Classical Music from Germany – Current trends

Music, Power and Humanity – Daniel Barenboim turns 70

Staatsoper Unter den Linden / Monika RitterhausDaniel Barenboim conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin, photo by Staatsoper Unter den Linden / Monika RitterhausOn November 15, 2012, Daniel Barenboim will celebrate his 70th birthday. Both artist and cultural activist, the pianist and conductor has over the decades clearly left his mark on the German and international music world. A portrait.

A musician who became world-renowned already at an early age, who then appeared more and more in the role of a conductor and, with skill, persuasiveness and an infallible instinct for power, occupied the most important positions: this is nothing new. What appears to be unique about the career of Daniel Barenboim, however, is the evidently controversial political and musical passions that have given this artist’s life an equally exhilarating and unsettling dynamic. It suffices to point to the profound love that Barenboim, who is a Jew, feels for German Romantic music, and in particular for that of Richard Wagner, to highlight the inner tension to which he has exposed himself. The older Barenboim has become, the more the German concert and opera repertoire has become the center of his activity.

Argentina, Paris, Berlin

Daniel Barenboim started his career as a pianist and still remains an exiting solo artist, photo by Staatsoper Unter den Linden / Monika RitterhausBut Barenboim is also a proof that “national music” options today are no longer bound to origins. He is from Argentina, from Buenos Aires, and he is well-acquainted with the authentic music of this city, the tango. But Barenboim’s musical education is universal. At 33 he became Georg Solti’s successor as principal conductor of the Orchestre de Paris. At that time Pierre Boulez was setting out to revolutionize the artistic physiognomy of France and its capital, and Barenboim, who developed a penchant for avant-garde compositional concepts, became one of his allies.

Boulez, however, wanted to awe him with his intellectual and institutional authority. Since even Paris is not big enough for two similarly powerful musical personalities, Barenboim turned to Germany. For nearly two decades (from 1981 to 1999) he decisively determined the musical face of the Bayreuth Festival. In the thistly bustle of Berlin cultural politics, he became, after 1992, the claming influence: as General Music Director of the State Opera, a more unchallengeable instance than any of the others responsible for the capital’s musical life. His contract runs until 2022. When this year comes round, Barenboim will be able to look back upon his activity in Berlin as truly his life’s work.

Wagner as a symbol

Beethoven, Bruckner, Wagner – Daniel Barenboim's music often is a kind of political or social statement, photo by Staatsoper Unter den Linden / Monika RitterhausStill, this artist, whose immense professionalism and authority shows itself most beautifully in the unpretentious manner in which he treats other musicians or teaches the younger ones, is also driven by needs that are not satisfied by the possession of institutional power. The unofficial, but adamant, boycott in Israel of the music of the anti-Semite Wagner is one of the impositions that the Wagner fan Barenboim believes he must not accept. Attempts to break this taboo met with hostility; militant Israeli groups even wanted to keep Barenboim out of the country by declaring him persona non grata. But among the many honors that he has received, one of the most significant is the Wolf Prize for fostering “friendly relations among peoples”, which the Knesset awarded him in 2004.

Conductor, orchestra founder

The maestro discussing with young artists of the project ‘Beethoven for all’. photo by Decca / Ben EalovekaPerhaps the most famous and momentous example of Barenboim’s musical work for promoting “understanding among peoples” is the youth orchestra that he founded in 1999 with the Goethean name of “West-Eastern Divan Orchestra”. The idea for it came from the early deceased Palestinian-American literary scholar and musicologist Edward Said. Barenboim went about realizing it with his own inimitable and impetuous single-mindedness. It is no easy task to bring together musicians from often hostile camps – from Iran, Turkey, from the Arab states, from Palestine, from Israel and Europe – and to surmount the apparent constraints of political animosity in common music-making.

Far beyond Said’s and Barenboim’s initial hopes, this musical collective has become a model of success; along with the Venezuelan Simon Bolívar Orchestra, it is the most exciting and prolific of international youth orchestras. With somewhat obscure, sibylline enthusiasm, we could postulate that though the existence of this ensemble may not have improved the world, it has improved the world of music a good deal.

Plenty of people listening to Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin, photo by Staatsoper Unter den Linden / Thomas BartillaLike every great conductor of the last three, four generations, Barenboim has made countless recordings of his vast repertoire, sometimes more than once – documents of an astonishing creative force and indefatigability. It is worth noting that the style of his interpretations can be classified neither as “conservative” nor as “modern”, neither as “romantic” nor as “objective”.

Daniel Barenboim playing Chopin at the Ruhr Piano Festival 2012, source: Arthaus Musik

Like Georg Solti, Barenboim seems to strive for the synthesis of opposites and to expose them to pull of his volcanic temperament (which, however, also appreciates the pleasures of comfortably savoring details). Those seeking exciting “new” musical readings are less likely to get their money’s worth with him. But the impression of warmth and humanity that Barenboim’s musical realizations convey of their personal medium is always admirable. Daniel Barenboim is a seventy year-old conductor who appears not to age at all, having has always shown characteristics of “maturity”.

Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich
worked until 2003 as an editor and music journalist for the German newspaper called Frankfurter Rundschau and is now a freelance music and theatre journalist and book author.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
November 2012

Any questions about this article? Please write to us!

Related links

Weblog: Mein Wagner – My Personal Wagner

On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the birth of the composer Richard Wagner, our blog will present a variety of perspectives on Wagner’s cosmos.

Tour Calendar

Goethe-Institut - Selected music events worldwide