Daniel Barenboim: 'It is rubbish to say that classical music is colonialist'

Ivan Hewett
·7-min read
Pushing boundaries: Daniel Barenboim
Pushing boundaries: Daniel Barenboim

The world’s most celebrated, contentious and awesomely accomplished classical musician, Daniel Barenboim, has had a busy lockdown. Back in July, he organised and performed in an entire contemporary music festival in Berlin, which was streamed live from the Boulez Saal, the new concert hall designed by Frank Gehry for which Barenboim was the prime mover. He’s been working to safeguard the future of the two institutions that mean most to him: the State Opera in Berlin, and the orchestra he co-founded with scholar and pro-Palestinian activist Edward Said to bring together Israeli and Arab musicians, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

And he’s returned to his two first loves: playing the piano, and the music of Beethoven. He’s just completed his fifth complete recording of all of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, to be released at the end of this month. It’s a huge undertaking, so why has he put himself through the ordeal yet again? Barenboim, ensconced in his book-lined study in Berlin (we’re talking via Zoom), laughs and then turns pensive.

“It’s not so easy to say why I wanted to do it one more time. The objective reason is that I had been studying them closely anyway, to prepare for a live performance in Vienna in May, which, of course, did not happen. I’ve known these works for many years, I played my first cycle in public in 1960, 60 years ago, but whenever I go back to this music I find something new.”

Barenboim is one of those musicians like Yehudi Menuhin who are as well-known for espousing good causes and being a public figure as they are for their music. Born in 1942 in Argentina, he moved with parents to Israel at the age of nine, and soon became famous worldwide as child prodigy at the piano.

Since his 20s, he’s pursued a staggeringly busy double career as pianist and conductor, as well as educator and essayist. He’s a citizen of four countries and fluent in six languages. His first marriage to cellist Jacqueline du Pré was tragically cut short when she contracted multiple sclerosis. He’s now married to Russian pianist Elena Bashkirova, with whom he’s had two sons. One of them manages a hip-hop band, the other is a violinist.

conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Berlin
conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Berlin

I remark that in one sense the lockdown has been a blessing, as it allowed him to focus on playing the piano. “Well, those people who like the new recording might say it was a blessing, the others might say it was a curse,” he says with a laugh. “Of course, I am very lucky not to suffer from the lockdown, and I feel very bad for musicians who are really suffering, like my friends at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Here in Germany we look after the arts very well, more than any other country, I think.”

I want to ask about the furore over Last Night of the Proms, but it turns out he knows nothing about it. When I explain it, and ask whether he agrees that it’s in need of serious overhaul, he gives a typically metaphysical answer. “I think it’s a very difficult fact of human life that we are both a product of our past, but we also have ambitions for the future, and we human beings are pinned agonisingly in between these two forces. I do believe it is very useful to freshen up our approach to tradition. If it just mechanically reproduces itself year after year, something is wrong. But at the same time, you have to keep an understanding of how it got to where it is.”

I mention claims that classical music is an aspect of “cultural colonialism”. Up to this point Barenboim has seemed relaxed but suddenly I see a flash of that anger that can make him a terror in orchestral rehearsals. “That is utter rubbish. Of course much of this music was created at a time when colonialism existed, but the essence of music, its real nature has nothing to do with that.

“I will tell you a story which I think illustrates this. There is an orchestra in the Congo, in Kinshasa, where they are forced to make their own instruments and survive on almost nothing. One of the musicians gave an interview to a German journalist, and at one point the interviewer asked him, ‘Don’t you feel strange, playing the music of our Beethoven?’, which I thought was a very insensitive question. The young man replied, ‘I’m sorry, I think you are wrong. Though Beethoven was born in Germany, that to me is just a geographical accident. To me Beethoven is universal. I feel we have the same rights and responsibilities towards this music as you do who were born in the same city or country.’ I thought that such a clever and strong answer.”

Barenboim has always been a doughty fighter for the rights of Palestinians in the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has made him a hugely controversial figure in Israel, admired on the left and loathed on the right. I ask him whether he’s encouraged by the recent peace accord between Israel and the Gulf states. “Any discussions about the possibility of better relations and even peace must of course be welcomed.

But this is not a tenable solution, because the conflict was never between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, or between Israel and Bahrain, or between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The centre of the conflict is the one between Israelis and Palestinians, and this new accord totally ignores the occupation of Palestine, which has been going on for 53 years. Of course it is a good thing to have a peace accord with these Arab nations, but it must not happen at the cost of ignoring the Palestinian problem.”

Daniel Barenboim with his first wife, cellist Jacqueline du Pré
Daniel Barenboim with his first wife, cellist Jacqueline du Pré

I turn the conversation back to classical music, and what he thinks the outlook is for the art form he loves. “The problem is that all over Europe there is hardly any music education now, in schools. If we want our musical culture to continue, we somehow have to restore the place of music in education. It has such a beneficial influence on children, for the simple reason that music is a combination of passion – which, after all, is great for children – and discipline. And in the adult world there’s so little knowledge of music.

“When I came to Europe from Argentina to give concerts at the age of 10, everyone I met in public life was interested in music. Those who liked Picasso also like Stravinsky. The problem is made worse by the fact that in our top conservatoires and music colleges, the training is devoid of any education in culture as a whole. The result is that the audiences and performers get further and further apart. The players have very little knowledge about anything other than music, while the public has very little knowledge about music.”

And what of the future, after lockdown? Does this incredibly overachieving man have any unfulfilled ambitions? “Well, I can put your mind at rest. I will not record the Beethoven sonatas again!” he says, but immediately retracts the declaration. “Then again, you never know.”

He muses and then says: “I’ve now been 29 years at the head of the State Opera in Berlin. That’s a long time, so I need to bring that to an end fairly soon, and whatever years I have left after that I want to devote more to music education. I want to play a more active role in the Barenboim-Said Academy. And very importantly, I don’t want to play one day longer than I’m able to. I really hope I realise when it’s time to stop. I don’t want anyone to meet my sons and say, ‘Oh I just heard your father play, it was OK, but you should have heard him 20 years ago’.”

Daniel Barenboim’s new recording of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas and Diabelli Variations is released on DG tomorrow. His recording of the complete Beethoven Piano Trios with Michael Barenboim and Kian Soltani is released on Nov 27