Daniel in the lion’s den

Daniel Barenboim

Through the wonders of podcasting, I was able to listen to Daniel Barenboim’s forth Reith lecture on a plane back from Sydney to Melbourne last night. This was the forth of his Reith lectures in which he talks about the marvelous “West Eastern Divan” initiative he took with Edward Said to set up an orchestra of Palestinians and Israeli musicians. He stressed that, in Said’s words the initiative was humanitarian rather than political. But nor did he shy away from its political overtones. From the transcript.

Thank you very much. Edward Said said that music is a little bit subversive. That too of course speaks about how we perceive it, and not about the music itself. But he was unquestionably right. In music, different notes and voices meet, link to each other, either in joint expression or in counterpoint, which means exactly that – counter point, or another point. And yet the two fit together. Please allow me to give you some very simple, simplistic I would say, er examples of what I mean. The slow movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique sonata – which I am sure many of you have heard many times and some of you probably even played – is a relatively simple melody.

(PLAYS FEW BARS OF SONATA)

Etc. When we examine it a little bit more closely we see that obviously there is a main voice that sinks its way through the whole passage”¦

(PLAYS FEW NOTES)

And the bass accompanies it, in the best sense of the word – not in a situation where he, the bass is only following, but having its own to say, and goes up when the melody goes down, and opposite”¦

(PLAYS FEW NOTES)

thereby influencing each other. And there is still the middle voice that gives a sense of continuity, of fluidity.

(PLAYS FEW NOTES)

This is relatively a simple example. I can give you one more perhaps which might be of use for us later, and that is the last prelude of the first book of Bach’s Well Tempered Klavier.

(PLAYS FEW NOTES OF PRELUDE)

There the main voice is less obvious, because it could be:

(PLAYS FEW NOTES)

that, or it could be:

(PLAYS FEW NOTES)

with all sorts of possibilities.

But you see in all that, that in music there is a hierarchy, a hierarchy if you want with equality. And that is what of course is much easier than in life. How difficult it is to achieve equality and yet to find a hierarchy. In times of totalitarian or autocratic rule, music, indeed culture in general, is often the only avenue of independent thought. It is the only way people can meet as equals, and exchange ideas. Culture then becomes primarily the voice of the oppressed, and it takes over from politics as a driving force for change. Think of how often, in societies suffering from political oppression, or from a vacuum in leadership, culture took a dynamic lead. We have many extraordinary examples of this phenomenon. Some is that writings in the former Eastern Bloc, South African poetry and drama under apartheid, and of course Palestinian literature amidst so much conflict.

Then Barenboim says a lovely thing.

Now, when you play music, whether you play chamber music or you play in an orchestra, you have to do two very important things and do them simultaneously. You have to be able to express yourself, otherwise you are not contributing to the musical experience, but at the same time it is imperative that you listen to the other. You have to understand what the other is doing. And the other may be doing the same as you, if he is sitting next to you if you’re a string player, or he may play a different instrument and be in counterpoint to what you are doing. But in all cases it is impossible to play intelligently in an orchestra concentrating only on one of those two things. If you concentrate only on what you do, you might play very well but might play so loud that you cover the others, or so soft that you are not heard. And of course you cannot play only by listening, but the art of playing music is the art of simultaneous playing and listening. In other words, one enhances the other. And this is the main reason we started this workshop.

So I commend the lecture to you.

Now as I’ve observed, the BBC is better in theory than the ABC in its commitment to publicly owned agencies making public goods available publicly but as it turns out much worse in practice, only posting mp3 files for one week (as opposed to Aunty’s 4 weeks). So I’ve posted the file which is no longer available on another website and you can download it here.

Sadly, despite Barenboim’s insistence that the politics was both integral but also in an important sense only a byproduct of the humanitarian aspect of this project, all his questioners seem uneasy with this sort of politics. They clearly think it’s a bit effete underestimates the difficulties of their lives etc. I found the questions intensely irritating not out of lack of sympathy for the situation of the people, but simply because Barenboim can do what he bloody well likes and what he is doing should be appreciated (or not) for what it is, not for what it is not. But of course with the self importance of those who deem a particular kind of politics to be more important than other kinds, the questions keep rolling. Barenboim’s polite, firm and dignified responses to these questions were lovely to hear. This was a highlight of the questions and answers.

DR MAMDOUH AKER:
My name is er Mamdo Hakar, I am a physician, a Palestinian physician and surgeon. I’m very glad Daniel that you mentioned Mahmoud Dalwish in your er lecture. Just last week Mahmoud Dalwish and I were talking about the harsh reality we are facing as Palestinians. Maybe I need just to mention to you that to be here, it took me honestly two hours to get from Ramallah to here, in spite of ha, having all the necessary credentials, but what actually, what Dalwish was saying is that now am I, within all this er reality, focusing on culture is our chance to keep floating – this is exactly what he said – to keep floating in this world. Can music go to the open air and be a cry for justice and freedom, liberty, equality and fraternity as you mention? Why not to perform in the open air in front of the wall, not to make a political statement but at least to show the ugliness of the situation – can this happen?

DANIEL BARENBOIM:
Why not? Please, I, I mean I rather wish there were no wall and this would not be necessary, but since the wall is here, why not?

DR MAMDOUH AKER:
That’s true.

DANIEL BARENBOIM:
But you have noticed I am sure that I have refrained from voicing too much criticism if you want er of the Israeli side today here, and if I have done so it is only because it would be very easy success for me here. I’d rather do that in Israel proper. I have never spoken a critical word about Israel in Ramallah, and I have no intention of doing it here today – not because I have nothing to criticise, I have been very vocal about this on many occasions all over the world. But allow me just only one sentence. One of the most important things in my view is it is imperative that a situation is brought about where the legitimacy of the Palestinian narration is accepted by Israel, its politicians and all its citizens. This has to be the first step. Until that moment has come, nothing will be real. And this is exceptionally important.

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Patrick
Patrick
15 years ago

the legitimacy of the Palestinian narration

I would like to see a legitimate Palestinian narrative, too.

Gaby
Gaby
15 years ago

Interesting post Nicholas. Thanks. I’ll definitely have a listen. I’d read about this prjoint project of Said and Barenboim’s.

Being a non-musician but a keen listener, I find it fascinating to read or hear about the process of music making. I thoroughly enjoyed the aspects of Vikram Seth’s novel “An Equal Music” on the musicianship within a string quartet.

I think you accurately characterized DB’s response to a somewhat strident questions: “polite, firm and dignified”. Very like the first movement of the Pathetique sonata…(I want to say main theme, but I’m not sure I am recalling it correctly…)

Gaby
Gaby
15 years ago

PS What I intended was the “grave” introduction to the first movement.

You can listen to the first, and the exquisite adagio second, movements on Wikipedia here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_Sonata_No._8_%28Beethoven%29