Just as I finished reading this book of essays by Daniel
Barenboim, newspaper headlines exploded with word of renewed and
terrible conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in the Gaza
Strip. That news made a sobering counterpoint to Barenboim’s
plea for mutual concessions, understanding and good will between
the two parties.
What can a musician, even a world-famous one like Barenboim,
contribute to the debate on this frightening problem?
First of all, Barenboim has done something concrete about it by
helping to organize an orchestra, the West-Eastern Divan, in which
young players from both sides meet, rehearse, work together and ---
perhaps --- begin to understand one another’s points of view.
Secondly, he has made an example of himself by accepting
Palestinian citizenship in addition to his own Jewish heritage.
Third, he has spoken out publicly for dialogue and mutual respect
in a situation to which he insists there is no military solution.
He insists, in that regard, that the Palestinians have a right to
an independent state of their own
Daniel Barenboim, known worldwide as a pianist and conductor, is
no dreamy-eyed do-gooder. He knows the depth of hatred that this
issue has generated. His book does not weave unrealistic fantasies
of optimism about a quick solution. He simply says --- over and
over --- that there has to be “give” on both sides,
there has to be understanding and accommodation, there somehow has
to be a beginning of trust, there has to be willingness to consider
the other side’s point of view.
And he thinks music can help. This unconventional idea will
probably amuse readers who fail to see the connection. Such people
will write Barenboim off as a man carried away by his love for the
music that defines his own life. For instance, he compares the two
opposing political positions to two subjects in a complex fugue.
Neither is independent of the other. Neither is more important than
the other. Yet they coexist in perfect synergy. Mastery of this
idea could help produce, he says, people “more apt to listen
to and understand several points of view at once.” Music, he
argues, might teach us all “the importance of the
interconnection between transparency, power and force.” In
music, as in life, he says, nothing is totally independent.
Everything is connected. It is at least a novel way of looking at
But this book is not just a political tract with musical
trimmings. There is a lot of thoughtful discussion of music and
musicians as well, though in those, his language can become opaque
and cliché-prone. There are discussions of Schumann and
Mozart. There are tributes to Pierre Boulez, Wilhelm Furtwangler,
and especially to the late writer, teacher and political activist
Edward Said, who was his partner in creating the West-Eastern Divan
project. About half of the book is made up of previously published
pieces culled from various sources. Some of these can stand on
their own literary feet apart from their sources, and some cannot.
But they are all thought-provoking.
He repeats and amplifies his well-known contention that banning
the music of Richard Wagner in Israel is a tragic and unnecessary
mistake. He details his reservations about the early music
movement’s pursuit of “historical” performance
practice. He takes up the cudgels in favor of close and attentive
listening to music rather than its use as mere background noise.
And he admits that writing about music is a near-impossible task,
because if we could express the essence of music in words, there
would be no need for the music. As one who has spent his life
writing about music, I second that motion.
Music, to Daniel Barenboim’s mind, is “the wisdom
that becomes audible to the thinking ear,” or a bit more
concisely “the idea written in sounds.” That’s
not a bad try at expressing the inexpressible. You may not agree
with everything Barenboim has to say, but writing like that will
make you think, and that’s a start --- in politics as in
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 7, 2011