the observer Sun 29 November 2009
At an age when he might enjoy putting his feet up, Daniel Barenboim is showing no signs of slowing down. The pianist, composer and Palestinian rights activist unites his diverse interests here. "I firmly believe it is impossible to speak about music," he states, before proving himself wrong by analysing it very effectively. He also firmly believes "there are no independent elements in music", and considering this mutual inclusivity prompts trenchant reflections on how humanity could learn to get along. Essays written over the past decade emphasise his thesis, with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra employed to illustrate how music can unite people across political and geographical boundaries.
the guardian Fri 22 August 2008
Many musicians don't like to speak about music, and as music is beyond words this often seems perfectly natural. Yet there are some who feel the urge to analyse and explain, and in the classical field most of them seem to be pianists: Artur Schnabel, Glenn Gould, Charles Rosen, Alfred Brendel, Daniel Barenboim ... Does the experience of playing the piano make them intellectual, or do they gravitate towards the piano because they're cerebral in the first place? The complex and self-sufficient nature of piano music may have something to do with it, and I've often suspected that, because the pianist's left and right hands play different music, the brain must develop unusual agility.
Daniel Barenboim is a musician who grafts intellectual curiosity on to a brightly burning talent which has brought him acclaim in every phase of his career. Unusually for those who swap the piano for the conductor's baton, he's returned in his 60s to the piano with majestic effect, as was shown by his recent cycle of Beethoven sonatas at the Festival Hall. His friend Edward Said wrote that Barenboim never seems to practise, but "does what he does as a matter of course". Driving with him to a performance of Berg's Wozzeck which Barenboim was to conduct, Said asked if he was nervous. "No, why should I be nervous?" replied Barenboim. "Let them be nervous!" To use Saint-Saëns's delightful phrase, he seems to produce music as an apple tree produces apples.
Far from being only an instinctive musician, however, Barenboim is also determined to analyse his talent. This is lucky for us, because we have the rare opportunity to hear how a master musician thinks. In Everything is Connected he emphasises that thought and study must go hand in hand with intuition. He's impatient with musicians "who fall prey to the superstitious belief that too thorough an analysis of a piece of music will destroy the intuitive quality and the freedom of their performance, mistaking knowledge for rigidity and forgetting that rational understanding is not only possible but absolutely necessary in order for the imagination to have free rein".
The link between understanding and freedom is a key to his thinking, much influenced by reading Spinoza as a teenager, and fuelled by lessons with Nadia Boulanger, who believed that "the ideal musician should think with the heart and feel with the intellect". He constantly refers to apparently opposing qualities which for him are constructive partners: choice and limitation, emotion and rationality, leading voices and subversive accompaniments. His love of opposites received further impetus from Edward Said, whom he praises for "his revelatory construct that parallels between ideas, topics and cultures can be of a paradoxical nature, not contradicting but enriching one another".
When Barenboim talks unscripted, as he did in his recent Reith Lectures, he doesn't always find his focus. But nearly all is well in this sequence of essays and interviews covering topics such as Sound and Thought, Listening and Hearing, Mozart, Schumann, Furtwängler and Israel. Some of the chapters are insubstantial or repetitive, but even so they're studded with unmissable insights, such as his remark that choosing the right tempo is the last decision a musician should take, not the first. Finding a tempo "requires an understanding of the relationship between space and time, or, in other words, the relationship between subject matter and speed". He also writes touchingly about the love between music and silence, for example at the opening of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde prelude where "the music does not begin with the move from the initial A to the F, but from the silence to the A". And he suggests that at the beginning of Beethoven's piano sonata opus 109, the pianist should feel that the music began earlier, "so that he creates an impression that he joins what has been in existence, albeit not in the physical world". Especially in part one, there is glorious evidence of what it's like to prepare for the performance of great music. He's inspiringly unapologetic about this, certain that spending one's life trying to illuminate the content of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart is still an important activity in the age of the fast-forward and the fundamentalist.
"The most talented musician in the world will not be able to analyse at first sight," he writes. "The first intuitive reaction was the beginning of a process, which has now become primarily rational and my main concern is to understand the anatomy of the piece, which is a condition for the ability to express its structure. I need to observe the relationships between all the different elements of the music. Having the structure in mind, though, is only part of the necessary path to a real understanding of the music. The next step is the result of knowing the material in the most detailed way, which allows me to relive the first encounter, this time, however, with a kind of conscious naïveté, which allows me to unfold the piece as if the music is being composed as I play it." Hearing this from the horse's mouth is immensely valuable.
At the heart of the book are his reflections on Israel and on the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, perhaps his most far-reaching achievement. The orchestra was founded by Barenboim and Said in 1999 with the aim of bringing young Arabs and Israelis closer together through music-making. It seems no accident that the idea came from two men so in tune with paradoxical affinities. Just assembling the members of the orchestra in one place has always presented enormous difficulties. But Barenboim has no truck with isolationism; Spinoza had explained that "belief in just one view can totally sap one's strength", and music has taught him that "there simply are no independent elements". He uses the analogy of musical structures such as fugue and sonata form to show that a voice which states a theme all by itself is never more than a transient phenomenon, always followed by counter-subjects, contrasting themes and developments, other voices with other things to say.
"Music could be a model for society," he writes. "It teaches us the importance of the interconnection between transparency, power and force." As his young Arabs and Israelis tackle great music, they discover that the Other is not a monster, but a vulnerable human being like themselves. This is no small revelation in a part of the world where opposing factions refuse to recognise one another's right to exist. To those who accuse him of being politically naive, Barenboim says, "I am not a political person ... humanity has always concerned me. In that sense I feel able and, as an artist, especially qualified to analyse the situation."
· Susan Tomes's A Musician's Alphabet is published by Faber