Contagious Harmony

Music Quickens Time
By Daniel Barenboim
Verso, 184 pages, $24.95

Daniel Barenboim, director of the Berlin Staatskapelle and a pianist whose recordings of Beethoven’s Sonatas have become a touchstone of their modern interpretation, has written a slim but substantial new volume that borrows (conveniently enough for the summarizing book reviewer) the sonata’s three-part structure of exposition, development and recapitulation—“not an epic narrative,” as Mr. Barenboim puts it, “but a dramatic juxtaposition.”

In the first three essays, Mr. Barenboim sets out his themes in the tonic key of philosophical speculation. “Sound and Thought,” “Listening and Hearing” and “Freedom of Thought and Interpretation,” as their titles suggest, deal in the phenomenological basics of sound in time, resting on the conclusion that music, as the combined experience of composer, conductor, performer and listener, represents the reconciliation of dialectical opposites: Intellect and emotion resolve into feeling. At its highest pitch, music marks finite mankind’s attempt to grasp the infinite.

Mr. Barenboim’s dominant-key variation transfers these ethereal notions into the harder-going territory of the Arab-Israeli conflict. “The Orchestra” tells the story of the West-Eastern Divan, a group of musicians convened by Mr. Barenboim and his late friend, the Columbia professor of literature Edward Said, with the intention of bringing young Arabs and Israelis together into a single orchestra that would stand as a symbol for the possibility of political reconciliation between Israel and its neighbors. For Mr. Barenboim, an Israeli who emigrated as a child from Argentina in the late 1950s, and Mr. Said, who was an outspoken and often controversial advocate of the cause of Palestinian statehood, the orchestra was a sublimation of an intense friendship based on a shared love of classical music (Mr. Said was a fine pianist) and wide-ranging erudition (Mr. Barenboim drops Spinoza’s name with a specialist’s ease).

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra performed their first concert in 1999 in Weimar, Germany, a city whose history encompasses the highs and lows of European history—“it was the cultural home of Goethe, Schiller, Bach and Liszt,” notes Mr. Barenboim, yet it lies only a few miles from Buchenwald.

In 2002 the orchestra moved to the Andalusian city of Seville, another symbolically charged location: Andalusian culture was shaped by seven centuries of unprecedented co-existence between Jews, Muslims and Christians, and the orchestra’s residence there was a statement of perseverance in the hope of unity. Meanwhile, back in Israel and the occupied territories, the second intifada gathered in intensity.

By 2005, West-Eastern Divan had gained enough prestige and cohesion to attempt the impossible: to perform as an orchestra of Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese, Syrians, Egyptians, Spaniards and Israelis in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Here Mr. Barenboim’s narrative becomes truly riveting, dismissing in the process any doubts the reader could have about the potential for cultural exchange to grease the wheels of cooperation in even the most intractable of political circumstances. Israeli law prohibited its citizens from entering Palestinian territory, and Lebanese and Syrian law forbade their citizens from crossing through Israel, which would have been necessary to reach Ramallah. In an ingenious stroke of benevolence, the Spanish government agreed to issue Spanish diplomatic passports to every member of the West-Eastern Divan good for the duration of their trip. This is to say nothing of the security risk posed by the performance, or the anguish experienced by individual members of the orchestra at the prospect of passing through Israeli checkpoints, or being accompanied through the Ramallah by Palestinian guards.

Upon his arrival at the Tel Aviv airport in advance of the performance, Mr. Barenboim faced a group of the orchestra members’ parents, who were hardly all in favor of this adventure. “I tried to reason with all concerned,” writes Mr. Barenboim, “but what actually convinced them was the fact that my own son would be leading the orchestra. This was undoubtedly one of the most difficult moments of my life.”

 

IF THIS WERE a junky Hollywood movie, the West-Eastern Divan would have performed in Ramallah to unanimous acclaim for contributing in some small way to the future of a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But Mr. Barenboim, to his immense credit, harbors no illusions about the reception of the performance:

“Palestinian public reaction to the concert was divided between those who understood the depth of the message brought to them by the orchestra’s performance there—this was the great majority—and those who were blinded by the idea that this might represent a normalization of the situation; in other words, an acceptance of the occupation. The former saw our coming as a model of the equality that might be achieved between Israel and Palestine, as was expressed in the music-making of these young people—the latter, unfortunately, could not hear and see Israelis and Palestinians playing together as long as Israeli tanks and soldiers were still present on the outskirts of Ramallah.”

Having orchestrated this tension, Music Quickens Time returns in the essay “Finale” to a restatement of theme of the first three essays, only now its essence has become apparent. The reconciliation of opposites really means a sustained counterpoint of distinct elements: In politics as in music, always choose dialogue over isolation.

Perhaps it’s his long experience as a conductor—as a musical diplomat negotiating and reconciling so many individual understandings of the same score into a harmonious whole—that allows Daniel Barenboim to navigate matters of utmost delicacy with firmly convincing tact.

Damian Da Costa is on the staff of The Observer. He can be reached at ddacosta@observer.com.

Contagious Harmony