “communist meeting.” But, in the Globe and Mail, the organizers denied being a Red front.

It’s ridiculous, right? But isn’t it conceivable that this sort of situation could arise again?

You can read the whole article here.

(Thanks to Greg Oh for pointing me to the article.)

John Terauds

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