Ideas, Appassionato

Daniel Barenboim's Norton Lectures ranged from the pianoforte to Palestine

Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, whose members are young Israeli and Arab musicians.Photograph by Alonso Gonzalez/Rueuters/CORBIS

Daniel Barenboim’s prodigious musical career has generated both acclaim and controversy. In September, the pianist and conductor joined the prestigious list of musicians—including Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, John Cage, and Luciano Berio—who have been Charles Eliot Norton professors of poetry at Harvard. In his six Norton lectures on “Sound and Thought,” Barenboim won applause and did not shy away from defending some of his controversial decisions and activities—conducting the first performances of Wagner’s music in Israel in more than 60 years, for example, and creating with his friend Edward Said, the late critic, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, made up of young Israeli and Arab musicians who rehearse and perform together (though not in all their countries of origin, including Israel).

A few weeks shy of his sixty-fourth birthday at the time of the lectures, Barenboim remains indefatigable. In addition to delivering the Nortons, he conducted a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony with the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra (“The best the orchestra has ever sounded,’’ a player told the Crimson, summing up the consensus), presided over a master class, and held formal and informal meetings with students—as well as playing three performances and an open rehearsal of the Schoenberg Piano Concerto and Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Despite this whirlwind, he seemed chagrined that he was unable to fulfill one part of his ambitious design for the Norton lectures. He began each session by playing four preludes and fugues from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, covering all of book I. He had wanted to add the corresponding 24 preludes and fugues from book II at the end of each lecture, but this wasn’t possible, he explained, because of the dining schedule in Memorial Hall. “I suppose if I did it,’’ he remarked, “we’d all be here until breakfast.’’

Barenboim’s playing was generally magnificent, within the terms of his chosen style, which represents a form of transcription for the full resources of the nineteenth-century concert piano capable of imitating a full orchestra. The performances were notable for their internal balance, for their clarity, and for the color, emotion, and strength of characterization he brought to each voice in the counterpoint.

The playing served as a musical analogue to points the pianist made in his lectures, whose real subject was less ”Sound and Thought” than “Music and Life.” Music, for Barenboim, not only expresses what life is, but is also “an expression of what life could be or what it could become’’—not just a metaphor for life, but a model for it. Paradoxically, he said very little about actual pieces of music. Instead of resting on technical analysis, his argument pursued the phenomenology of sound and the perception of sound, the internal processes of the music, and what musicians must master in order to move music from page to performance.

For Barenboim, music presents an infinite range of simultaneous possibilities—“which we as finite human beings can use.’’ Much of it, like the Bach, also consists of independent voices, each with its own indispensable function in fulfilling a design and communicating a complex, multi-layered message, full of internal contradiction as well as internal harmony. A performer, particularly an instrumentalist in an orchestra, must assert his individuality while listening to others and realizing his or her place in the larger picture—and at the same time achieve a poise between discipline and passion.

Simultaneously, a musician must integrate the constantly shifting claims of rhythm, melody, harmony, volume, and tempo. “Conflict, difference of opinion, is the very essence of music…our capacity [as musicians] is to bring all the different elements together in a sense of a proportion so that they lead to a sense of the whole.” At another point, Barenboim compared orchestral performance to a “practical Utopia, from which we might learn about expressing ourselves freely and hearing one another.”

From this it was only a short step for Barenboim to discuss some of his controversial attitudes, decisions, and activities in the Middle East—views that arise from his understanding of how music functions.  He prefers to describe the West-Eastern Divan project not as political, but humanistic in intent. The purpose of the orchestra is to “fight ignorance on both sides; for each side to recognize the legitimacy of the narrative of the other…You cannot make music through politics, but perhaps you can give political thinking an example through music.’’

The audience, too, has obligations: to listen with informed attention, to exercise what Barenboim called “the moral responsibility of the ear.’’ He drew a distinction between hearing and listening: we can’t help listening because we don’t have earlids, but “hearing is listening with thought.’’ “The audience needs to concentrate as much, as exclusively and fully, on the music as the performer does.”

Overall, the lectures were intelligent, allusive, cosmopolitan (Barenboim was born in Argentina, grew up in Israel, and has lived most of his adult life in Europe and America), and mercifully short. But in addressing past controversies they stirred up a little controversy of their own. By contract, the Norton Lectures are supposed to represent new and previously unpublished material. But Barenboim simply spread out over six lectures the material he had already delivered earlier in the year in five presentations for the BBC’s equally prestigious Reith Lectures. Those are available on the Internet, so the Norton audience in Sanders Theatre and Paine Hall could print them out and follow them like a music-lover reading a score at a concert.

The intellectual range and articulate vigor of Barenboim’s previous writings made him a strong choice for the Norton post, and the things he has to say are important enough to say more than once. No one wanted or expected the leopard to change his spots, but he probably should have changed more of his words, and he will have to come up with something different when the lectures are published by Harvard University Press.

Barenboim followed his BBC lectures with question-and-answer sessions and repeated the strategy at Harvard, with less effective results. The BBC had selected many prominent and prepared respondents; the questions in Cambridge were often predictable (the new music question, the crisis-in-classical-music question, the Toscanini-versus-Furtwängler question, and, repeatedly, the Palestinian question).

But the answers did display the maestro in a more informal mode, with touches of wit and some interesting jagged edges. At points he was disarmingly modest. “A conductor can inspire, teach, and cajole,’’ he pointed out, but he does not produce the sound. Silently, Barenboim conducted the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. “Do you hear it?” he asked. “I don’t.” And he could make a joke at his own expense. “I was once a child prodigy,’’ he said. “The prodigy is gone, but the child has remained.’’

It was clear that although the United States has been a major arena for his career, he has never felt entirely at home here. Much of his second lecture was about the corruption of the ear through the omnipresence of music not meant to be listened to; he, for one, doesn’t want to be presented with the Brahms Violin Concerto in a hotel elevator, especially when he has to conduct that work later in the evening. Addressing a question about the problems of musical education in the United States, he grew angrier and angrier, saying that Americans live in a society without content and context, “an artificial world with artificial vegetables. Next to that, problems of musical education seem very small.”

Barenboim was at his best in a postludial meeting with music students after the lectures had been completed; the questions were sharper, the answers wider-ranging, more genial, and far more personal. He described his stay in Cambridge as “not just a teaching experience but a learning experience.’’

And it probably was. After one of the lectures, there was a question about the decision of the Deutsche Oper to cancel a production of Mozart’s opera Idomeneo because the stage director had created some images offensive to Muslims that had led to threats. Barenboim’s answer began with a remark that won him a laugh (“I am the music director of the other opera house [in Berlin]”). Then he became serious: “I don’t believe a performance should be canceled because it could be offensive to somebody not required by law to attend.”

And within a few days he had written an eloquent and thought-provoking response to the situation, drawing on the thinking in the Norton Lectures. It was widely published in the international press and declared, “Both political correctness and fundamentalism give answers not in order to further understanding, but in order to avoid questions.” Maybe, after all, the book of the Norton Lectures is something to look forward to.

~Richard Dyer


Richard Dyer, A. M. ’64, wrote about classical music for the Boston Globe for 33 years.

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