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Daniel Barenboim’s Proms Brexit sermon was just poor conduct

To my ears, Elgar’s Second Symphony speaks to many things, but Brexit is not among them

22 July 2017

9:00 AM

22 July 2017

9:00 AM

Last weekend Daniel Barenboim brought the Staatskapelle Berlin to perform at the BBC Proms for a cycle of Elgar’s symphonies. As Elgar only finished two of the things, it is among the easier symphonic cycles to pull off. But the Staatskapelle played beautifully over two nights at the Albert Hall, with moments of outstanding musicianship. They were let down only, at the end of the second evening, by their conductor.

Turning around on the podium to face the audience, he announced that there was something he wanted to say. ‘I don’t know whether all of you will agree with me, but I would really like to share that with you.’ And then he began to spoil the evening.

The Maestro informed us that the Staatskapelle had delayed their holidays for a week in order to come and perform these two concerts. He told us how much the orchestra had fallen in love with these symphonies and had particularly wanted to play them for us. This we already knew. None of the players appeared to be there under duress. We witnessed no strings sawing away sullenly, nor any among the wind sections checking their watches.

‘When I look at the world with so many isolation[ist] tendencies, I get very worried,’ Barenboim continued. ‘I know I am not alone.’ Most of the audience applauded. After reminding us that he had married in the UK and been shown much affection by the country (as though to suggest things might be different now), he told us, ‘The main problem of today is not the main policies of this country or of that country. The main problem of today is that there is not enough education. And if you look at the difficulties that the European continent is going through now, you can see that, why it is, because of the lack of common education. Because in one country they do not know why they should belong to something that the other countries do.’

The use of ‘education’ in this context is a serious euphemism. Across America and Europe there are many people who dis-agree with the electorate’s choices in 2016. But had the Democrats won the US election, or Remain won the UK referendum, we would not be hearing such complaints. Had the publics voted Clinton and ‘Remain’ last year they would have been ‘correct’ and ‘well-educated’. People voting the ‘wrong’ way must have done so because they were uneducated.


What is worse is that they did so against the advice of those better educated than themselves, who are now forced to study them in a belated effort at understanding. Only, of course, in order to then correct them.

As Barenboim continued: ‘This isolationist tendencies [sic] and nationalism in its very narrow sense, is something that is very dangerous and can only be fought with a real great accent on the education of the new generation. The new generation have to understand that Greece and Germany and France and Denmark all have something in common, called European culture.’ Throughout this my eyebrows began to rise. After the concert I connected with various other raised eyebrows.

None were angry, or furious — just a little less euphoric than we would have been had Barenboim let the music speak for itself. I was brought up on Barenboim. I regard his recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto (with his first wife, Jacqueline du Pré) as something of a holy place. I left profoundly disappointed in him, and sad that in an era which is witnessing the politicisation of absolutely everything, it should prove impossible even to go to an orchestral concert without being coshed around the head with politics.

And politics of such presumption at that. I don’t regard myself as especially uncultured, uneducated or ill-read. Nor, like other audience members I spoke with, would I regard myself as ‘isolationist’ in my political or cultural interests.

But nor do I think that the masterworks of classical music can only be heard on the condition that you are governed by the European Commission. Or that you can enjoy orchestral music only on the proviso that you endorse Angela Merkel’s ongoing open-doors immigration policy. Some advanced pessimist might even ponder how long the one might survive the other.

There was also the sheer discourtesy of the whole thing; to fully understand one need only play this the other way around. Imagine a strongly pro-Brexit conductor using his platform on a German rostrum to lecture a German audience about the pitfalls of the EU and the sad lack of education evident in any country repeatedly willing to vote in Angela Merkel as Chancellor. Would I be put off by such a speech? Very much so. I no more desire conductors to channel Nigel Farage after a symphony than Jean-Claude Juncker. What is more, a British conductor addressing a continental audience as though they dwelt in a country of semi-educated isolationists eager to begin the pogroms might be deemed to lack courtesy.

Yet even that is not the worst thing. The worst thing was the realisation that the most dishonest effort will be ongoing. That is the effort to force-feed us the idea that the political construct of the European Union (whatever one thinks of it) is one and the same with all European culture, both before and after the EU’s creation. With the follow-on implication that outside of
the one you are not allowed the other. As it happens, spurred on by the excellent horn section of the Staatskapelle, I spent part of the concert pondering the musical debt Elgar owes to Richard Strauss. But then any classical music buff knows that stylistically Elgar was a German composer. To Daniel Barenboim this proves his claim — made in a pre-performance interview with the BBC — that Elgar’s symphonies are ‘the best case against Brexit’.

To which, beyond heavy sighing, the only thing I might add is that to my ears Elgar’s Second Symphony speaks to many things, but the 2016 referendum is not among them. Elgar managed to be influenced by German culture and managed to write his great works before even Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was born. If Elgar could be subsumed in the culture of the continent in his day, why on earth can we not continue to be now? Why should people keep getting away with this claim that if we love European culture (and who but a madman would not?), then we must by necessity agree to be governed under one political system, under one jurisdiction? Why must it be Dante or Brexit, Goethe or bust? It is not just untruthful and manipulative but ugly — this colonisation of our collective culture in the name of a single current political ideal.

At the end of his remarks, Barenboim concluded: ‘The real evils of the world can only be fought with a humanism that keeps us all together. Including you. And I’m going to show you I really mean it.’ At which point he directed the Staatskapelle in a performance of the first of the Pomp and Circumstance marches. ‘Marvel at this German orchestra playing your national music,’ Barenboim appeared to be saying, to the marvelment of absolutely no one in an audience familiar with British orchestras playing Wagner and German orchestras playing Elgar.

Music is — as Barenboim well knows — the international language. It should be the art form most capable of bringing people together. How strange to see him use it instead to drive people apart.

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