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Daniel Barenboim’s music brings harmony

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Israeli composer Daniel Barenboim has devoted his life to reconciliation between Jews and Arabs, writes Simon Behrman
Issue 2001
Daniel Barenboim
Daniel Barenboim

Daniel Barenboim is recognised as one of the greatest pianists and conductors alive today. He started off as a child prodigy, playing his first concert at the age of seven in his hometown of Buenos Aires. At the age of ten, in 1952, his family emigrated to the new state of Israel.

But it was in Europe that he began to make his name, with great musicians such as the conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler hailing him as a “phenomenon”.

At the height of his youthful fame he married the equally gifted cellist, Jacqueline Du Pré.

Their wedding in Jerusalem was attended by the great and good of Israel including David Ben-Gurion, the founder of Israel.

For the last 15 years Barenboim has led two of the best musical organisations in the world, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin State Opera. And his career as a professional pianist has now lasted for over 50 years.

For most musicians of his talent and wealth, now would be the time to settle into a comfortable role as an elder statesman of music, touring the world playing the old warhorses of the classical repertoire.

But instead, Barenboim has engaged with one of the most controversial issues today, the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

This engagement began with a chance meeting in the early 1990s with the late Palestinian academic, Edward Said in a London hotel. Over the next ten years the two developed an intense friendship.

The intellectual fruits of that relationship can be enjoyed in the book Parallels And Paradoxes.

This is a record of conversations that range over many musical and political issues from questions of musical interpretation to the German composer Richard Wagner and anti-Semitism.

The central focus is on the cultural and political experience of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

But it was not in the character of either Barenboim or Said to merely talk about these issues.

So in 1999 they set up a summer music school in Weimar, Germany, for young musicians from Israel, Palestine and other Arab countries.

The success of this experiment led to the founding of a permanent ensemble, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. The orchestra has already toured Europe to great acclaim and even played a concert in Ramallah, Palestine.

This year Barenboim was invited to give the BBC Reith Lectures. As if to demonstrate the scope of his message, he delivered the five lectures in turn in London, Berlin, Chicago and in both Palestinian and Israeli parts of Jerusalem.

Beginning with a fascinating discussion of why something as abstract as organised sound can have such a powerful effect on us, he launched a vigorous attack on the commercialisation and debasement of music in today’s society.

In seeking to reclaim music as a medium through which to convey a depth of meaning and using musical metaphors, he described the aims of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

Life experience

He was very clear that it is not an attempt to try to use music to change or alter the political situation. One cannot reduce music to a political point of view, nor can music, however powerful it is, transform society.

Indeed he quotes the conductor Sergiu Celibidache who says that music doesn’t become anything, rather it is our life experience that can be transformed into music.

With this understanding Barenboim and the orchestra have avoided a romantic and unrealistic set of aims.

At most, Barenboim argues, it can teach Israelis and Arabs that if it is possible to make music together, which involves not just playing well but listening well too, it is possible to live together as well.

One of the fascinating aspects of the orchestra is that they argue and discuss politics and cultural identity as well as playing music.

And as one sees in the DVD documentary Knowledge Is The Beginning, these arguments can get very heated indeed.

Keep an eye out for the orchestra in the future. Barenboim has set up a conservatoire in Ramallah and is seeking out Arab music to play alongside the standard European repertoire.

Looking at the Middle East today it is very easy to feel depressed. It is clear that a lot more than music is needed there.

But Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan give meaning through music to the idea that it is possible for Jews and Arabs to live together and respect one another as equals.

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra concert in Ramallah is available on DVD and CD. To download Daniel Barenboim’s Reith Lectures go to


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