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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Daniel Barenboim - Playing Politics

By Norman Lebrecht / December 3, 2003

The denazification of Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1945 is the subject of a stage and screen play under the title Taking Sides. In the movie, recently released, the ethereal, tremulous conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is seen struggling to convince a US Army interrogator that he had remained in Nazi Germany for principled reasons. ‘I am an artist and I believe in art,’ protested Furtwängler. ‘I insisted … on the absolute separation of art and politics.’

In the unforgiving gleam of hindsight, his defence seems disingenuous, even ridiculous. Under Hitler, the right to indifference was abolished. When millions were being deported and murdered in the name of national culture, artists were, in retrospect, morally obliged to know what was going on and to resist or be forever stained by their passive complicity. Furtwängler, by staying put, lent his prestige to Hitler's Reich.

Moral law is, however, elusive. A set of rules emerged from Nuremburg on the duty of soldiers and officials to refuse to obey a criminal order, but there is no code to guide artists on their response to inhumanity. The question of when an artist must engage in politics remains a painful, personal dilemma. It is an issue that preoccupies Daniel Barenboim, Israel’s most celebrated musician and its most vociferous critic. Last week, in a conversation with me in Berlin, he accused the Israeli government of behaving in a manner which was ‘morally abhorrent and strategically wrong’ and ‘putting in danger the very existence of the state of Israel.’

Barenboim has taken his opposition to Israeli policy to the front line, forming a youth orchestra from both sides of the conflict and teaching twice a year at a conservatory in Ramallah whose 800 students, he admits, are imbued with a hatred of Israel. He has been abused by Israeli politicians and pelted with vegetables in a Jerusalem restaurant. But the more he criticises Israel, the deeper his commitment grows. He buried his mother in Jerusalem and has bought a house in the disputed city. It is, he says, ‘the place ‘where I have the deepest sense of home’. In his moral handbook, there is no Furtwänglerian separation between art and politics.

Barenboim, as Furtwängler’s last protégé, is alert to his mentor’s predicament. In the summer of 1954, the 11 year-old Daniel auditioned for the old lion in Salzburg and was invited to play a concerto with his orchestra in Berlin. Seeking parental consent, he was told to refuse; it was too soon for a Jew to be playing in Hitler’s heartland. Half a century on, he sees things differently, arguing that moral principle must move with the times. ‘Certain things might appear to be right at a given moment but, as time moves along, they change,’ he reflects. ‘Furtwängler’s argument was sincere but, from today’s perspective, wrong.’

A personal parallel comes into play. Barenboim, now 61, says he was unaware while growing up in Tel Aviv that Palestinian refugees were living a few miles across the border in appalling squalor. ‘Even today,’ he insists, ‘people in Tel Aviv never see a Palestinian.’ In 1967 he gave a victory concert, celebrating Israel’s third defeat of Arab armies. He continues to consider himself a Zionist, in the sense that ‘I believe the creation of the state of Israel was justified, the partition of Palestine in 1948 was justified.’

His criticism arises from Israel’s prolonged occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and its subjugation of the Palestinians. ‘It is time that this conflict was treated from the point of view not of nationalism but of social justice,’ he argues. ‘It calls for a big symbolic gesture – for Israeli leaders to accept that, maybe, the Palestinians paid a price for the creation of our state. That sentiment has not come from their lips. Israel should suggest that Palestine should be born on 15 May, the date of its own creation. That symbolic act would reduce the roots of tension.’

The urgency of his engagement is unmistakable. Other Israeli artists have made careers in Europe and the US by turning their backs on the conflict, assuming a cloak of political neutrality. Barenboim, by far the most gifted musician of his generation, has refused to shirk moral responsibility wherever he goes. In Berlin, where he has headed the State Opera on Unter den Linden since 1992, he is the foremost defender of former East German companies from the ravages of western triumphalism. Time and again he has fought off attempts to merge his totemic, vibrant house with the slab-faced Deutsche Oper of West Berlin. The city, which is six billion Euros in the red, sustains three opera houses and seven orchestras. Barenboim argues for their continued retention on the grounds that their visible differences can help reconcile the bitter traumas of reunification. ‘The Germans don’t know what a capital is,’ he sighs. ‘Berlin was only ever a capital under Bismarck and Hitler. That makes them uneasy. But it is now the only example of a city which is cultural on both sides, the only place where you can bring the two together. Instead, they want to make another Frankfurt.’

He has made many enemies, exposing old prejudices with the vehemence of his convictions. A Berlin senator disparaged him as ‘the Jew Barenboim’. At the Deutsche Oper, the conductor Christian Thielemann is alleged to have referred to him in uglier racial terms, an allegation that is being contested in court. Barenboim shrinks from none of these confrontations. ‘Antisemitism is an illness,’ he says. ‘Some people set out by being anti-Israeli as a cover for their antisemitism. People who see faults in Israel’s present policy cannot be accused of being antisemitic, but I have met many such people who are.’

Music, he believes, has a meaning that cannot be expressed in words, ‘and that is its humanity’. It is a musician’s obligation to apply that humanity wherever it is most needed – whether in relation to the Iraq war (which he opposed) or to vulnerable sections of the community. In contrast to most cultural organisations, he has focussed the educational programme at his opera house on work with hyperactive children – intensive, therapeutic activity with few rewards from cooing politicians.

He could step back, at 61, and enjoy a relaxing twilight of guest performances, but I do not get the impression that Daniel Barenboim is ready to give up. His impetus is the urge to show solidarity with the people he leads and the place where he belongs. He now accepts that Furtwängler was morally in the wrong, but there is one line in the old man’s defence with which Barenboim must concur. ‘I believed,’ said the embattled conductor, ‘that my place was with my people.’

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001