Near the end of Parallels and Paradoxes, a recent collection of dialogues on music and society between the conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), and his good friend, the scholar and music critic Edward Said, there is an extraordinary moment when the two men discuss the perspective of the past. Barenboim, bravely extolling the virtues of such Modernist radicals as Carter, Boulez and Birtwistle, not only puts them in the company of Beethoven but insists that we think of Beethoven the way we think of them: “He’s a modern composer…. The most important thing is to arrive at a way to play Beethoven with a sense of discovery, as if it were being written today.” Invigorating stuff.
Yet Said can’t quite go along: “But what about the pathos of the past?… There’s a kind of ruthlessness in history…. One feels that certain things are irrecoverable because they are past.” For a musical example he offers the Berg Violin Concerto, a tragic and deeply expressive (and universally beloved) Modernist work that ends with the quotation of a Bach chorale–something the conductor finds hard to accept.
Barenboim: I’m bothered by it, because…somehow it introduces a foreign element into the structure, into the piece.
Said: But what if you were told by him… “Well, I intended it.”
Barenboim: Yes, I’m sure. Well, I’m still bothered by it.
Both men surely know that the chorale’s first four notes are woven into the twelve-tone row Berg uses to compose the piece, making it both foreign and integral–in other words, a paradox. But the exchange points to the core of Barenboim’s character: an aggressive, intellectual optimist whose undeniable generosity has been underlined by a certain ruthlessness of his own. It is this temperament, as much as his enormous raw talent, that has made him one of the most distinctive–and sometimes controversial–musicians of our time, and in the newly revised and expanded edition of his memoir he reveals perhaps more of it than he intended.
Granted, this book, like Parallels and Paradoxes, is an absolute gift: What other conductor active in America–after Bernstein–could mix nuanced discussions of Buber, Aristotle, Spinoza, Wagner and Middle East politics with coolheaded musical analysis–and plenty of shop talk besides? But whereas the tempestuous, profligate Lenny enjoyed the love of millions, Barenboim’s renown, though well earned, has had a cooler tone. Barenboim inherited his post in Chicago, in 1991, from Georg Solti–admittedly, a daunting act to follow. Solti, a refugee Hungarian Jew who established his career in London and Vienna after World War II, became a Windy City treasure: Sports fans compared him to Dick Butkus, and the cabbies knew him by sight. Barenboim, just as mobile as his predecessor (he is also general music director of the Berlin State Opera, conducts Wagner frequently at Bayreuth and gives piano recitals throughout the world), has tried hard to ingratiate himself with the locals with outreach-type events, but somehow he always leaves the impression that his services are needed elsewhere. His indefatigable advocacy of the most complex and intellectual of composers has been laudable, but unpopular with subscribers; and a number of CSO players have complained of an arrogant podium manner. And while Barenboim’s richly detailed performances of Brahms, Bruckner and Wagner (not to mention his favorite contemporaries) are justly admired for their force and sweep, performances of other repertory–at the podium or the keyboard–sometimes find him underprepared.
A Life in Music, which the conductor wrote with the assistance of Michael Lewin and Phillip Huscher, is not a particularly supple or elegant volume; Barenboim is more of a raconteur than a writer. But his authorial voice–bold, declarative, often stern, sometimes forgiving–comes right through. Barenboim, perhaps more than any of his famous friends, has lived a quintessentially twentieth-century life. Born in 1942 in Argentina to a family of immigrant Russian Jews, he is taken by his parents to Europe ten years later, where his prodigious talent can be nurtured under such podium giants as Igor Markevich and Wilhelm Furtwängler; grows up in Israel during its first years of struggle and conflict; begins a busy life of touring as one of the world’s leading pianists and conductors; endures the tragic decline of his first wife, the brilliant and enormously popular cellist Jacqueline du Pré, after she is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1973 (she died in 1987), a marriage that cast him into the full glare of the modern media; and finally, in the 1990s, strives to excel at the very traditional role of music director when economic and cultural forces, in both America and Europe, are threatening its viability and prestige. History and fate have delivered this man an exceptional load of gifts, challenges and responsibilities, and A Life in Music attempts to explain how he has borne them. His conclusions may sometimes seem conflicted, even false, but he earns our respect as a man who, through it all, has tried to craft an existence based on fundamental laws.
Barenboim’s credo is to keep things “private” (a word he uses five times on the book’s first page): “The autobiographical thread in this book exists only to give a certain continuity to the reflections on music and on the relationship between music and life…. I have simply tried to write what it feels like to be obsessed with music and to have the curiosity to examine this obsession.” This understandable reserve stems, of course, from the difficult years with du Pré. Her eight appearances in the photographs section seem almost an attempt to compensate for this; one of the pictures, taken during the legendary 1969 recording sessions of the Beethoven piano trios (with the violinist Pinchas Zukerman) at Abbey Road, shows her touching Barenboim’s hand, tapping a rhythm, perhaps, while listening to playbacks, while he seems to swoon with love and the love of music–a touch of fire that unified his personal and professional lives.
But listening to those recordings today can be difficult: They have a harshness of attack and cocksure confidence that linger in Barenboim’s playing and conducting to this day. (Some five years later Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau would put Barenboim’s forthright manner to brilliant use, when the baritone brought him in to record the Olympian piano parts of Hugo Wolf’s Goethe Lieder.) Reading of Barenboim’s upbringing in 1950s Israel, however, helps to put this in perspective:
This had a very strong influence on my life, it affected my way of thinking and later my way of making music. I came from a very different tradition…social graces were essential in Argentina, whereas in Israel there was a passionate rejection of such superficial matters…. Even elementary traits, such as politeness to each other, were scorned…. But it was not just an attitude…it derived from a healthy preoccupation with idealism and positive thinking.
And so it goes. He demands the best of music and musicians, even if it leads him to extremes: “The greatness of a musician is measured by the degree of fanaticism he brings to his playing.” He speaks of conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos as “a very pure musician of great intensity and integrity”; the Czech conductor Rafael Kubelík–who advises him, “you must sometimes sacrifice the beauty of the moment for the beauty of a long line and structure”–is “a really independent musician” who had “adopted a line without any artistic compromise, the line of most and not of least resistance.” He is astonishingly thorough, performing the music of his beloved Austro-German masters in cycles of concerts (giving Beethoven, Mahler and Bruckner, in effect, little Bayreuth festivals of their own) and holding forth in great detail on how interpretive differences in German and French music are ineluctably governed by the peculiarities of their languages and cultural concerns–a less than convincing argument, since his writing about French music and musicians (except on Debussy, long an Honorary German Composer in advanced circles) is not without a trace of condescension. Barenboim would like us to believe in a Debussy Style, a Beethoven Style and a Wagner Style, but in performance there is an undeniable Barenboim Style that tends to rule. And why not?
There are other moments when this kind of missionary zeal can get the better of him. The works of Carter and Birtwistle may be wonderfully unalike, but to maintain that they each “give the lie to the argument that all of today’s music is either very light and popular or very complex and difficult” seems nonsensical: It takes an enormous amount of erudition to detect, let alone enjoy, the difference between Carter’s thickets of complexity and Birtwistle’s brutal sonic onslaughts. And yet this is also a man who yearns for a sense of balance between reason and emotion, in music as well as life. He warns against letting the “suffering and passion” of musical expression infect one’s personal life and, in very likable fashion, praises the very Latin need for a bit of dolce far niente in a heavily booked-up day. (“I cannot get used to the American habit of having a hamburger for lunch between two rehearsals.”) His assessments of such idols as the conductors John Barbirolli and Leopold Stokowski, both of whom were far more “intuitive” and flamboyant musicians than the cerebral Barenboim, not only glow with generosity and warmth, but with insight too–as when he notes how Barbirolli backed up his deeply emotive sense of musical logic with professional discipline by personally bowing the string parts of nearly every piece he conducted. He praises the pianist Claudio Arrau not only for his keen interests in literature and art (interests many musicians, surprisingly, don’t have) but as an ideal “fusion of the Latin and German mentality”; he notes with awe Furtwängler’s gift for “thinking with the heart and feeling with the brain.” The ultimate tribute to the power of intuition, of course, goes to du Pré: “I have never encountered anyone for whom music was such a natural form of expression as it was for Jacqueline…. She was really a child of nature.”
But even this admirable need for balance can lead him astray, never more so than when he is discussing the early-music movement. While acknowledging that these musicians have “provided all of us with much food for thought,” he notes that “it would be childish not to adopt certain uses of expressive means we have become aware of through Wagner.” Barenboim the rational positivist enlists Goethe in support of his argument, maintaining that the “moment you absorb something, it becomes part of you, but then you must adapt it to your needs,” but that implies that everyone has to absorb Wagner, an idea he develops at length in Parallels and Paradoxes–and opens up a musico-political Pandora’s box along the way. Wagner, in the face of great opposition, revolutionized the acoustic aspect of music, not only by expanding exponentially the possibilities of orchestral sound but by adapting the dramatic process of his operas–a sense of constant, imperceptible transition–to his performances of Beethoven and other composers. For Barenboim these are permanent changes, and
the revival of historical practices and playing on period instruments, is also, in fact–whether knowingly or not–a reaction against [the] Wagnerian concept of the continuity of sound. The principle of these instruments and this way of making music is precisely to articulate more and to be able to cut the sound and to cut the harmonic pressure of the music.
And when Wagner was striving for this concept of sound (“the weight of the sound,” as Barenboim emphasizes), on whom did he vent his contempt? On the Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn–the original early-music maven, whose Bach concerts restored that composer’s music to the general repertory. Wagner condemned his performances as light and superficial. But why does he complain “bitterly” about Mendelssohn’s brisk tempos? Because, as Barenboim notes, “if the content was poor, the speed had to be greater.” None of us can know what Mendelssohn’s performances were exactly like (I suspect they were rather good), and Barenboim is careful not to directly link the practices of the past and present–he just describes them in distressingly similar terms. He is definitely not one for “superficiality,” and he is passionately in Wagner’s corner. Barenboim may well have a point; so does his great colleague Boulez, a man who finds a certain weakness in a society that is afraid to destroy things and move on. But in trying to explain, in his fiercely rational way, why Wagner disliked Mendelssohn’s performances–it’s the tempo, stupid–Barenboim just looks naïve, since musical and racial politics can never be fully separated in Wagner’s diatribes. Touchingly, he wants to sift out the good things in Wagner, seeing them as part of a continuum of beneficent German thought. But if you wanted to hear the musical “Good Germany,” you wouldn’t listen to Wagner–you’d listen to Hindemith. To truly listen to Wagner is to recognize all that he was, horrendous and sublime, and somehow emerge unscathed.
Barenboim’s need to reconcile opposites is most useful when he examines the situation in the Middle East. Barenboim’s characteristic force is not absent here; the ultimate example was his deeply controversial push to break the Israeli ban on public performances of Wagner’s music in 2001, when he offered to close a concert of the Staatskapelle Berlin with an encore of the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde–allowing a handful of upset listeners to leave the auditorium first. (Thousands stayed and cheered.) Another example of his independence is his quest to encounter the Palestinian “other,” and his arguments here are daring and constructive. He is adamant that peace depends not only on mutual recognition by Israel and her Arab neighbors but on Israeli Jews’ transcending the prism of the Holocaust:
What is required [is] an absolute transformation of how a Jew sees himself now–which is totally different from 1942, from 1948, or from 1967…. This is why there is a connection between the problem of playing Wagner in Israel and the Palestinian issue, because we hold on to things from Europe that remind us of our Jewishness, but which have nothing to do with the current situation.
Which, in other words, implies that Israeli music-lovers can and should “adapt” to modernity by way of Wagner, just as early-music performers should absorb the acoustical innovations of…Wagner. When Barenboim “adapts” Wagner’s speed-content analogy to explain the breakdown of the Mideast peace negotiations (the book is full of music/life comparisons), it’s an illuminating moment. But to suggest that Jews have something to learn from one of their
greatest enemies is either brilliantly provocative or stunningly impudent–or, perhaps, both. Still, whatever one thinks of Barenboim’s manners, there’s no denying that, in his own field, he has taken the lead, having organized with Said the three “West-Eastern Divan” youth orchestra workshops in Weimar and Chicago, which brought together Arab and Israeli musicians to work, learn and live with one another. The workshops were named after a volume of verse by Goethe, which was not only a response to the work of the Persian bard Hafiz (which he read in German translation) but an experiment in combined identity. “In my opinion it is impossible for anyone at the beginning of the twenty-first century believably to claim a single identity,” Barenboim writes, not only citing his own experience–Argentine and Israeli, European and American–but going back to Mozart, “one of the first pan-Europeans,” who spoke and composed in Italian, German and French. “Israel should…create a fusion of East and West,” he maintains. “We could very well see a second Age of Enlightenment.”
Barenboim’s public bravery and restless curiosity have an almost magical ability to wipe away his rough spots; one finishes his memoir in a forgiving and grateful mood, keeping his enormous talents always in mind. This is not a perfect man, or even a perfect musician. But as one of Chicago’s most eminent listeners once remarked, “Who else is there?”