Daniel Barenboim at the BBC Proms

This blog is all about conversations. And it was a conversation during the working day today – in my day job in a museum – when one of our volunteers, Rosemarie, told me I needed to listen to Daniel Barenboim‘s speech at the BBC Proms. I’m known for my views about, and engagement with, Europe as well as my belief that creativity and the arts can help overcome populism and nationalism, and Rosemarie couldn’t wait to tell me more about what Barenboim had said.

The BBC Proms, in the Royal Albert Hall are, of course, a very British institution. The Last Night is famous for its exuberant flag waving, as the Prommers are given permission to sing Land of Hope and Glory, Jerusalem, and other proudly British anthems, without the accusation of jingoism marring their fun. Although it is still a long way until the Last Night, Barenboim was conducting  the Staatskappelle Berlin in playing Elgar – the Second Symphony.

In the midst of this performance, he chose to make a speech which has, in turn, been widely reported today. Widely reported, and repeated to me in the office, because his words have a real resonance for anyone looking for European positivity…

“That’s why I say it’s not political but that it is of human concern. And if you look at the difficulties that the European continent is going through now, you can see that, why that it is, because of the lack of common education. Because in one country they do not know why they should belong to something that the other countries do. And I’m not talking about this country now, I’ll come to that. I’m talking in general. You know our profession, the musical profession, is the only one, that is not national. No German musician will tell you – ‘I am a German music and I will only play Brahms, Schumann and Beethoven’

We had very good proof of it tonight. If – let me stay out of Great Britain – if a French citizen wants to learn Goethe he must have a translation. But he doesn’t need a translation for the Beethoven symphonies. This is important. This is why music is so important. And this isolationist tendencies and nationalism in its very narrow sense, is something that is very dangerous and can only be fought with a real great accent on the education of the new generation. We are probably too old for that. But the new generation need to understand that Greece and Germany and France and Denmark all have something in common, called European culture.

Not only Europe. Culture. This is the most important thing. And of course in this cultural community called Europe there is a place for diverse cultures. For different cultures. For different ways of looking at things. But this can only be done with education.”

Barenboim, from Argentina, who lived in Israel and in the UK, understands how to cross boundaries and borders. Perhaps this is what makes him such a well-loved musician and conductor: music does not respect borders. Not just music, of course. The visual arts, dance, drama, even literature, have the ability to cross borders and unite us. But perhaps music is the most visceral, the most accessible. We feel music as much as we hear it. We hear it even when we don’t actively choose to. Music insinuates itself into our consciousness before we know anything about who composed it, which country it is from and if there is any meaning in it.

Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin really brought out the emotional honesty and depths of Elgar’s work. After his speech, he conducted the orchestra in Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March no. 1 – better known to most Brits as ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ – and it was a moving spectacle to see a Argentinian conductor leading a German orchestra in this most English of patriotic songs. The words of the song – written by A. C. Benson in 1902 – speak of hope and glory, pride and truth, of a great British history. The imperial overtones are intensely troubling, but it is ultimately an optimistic song. It felt almost ironic to hear those words in my head as the orchestra played, at a time when Britain seems to be getting smaller, less glorious then ever, and with less hope.

I wanted to use a post to feature Barenboim’s words, letting them stand as they are with little comment, because I believe he expressed a fundamental truth, which is linked to the themes of this blog. My very first interview was with a musician, whose political comments drew my attention because they were so universal and relatable. These are the conversations about Europe I believe we all need to be having. Barenboim stresses a focus on people, on shared humanity, rather than politics. Of course the politics are important. But humanity is greater than political developments. We are all European together. We should celebrate this, embrace it and enjoy the diversity of the people who come together under the European umbrella. We truly are united in diversity, as the EU motto goes. And sometimes stressing the unity helps too. It is in our shared humanity, so well expressed through the arts – especially music – that we can remain connected and find hope for our European future.

It has been controversial. The Spectator said it was too political for the Proms. But what better platform than a celebration of music, the most international language of all? Barenboim was not political. His was a plea for unity and humanity.

Read the more favourable Guardian article on Barenboim’s speech here.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Monika Cenarska says:

    This is why I love music – because it has no borders. Invariably I find that musicians are always those more humane in any gatheeing, and often most empathetic.
    However even among musicians Daniel Baremboim is more humane, more eloquent and more diplomatic than others. Maybe I’m biased by his performances!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Totally agree. I think musicians – and creative people generally – are often very empathetic. Barenboim is fabulous. I began this blog when I was inspired by chats with Thomas Gansch, an Austrian trumpet player and composer – see Conversation #1 – so in some ways I started this because of how musicians see the world. I’m a writer myself, trying to be a musician, but I think the arts have a lot in common. Music crosses boundaries better than any other medium though 🙂


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