Daniel Barenboim was at it again last week, announcing a plan for the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the Israeli-Palestinian youth ensemble he co-founded in 1999, to perform the first act of Wagner’s Die Walküre at the Waldbühne, an open-air arena in Berlin built by the Nazis for the 1936 Olympics.
“Can you imagine that?” Barenboim was quoted as saying in the interview, released Wednesday. “The Waldbühne was built by Hitler. The music is Wagner. Played by us! Hitler and Wagner would turn in their graves.”
This is Barenboim the world-class provocateur; anyone who criticizes him as naïve is badly misjudging him—the man knows exactly what he’s doing. (For a sample of the consternation Barenboim tends to cause, see the comments at the end of this Ha’aretz report, or go here for a particularly heavy-handed approach.) For the record, I find Barenboim’s music-making and his provocations to be sincere and thought-provoking—even when I’m not convinced, I’d rather be disagreeing with Barenboim that agreeing with a lot of other musicians, if that makes any sense. Still, I would imagine that most Germans don’t immediately associate the Waldbühne with Hitler anymore—the Rolling Stones were already playing the arena in the 1960s, after all, and the Berlin Philharmonic traditionally closes its season there every June with a festive summer night. But Barenboim’s reminder is entirely in keeping with a way he has of approaching the repertoire, which is fascinating.
Barenboim’s use of repertoire and venue is, in a way, a complete reverse of how classical music has come to be promoted in modern culture. Usually, the fact that the classical canon was composed a) a long time ago and b) in a not-particularly egalitarian atmosphere goes politely unmentioned—the rationale (which I’ve often used myself) being that it doesn’t matter where the music came from, it speaks to something universal in all of us, loosing itself from its socio-politico-historical moorings and floating free as the common property of humanity. Barenboim flips this on its head: Wagner’s music is vital to us today not in spite of the politics of the composer and the music’s subsequent historical associations, but because of it. For Barenboim, the way music can embody the universal human condition is a choice we make, a choice that reflects an essentially optimistic view of the contest between good and evil within the human soul. We can look Wagner in the eye, as it were, and reject his anti-Semitism by embracing his music, the nobler aspect of his human existence. When Barenboim programs Wagner in Jerusalem, or takes the podium at a Nazi venue as a Jewish artist, he’s asserting that evil isn’t something that needs to be quarantined, it’s something that needs to be confronted and defeated by mankind’s capacity for good. Rather than passively ignore the potent historical baggage, he actively puts it front and center, then invites us to consciously choose the positive experience of the music over the negative aspects of its past misuse, or even its origins. It’s almost as if Barenboim is exercising the listeners’ minds in the method of engaging the world that he thinks is necessary for ever improving it.
Wagner is the most obvious vehicle for this sort of thing, but here’s another example that works in subtler ways. When Barenboim took the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to Ramallah in 2005, on the program was a tribute to the late Edward Said, the Palestinian-American scholar who co-founded the ensemble with Barenboim: the “Nimrod” movement from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Last summer, I participated in a discussion panel when a documentary of the concert was screened at the Boston Jewish Film Festival; at the time, I joked that Elgar was a canny choice, since the last time that Jews and Arabs in the region had been united was in their opposition to the post-WWI British Mandate. But scratch the surface, and there’s multiple levels of the sort of intellectual aikido that accompanies Barenboim’s Wagner: a piece that often memorializes heads of state being played for someone who spent his career trying to articulate the position of the disposessed, a composer indelibly associated with one of history’s greatest colonial empires put into service celebrating an originator of post-colonial theory. The great thing is that it reflects back on the music, too—hearing Wagner’s powerful beauty in Israel makes you realize the contrast between the large, deep humanity of Wagner the composer and the small, petty transience of Wagner the racial theorist; hearing Elgar in Ramallah highlights the ambivalence and poignancy forever present beneath the nobilmente Edwardian façade.
I’m more or less a moderate on the Israeli-Palestinian question: I think anyone who denies Israel’s right to exist is a fool, but equally foolish is anyone who thinks that its existence can long persist in any worthwhile fashion without finding a peaceful co-existence with the Palestinians. And I have to admit that often, my view of human nature isn’t sanguine enough to believe that the conflict between good and evil within the human soul is anything like a fair fight. At times like that, Barenboim’s idealism can seem like naiveté or simplistic grandstanding. But Barenboim’s whole point is that your reaction is a choice—even if you don’t choose to believe that most people will do the right thing, at the very least, you yourself can choose to do the right thing. You can look at the awful ways in which even the most beautiful of human endeavors have been put to use, and decide that, even if it was that way in the past, it doesn’t have to be that way in the future.