Daniel Barenboim: Music as Healing Force for Peace in Middle East

Since 1999, Daniel Barenboim, music director of the Chicago Symphony, has engaged in a courageous, visionary quest to show that music can provide the bridge among the warring peoples of the Middle East. In truth, the inspiration for Barenboim’s quest came from Edward Said, who describes in Bonding across Cultural Boundaries how he met Barenboim at a London party and, after screwing up his courage, invited him to a late night dinner at a nearby Middle Eastern restaurant where they bonded deeply both as friends and as artistic and political collaborators. So began a remarkable friendship between Jew and Arab Christian and musician and literary critic.

The two first spoke together publicly at a 1995 Columbia University conference on the music and politics of Wagner. The interchange was so successful and stimulating that they continued by recording private conversations and eventually delivered a series of public talks at Carnegie Hall. They then decided to redact all of this material into a book, Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society. It is an impassioned discussion about politics and culture, the importance of a sense of place, the differences between writing prose and music, the difficulty of playing Wagner, the importance of great teachers, and the power of culture to transcend all national and political differences——something they both witnessed when they brought together young Arab and Israeli musicians to play at Weimar in 1999. Scott Simon interviewed Barenboim and Said together for NPR’s Weekend Edition (Parallels and Paradoxes NPR Weekend Edition interview) after the book came out.

Their first musical “collaboration” consisted of Said persuading Barenboim in 1999 to perform a recital at Bir Zeit University. It was an extraordinary musical, historical and political moment. In his Op-Ed article in the Times, Said notes that Barenboim’s was “the first recital ever at the [Bir Zeit] University and the first by an Israeli in Palestine.”

Barenboim performing at
Ramallah’s National Conservatory

The New York Times’ Serge Schmemann memorably chronicles in Moonlight and Mendelssohn in the West Bank a later performance by Barenboim at Ramallah’s Palestine National Conservatory:

The old Steinway grand had seen better days, but when Daniel Barenboim drew the first nostalgic notes of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata from it today, 200 neatly uniformed Palestinian students froze in delight.

Music, and especially music of this caliber from a live Israeli master, is not something that has often graced young lives more wrapped up in the daily misery of curfews, roadblocks, dangers and hatreds.

After closing the recital with a four-handed composition performed with a Palestinian pianist, Valdes asks Barenboim to explain his motivation for spearheading a musical project devoted to Mideast peace:

At the conclusion of that recital – believed to be the first in Palestinian territory by a Jewish artist since Yehudi Menuhin played there decades ago – Barenboim joined Arab pianist Saleem Abboud Ashkar in a round of four-hand Schubert. „I felt the need to stretch out my hand, to bring together people who are suffering such animosities,” Barenboim said at the time.

In a similar vein, Schmemann quotes Barenboim’s remarks to the Palestinian Conservatory audience:

“Each one of us has a responsibility to do what is right, and not to wait for others to do it,” he said. “My way is music. What I can do is play music, play music for you, and maybe this way, in a very small way for these few moments, we are able to build down the hatred that is so much in the region.”

In a later interview with Schmemann, he expands upon his earlier statement:

“I’m not a politician,” he said. “I don’t have a plan to end the conflict. But I think the lesson we have to learn from the 20th century is that every human being — small, young as you or older like I — has to think of his responsibility as a human being and not always depend on the politicians and the governments.”

NPR’s Israel correspondent also covered Barenboim’s Palestine National Conservatory visit .

Barenboim and Said’s second collaboration was the West-Eastern-Divan Workshop. Here is how Said described its inception:

Daniel, Yo-Yo Ma and I convened a carefully selected group of 78 Arab and Israeli musicians aged 18 to 25 in Weimar, Germany, the European cultural capital in 1999. Even eight young Syrians turned up, along with Palestinians, Egyptians, Israeli, Arabs and Jews and Lebanese, complemented by 12 Germans.

Barenboim’s vision was for the musicians to live and play together and thus learn how to come to terms with each other’s musical, religious, national and political background. They have done so gloriously throughout Europe. Here is Said’s description of how things went for the young musicians:

During those three weeks, all sorts of surprising things happened: an Israeli soldier-cellist and a lissome Syrian violinist seemed to have fallen for each other, heated arguments about identity and politics dissolved into incredible ensemble playing and everyone was struck dumb with horror during a visit to nearby Buchenwald.

Lesley Valdes in Lessons in Harmony (Symphony, January/February 2000) adds further background to the development of the Diwan project:

Youth orchestras proliferate. But until the Divan, it is doubtful there had been one in which Arabs and Jews shared music stands, let alone dormitory rooms – as Barenboim insisted during this experiment in musical and extracurricular harmony. Divan players hailed from Israel (both Jews an Palestinians) and from nations with which the Jewish state has had essentially warring relations: Lebanon, Syria, Egypt. There were also students from Iraq, Tunisia, and Germany, and a few second-generation Middle-Easterners from the U.S.

Valdes quotes Said, who nicely summarizes what the Divan can and cannot do:

„This isn’t about politics, but about learning how to listen to each other and perhaps understand each other better, using our common language, which is music,” Said observed early in the festival. „We are not going to solve the political problems of what is really quite a small land, but we surely should not wait for the politicians before we ourselves can meet.” And, he added, „there is this parallel between life and music: that in an orchestra we have to listen not only to ourselves but to each other, constantly finding the way each passage connects and interrelates to what comes next and what has come before. „If only life followed the rules of an orchestra!” the humanist remarked with a sigh.

Truth be told, this is unfortunately a European venture, based in Europe. The plain sad fact is that this project could not be sustained today in any Middle Eastern country. But one hopes that sometime in the near future the Diwan will perform in all the major capitals of the Middle East.