Thursday, 26 July 2012

Barenboim’s band

Barenboim conducting the West-East Divan  at the Proms 

With the Olympics finally getting under way tomorrow night, it’s Barenboim conducting his West-Eastern Divan orchestra in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony at the Proms I’m interested in, more than the hype and razzmatazz in the Olympic stadium.

I first heard of this orchestra ten years ago, when I picked up a newly published book called Parallels and Paradoxes,* which had caught my eye in a bookshop in Perth, W. Australia. I read it almost at a sitting, on the banks of the Swan River, and have never forgotten the impact it made. The book is a series of conversations between the Israeli-born musician Daniel Barenboim and the Palestine-born critic and cultural commentator, Edward Said. Out of their friendship and the dialogue that flowed from it, Barenboim’s band was born.

When Said died, in September 2003, a radical Palestinian website published an obituary written by Barenboim:

Perhaps the first thing one remembers about Edward Said was his breadth of interest. He was not only at home in music, literature, philosophy, or the understanding of politics, but also he was one of those rare people who saw the connections and the parallels between different disciplines, because he had an unusual understanding of the human spirit, and of the human being, and he recognized that parallels and paradoxes are not contradictions.

Edward Said 1935-2003
Here Barenboim points at once to the central theme of their recently published book: that opposites can be reconciled, that people with different histories can be brought to understand and recognize each other:

Edward Said [EWS]: I don’t think it necessary that everyone should agree, as long as there’s a mutual acknowledgement that a different view exists. That’s the important thing. We must have respect for each other’s views and tolerate each other’s histories.

It was in this spirit that in 1999 Barenboim and Said together had founded the West-Eastern Divan Workshop, a forum for young Israeli and Arab musicians to learn about music and about each other. The name comes from Goethe’s celebrated collection of translations from Arabic poetry, Westöstlicher Diwan. Seeing the other side of an argument, indeed understanding the idea of the Other, is central to Said’s legacy, and in Parallels and Paradoxes, he and Barenboim argue about the apparent contradictions that surround their lives. By the end, they have resolved many of these through a shared world view (which Said describes as ‘secular humanism’) and a passionate commitment to the importance of human creativity, specifically in music and literature.

Parallels and Paradoxes is an important and rewarding book about the relationship between the arts and history, education and politics. It is also a record of a remarkable friendship. Because the conversations are transcribed with a minimum of editing or tidying the reader gets caught up to an unusual degree in the debates between two unlikely friends – the intuitive artist and the intellectual critic - throughout the six chapters of this book. These chapters discuss topics as broad as the Middle-East Peace Process and as specific as how an orchestral conductor interprets Beethoven’s one-word instruction ‘Crescendo’.

Barenboim asks, what is the difference between a politician and an artist? He argues that ‘a politician can only work and do good if he masters the art of compromise … whereas the artist’s expression is only determined by his total refusal to compromise in anything – the element of courage.’ Said agrees with him when he concludes that the Middle-East conflict will ‘not be solved only through political means, through economical means, or through arrangements. It requires the courage of everybody to use, as it were, artistic solutions.’ With the founding of the West-Eastern Divan Workshop conductor and critic practised what they preached.

The Divan began as an artistic, political and educational experiment, and it is revealing to compare Barenboim and Said defining education: 

DB: Education means preparing children for adult life; teaching them how to behave and what kind of individuals they want to be. Everything else is information and can be learned in a very simple way.

EWS: The purpose of education is not to accumulate facts or memorize the ‘correct’ answer, but rather to learn to think critically for oneself …. As a teacher, the thing I feel I can do the best is to have my students …declare their independence from me and go off on their own way.

However, it is their discussions about artistic creation and the parallels and paradoxes surrounding music and literature that really animate this book. For Said, ‘There’s no real equivalent of the performer in literature. Authors can read in public, but the logical aim of what we do is to produce silence – silent readings.’ Barenboim, by contrast, sees music as a way of defying silence and prolonging sound:

I see music, in many ways, as a defiance of physical laws – one of them is the relation to silence. The main difference between a Beethoven symphony and the sonnets of Shakespeare is that, although the words, as written in the book, are a notation of Shakespeare’s thoughts – in the same way that the score is nothing but a notation of what Beethoven imagined – the difference is that the thoughts existed in Shakespeare’s mind and in the reader’s mind. But in the Beethoven symphonies, there is the added element of actually bringing these sounds into the world: in other words, the sounds of the Fifth Symphony do not exist in the score.

As a teacher Barenboim believes the ‘most important thing is to explain to people what sound does. Why is it that there is an emotive quality to sound?’  He argues that ‘You have to understand, first of all, the physicality of how the sound of Beethoven’s Fifth really operates.’  Said draws a parallel with poetry: ‘If one considers poetry as requiring a particular kind of language, then it’s figured language, not ordinary prose.’ It will surprise some readers to discover that Said starts with a thoroughly formalist attitude: he describes ‘the poetic object’ as ‘a whole series of relationships, internal to the poem, which you need to understand before you can, if you will, “read it”’. He argues that the best kind of interpretation is ‘ to regard the text as the result of a series of decisions made by the composer, writer, or the poet, the result of which we get. And therefore, to read it, one must try to understand the process by which these notes or these words have gained a presence on the paper.’ The context of writing, for Said, is all-important:

When I am writing and lecturing about the works of the past, my main interest is to try to explain them and present them, as much as possible, as creations of their time … you read the texts in a historical context and understand the discipline of the language and its forms and its discourses.

This is the philological method underpinning all Said’s criticism, but his view of critical interpretation is neither purely formalist nor historicist:

What I think is also extremely important is to understand the interpreter’s role not just in the context of the original composer or poet but also of the performer and interpreter in the present …

The interpretive process, Said concludes, is ‘a dynamic one, which always requires a great deal of rational examination and isn’t a matter to be determined simply by feeling.’  Barenboim agrees, but only up to a point: ‘It’s not ethical’, he reminds his friend, ‘to make a crescendo only with your brain; your whole body has to be involved’.

So, listen to Barenboim conducting Beethoven’s 9th at the Proms; better still, watch him. You’ll see what he means.

Adrian Barlow

*Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society, by Daniel Barenboim and Edward W. Said.  (Bloomsbury, 2002)


Sunday, 1 July 2012


In St. Germain-en-Laye there’s a cheerful approximation of an English pub. It’s called The Bitter End, and serves Adnam’s Ale along with those other staples of any English bar: Leffe, Hoegaarden, Nastro Azzuro etc. BBC 1 is streamed to the TV, so that you can watch Wimbledon with an English commentary – or you could, if the sound weren’t turned right down. Somehow, though, it doesn’t quite feel like an English pub, not least because when I visit it I’m often the only Brit there. Perhaps it’s best summed up in Philip Larkin’s line: ‘A joyous shot at how things ought to be’.

I sit now at one end of The Bitter End, reading this weekend’s Le Figaro magazine, entitled ‘All you need is Londres’. I turn the pages with increasing amazement: is this really how the French see the English?

The cover is predictable enough: a clownish figure bedecked in the Union Jack and posing in front of a red telephone kiosk. He is about to tip his souvenir-stand bowler at the reader but remains slightly inscrutable behind his dark glasses – the sort Timmy Mallet used to wear on Wacaday. The headline itself is an affectionate nod towards that other great British icon, John Lennon.

The articles within open up for Le Figaro’s readers an England I scarcely recognize, but one presumably meant to demonstrate that the best things across the Channel are, well, French. There’s an article about Arsène Wenger, ‘le plus anglais des entraineurs français’ and a special feature on one of England’s finest National Trust houses, the ever-so-not-English Waddesdon Manor:

En faisant construire Waddesdon Manor, Ferdinand de Rothschild voulait un édifice qui resemble au chateaux de la Loire. Le résultat est un savoureux mélange des XVe, XVIe et XVIIe siècles dressé dans la campagne anglaise.

At the other end of the scale, readers wanting to find the best pub in Soho are recommended to drink at

The French House qui a connu les riches heures de la Résistance française expatriée, plus tard lieu de boisson de Francis Bacon, toujours frequenté par des artistes d’aujourd’hui.

It is, Le Figaro reassures its readers, Sans doute le seul pub londinien qui ne sert pas de pintes. So that’s all right, then.

This special England edition has an oblique angle on the Olympics, about which Paris is perhaps still a bit sore. With a deft ironic nod in the direction of the approaching chaos of the Games, the leading article is headed ‘God save London!’ The author of this piece, Olivier Frébourg, asks pointedly:

Qu’est ce que la couronne royale si ce n’est l’alliance de clans, de clubs, de communautés? L’Angleterre ressemble à un vaste club avec ses règles, ses droits, ses devoirs: il permet d’échapper à la folie du monde. Le club est un cercle  olympique … L’esprit de club a sculpté la civilization britannique. C’est un garde-fou qui permet aux passions de ne pas déborder.

M. Frébourg sees a distinction between the Greek ideal of the athlete and the English notion of the sportif, the amateur - a good French word possibly going out of fashion in France. The Englishman, he asserts, loves sport because ‘il y voit les valeurs de la chevalerie, d’une noblesse accessible à tous.’ He forbears to mention that concepts of chivalry and noblesse arrived in England via the French codes of courtly love. Then follows a remarkable summing-up both of Englishness and of the English character:

Cette civilisation urbaine et industrielle qui a la culte de la maison, du cottage, du home sweet home, de la méchanique, vénère l’éspace vert, la pelouse, celle des squares et des jardins mais aussi celle des terrains de sport. Ce peuple de  l’intériorisation - never complain, never explain – a le culte des activités extérieures. C’est lui qui a inventé le week-end et le loisir sportif par tous les temps.

The writer expands on his theme in a second article, Au royaume des sports les plus excentriques. Here he introduces to astonished Figaro readers sports such as Cheese Rolling (‘La palme de l’absurde’), Chess Boxing (‘6 rounds d’échecs et 5 de boxe’ -  really?), Duck Racing (Course de Canards), the Eton Wall Game and ‘la Maldon mud race’. The origins and aims of this ancient sport were news to me:

500 participants plongent à marée basse dans ce port envasée de l’Essex … Sur un distance de 1 kilomètre, ils doivent traverser ces sables mouvants, visqueux et noirâtres qui ne tardent pas à les emprisoner. Engloutis, pétrifiés, les participants, histoire oblige, recherchent la tête de Byrthnoth, vaillant chef saxon décapité dans la rivière par les hordes de Vikings victorieux de la bataille de Maldon, que la vase ne parvint jamais a recouvrir.

I wish I’d know about this when struggling to read The Battle of Maldon in Anglo-Saxon at university. Surely the Maldon mudlarks, sinking beneath the shifting sands,  still call out words I memorized for my Finals:

Hige sceal þe heardra,          hearte þe cenre,
Mod sceal þe mare,           þe ure maegen lytað.
Our determination shall be stronger, our heart the keener,
Courage shall be greater, as our strength ebbs away.

But the people who, for M. Frébourg (and now for me), best embody the Anglo-Saxon obsession with history, sport and snobbery are the Archers of Arden. It’s not surprising I’ve never heard of this exclusive band of merry men because ‘les archers d’Arden sont des hommes des bois mais ils composent l’un des clubs les plus fermés du royaume.’ With due deference to historical fact, the author acknowledges that ‘L’arc a été l’arme decisive qui a permis aux Anglais de batter les arbalètes [crossbowmen] françaises a la bataille d’Azincourt en 1415.’ He notes that members of this über-exclusive club begin their day’s sport with a copious breakfast of Cheddar cheese and beer and he finds some consolation for past national humiliation in the fact that, while the archers are at the butts,

Dans la cave sommeillent, tels des gisants,* de grands crus français: une forme de revanche sur la défaite d’Azincourt.

Well, Le Figaro has made my weekend. It’s clear the English remain au fond a source of amused, and bemused, admiration to their neighbours across the Channel. Finishing my pint and my annual 10-day immersion in Anglo-French bi-cultural education,comme tous les autres jeux excentriques’, at the Bitter End, I am happy to leave the last word to Olivier Frébourg:

On trinque a l’identité saxone et à l’esprit de corps. Plonger dans la fange demeure une façon pour les Britanniques de rire de la condition humaine, de conforter leur simplicité, la valeur la plus difficile à conquérir pour les français.

Adrian Barlow

* Gisants, a word new to me, are the stone effigies of sleeping lords and knights found on top of old tombs. They are a good simile for bottles of fine wine laid down in a vault (la cave sommeillent), waiting to be brought back to the light and then drunk.