“The sound of utopia”

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and the Barenboim Said Academy

by Dr phil. Winfried Pogorzelski

“Although their peoples are engaged in violent struggle, these musicians have the courage to come together to make music and show to the world that collaboration and harmony are possible.”

Kofi Annan (1938–2018)1

The “West-Eastern Divan Orchestra” is a symphony orchestra founded in 1999 of young musicians from the Middle East, North Africa and Spain – Jews, Christians and Muslims. Other members have already completed their training and play in renowned professional orchestras such as the Staatskapelle Berlin and the Berliner Philharmoniker. The name derives from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s collection of poems “West-Eastern Divan”.2 The ensemble was founded by the Argentinian-Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, the Palestinian-American literary scholar Edward W. Said and the cultural manager Bernd Kauffmann, for a long-time director of the “Klassik Stiftung Weimar” [classical foundation Weimar]. The aim and purpose of the orchestra is to offer young people between the ages of 14 and 25 the opportunity to train on an instrument, to work as orchestral musicians, thus contributing to international understanding. It was against this background that the term “The Sound of Utopia”3 was coined. This year the orchestra is celebrating its 20th anniversary; the publication of Goethe’s collection of poems marks its bicentenary.

Cultural capital Weimar and the beginnings

In 1999, Weimar is nominated European Capital of Culture by the EU for the current year. The heritage of the Thuringian city includes the Weimar classics by Wieland, Herder, Goethe, Schiller and the work of the composers Liszt and
R. Strauss, as well as the Bauhaus and the National Assembly of 1919. In his function as artistic director of the Weimar Art Festival taking place on this occasion, Bernd Kauffmann asks Daniel Barenboim to contribute to the festivities. Together with his friend Edward W. Said, Barenboim organised a workshop for young musicians from Israel and the surrounding Arab countries. The ideal starting point is the conviction that “politics should serve humanity and not the other way”.4 The experimental event will mark the birth of this special orchestra. The young musicians not only get the opportunity to be trained by one of the most important pianists and conductors of our time, but they can also take part in a master class with the American cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
During their stay in Weimar, the group will visit the Buchenwald concentration camp memorial in the immediate vicinity, a shocking, formative and at the same time unifying experience. After another meeting in Weimar, a permanent seat was erected in 2002 in the Andalusian city of Pilas near Seville. The place was not chosen by chance, as Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together peacefully and mutually enriching in southern Spain at the time of Moorish rule between the 8th and 15th centuries.

A world class orchestra

With the foundation of the orchestra, Barenboim’s life’s dream has come true. The most important concern of him and Edward W. Said is first of all to convince the people – participants and more and more also the public – that there is no military solution for the conflict in the Middle East, even “no political one – only a human one”.5
In order to promote young talents, young people are recruited, especially in the Middle East, who are willing to learn an instrument and to play regularly with the orchestra. The four-week workshops take place once a year: Instrumental instruction is offered, a concert programme is rehearsed and mutual exchange is fostered; lectures and discussions accompany the events. The orchestra then goes on tour across several continents, with rapidly growing success.
In terms of ability, repertoire and participation by renowned soloists, the orchestra is now one of the best ensembles in the world. It performs regularly around the globe in the most famous concert and opera houses and at long-standing festivals. The Waldbühne in Berlin, the Golden Hall of the Vienna Musikverein, the Scala in Milan, the Royal Albert Hall in London, the Carnegie Hall in New York and the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires are among them. On tradition-rich occasions such as the Salzburg and Bayreuth Festivals and at the Lucerne Festival, the orchestra is one of the most acclaimed regulars. In 2002 Barenboim and Said were awarded the Princess of Asturia Prize and in 2010 the orchestra received the International Prize of the Treaty of Westphalia.

“Musical Education as humanistic education”6

Right from the start, however, Barenboim and Said were not only concerned with organising and maintaining another professional ensemble in the worldwide classical music business. With regard to the eventful history of the 20th century and above all the Middle East, the founders’ central concern was to create a framework for young artists from enemy countries and cultures in which they could get to know and understand one another, in the spirit of Goethe, who formulated in an exemplary manner what the identification of man with his fellow man signifies:

“Who knows himself and others
will be recognise:
orient and occident
are not dividable any more.”7

In the sense of understanding Barenboim and Said venture their so far unique experiment: They gather young people from countries and religions of the Middle East that are hostile to each other and who want to help finding “in the absence of a political solution, a human solution”8 for the numerous conflicts.
But not only in this region, also otherwise humanity and understanding are for Barenboim the only sustainable guideline for a peaceful world. When making music together, one should learn what man must learn anyway if you want to have a future: “[...] to listen to one another – both as a musician and as a human being. Because learning to really listen to someone else makes us highly sensitive to ourselves and to the world we live in”.9 Cooperation, total commitment, fine-tuning by everyone are required if music-making is to succeed. Just look at the faces of orchestral musicians, conductors and soloists as they play: Everyone is obviously trying to give their best, because only in this way can music playing be successful.
All those involved are aware, from the outset, that their idealistic possibilities are limited: “We are musicians, not politicians”10, says Barenboim, and he demands that the willingness to communicate is not confused with a “duty to harmony”11. On the contrary: the discussion of opposing points of view is downright desirable, differences of opinion should not be swept under the carpet. Participants should “express their differences openly” and try to “understand the logic behind the opposing position”.12 At the annual gatherings not only musical education is promoted, but also lectures are given by invited guest speakers of different origins and discussions are held on various, often controversial topics.

High hurdles and their overcoming

But all this is easier said than done. For many of the musicians it is an immense challenge to live and work together with colleagues who come from a hostile country. Eloquent testimony is provided by the personal accounts of many of those involved,13 who joined the orchestra full of scepticism and mixed feelings. At first, many find it unreasonable to be in the same room as members of a hostile nation. While initially Palestinian, Israeli, Arab and other groups are formed who avoid each other or come into conflict with each other, respect and tolerance develop over time through joint rehearsals, performances and simple togetherness. While Syria, Lebanon and Iran deny Israel the right to exist, Israelis are not allowed to travel to the West Bank, and Palestinians to Israel only with express permission, contacts develop, friendships grow across national and religious borders: “We played music all day, we went out at night, were always together, even when serious things happened. The difficulties, personal problems, the violent conflict in the Middle East, and then the will to overcome these difficulties and minor conflicts, all these things bound us together.”14
On special occasions, the participants are confronted with the still harsh political reality. The first concert in the Arab world took place in Morocco’s capital Rabat in 2003. Two years later the legendary concert in the Israeli occupied West Bank in Ramallah15 follows, which attracts worldwide attention. Barenboim leaves it up to the musicians to participate. The security precautions are immense: the Arab musicians must pass through Israeli checkpoints; the Israelis are afraid to travel to Palestinian territory; for security reasons they are not allowed to leave the concert hall all day long. Bodyguards and armoured diplomatic vehicles are used. But all’s well that ends well: “The concert became a unique and overwhelming experience for all sides”.16 A concert (Symphony No 9 by Ludwig van Beethoven) in South Korea near the border to North Korea follows in 2011. Three years later the musicians will give a guest performance in Qatar’s capital Doha. A concert at the United Nations in Geneva follows in December 2016. So far, the orchestra was not granted to perform in Egypt and Israel.

The Barenboim-Said Academy in Berlin – a place in the service of utopia

In 2019, according to Barenboim, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is still in exile as it is not accepted by either the Arabs or the Israelis. “Few things have such a great utopian potential as exile”, he nevertheless says optimistically, quoting Edward W. Said with the consideration that “the pain of exile has the potential to deepen one’s own experience of humanity”.17 In their homelands, the next generation will never have the opportunity “to approach the enemy in this way”.18 First of all, for the Palestinians and the Israelis it is a matter of getting out of the impasse in which they have found themselves for decades. The young people have had enough of the eternal negotiations and wish for nothing more than a human instead of a political solution. If this generation does not yet succeed, then perhaps the next will, Mariam C. Said, the widow of Said, also hopes.19
In autumn 2016, Daniel Barenboim fulfilled another “lifelong dream”20 by establishing the Barenboim Said Academy in Berlin, where musical education is combined with a “humanistic and liberal arts curriculum”, “which attaches particular importance to critical reflection and open exchange”.21 This is intended to prevent specialisation, in which Said and Barenboim see a contemporary problem, even among professional musicians.
The project is realised in the former scenery depot of the Berlin State Opera Unter den Linden. Generous donations and contributions from the Daniel Barenboim Foundation and the Federal Republic of Germany enable the academy to be built. It comprises rehearsal and seminar rooms, an auditorium, a library and a beautiful chamber music hall, being the heart, which offers space on elliptical tiers for 700 visitors. The Californian architect Frank Gehry, admirer of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, designed it as a personal contribution by waiving a fee. The hall bears the name of the French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez (1925–2016), a close artist friend of Frank Gehry and Daniel Barenboim. It is the musical home of the newly founded Boulez Ensemble22 and the venue of a rich concert programme with some 150 events per year.23 “Flexibility, openness and musical curiosity are the guiding principles of the programme in the Pierre Boulez Hall – in the spirit of its eponym.”24.
Michael Naumann, political scientist, former minister of culture and founding director of the Barenboim-Said Academy, emphasises that the Academy can neither be a power factor nor drown out the countless conflicts with musical harmony. But it will “in the coexistence and joint play of its scholarship holders set a humanistic example that peace and harmony are possible. Its language is that of music, and it follows Edward W. Said’s conviction that ‘humanism is the only, more precisely, the last line of defence we have to resist the inhuman excesses and injustices that mar our human history.’”25
The graduates spend about one third of their training period studying humanities: They are taught philosophy, history, social sciences and literary studies in order to develop “their own ideas” of “what we call true, good and beautiful – in discussions that are not marked by false tolerance, but by the entirely old-fashioned certainty that only in contrapuntal, harmonious dialogue does that which unites us all unfold: a humanity that creates its most beautiful testimony in music”26, says Roni Mann, professor of philosophy and head of the faculty of humanities at the Barenboim-Said-Akademie, following Plato’s concepts of truth, good and beauty.

Projects around orchestra and academy

With the active help of Mariam C. Said, who cultivates contact with the Arab world, and Daniel Barenboim, who tirelessly holds lectures and master classes at various institutions, the orchestra and the academy and the Daniel Barenboim Foundation maintain numerous projects worldwide of which only a few are mentioned here.
In Ramallah the Barenboim-Said Music Center is operated, which supervises and coordinates music and educational projects for all ages in Israel and the West Bank with the aim of anchoring musical life in the culture of the local civil societies. Conservatories were founded and concert series are held regularly. In 2002, the Palestinian violist Ranzi Aburedwan founded a music school in the West Bank, which is mainly active in villages and refugee camps. In 2006, the Barenboim Said Conservatory was opened for 40 students in Nazareth. In 2007, the ensemble turns orchestra in residence at the Salzburg Festival, and in 2009, the first opera project is realised. “The Sultana of Cadiz” by Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga (1806–1826) is performed for the first time in the West Bank.
Music kindergartens are organised in Berlin and Ramallah for two to six-year-old children. The daily routine is marked by music, the children have various musical instruments at their disposal; they play a lot of music, sing and dance. The aim of these institutions is not to train gifted children to become virtuoso instrumentalists, but to let them get to know music as a form of world understanding: “We don’t just want to bring the children to music, but through music to life”27, says Daniel Barenboim. A 13-year-old girl from Ramallah told him that she is happy that “it” is there. When asked why she was so happy, she answers: “Because you are the first [...] the first thing from Israel that is neither a soldier nor a tank.”28
Another field of activity is the promotion of contemporary music. The orchestra commissioned compositions from artists from the Middle East like Jordan, Syria and Israel. By premiering the works at renowned music festivals, they also find their audiences.29


The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is not the only music project of this kind. Others also came up with the idea of putting music at the service of a good, greater cause. Elena Bashkirova, wife of Daniel Barenboim and mother of her two sons, founded the International Chamber Music Festival in 1998, which takes place every September in Jerusalem. According to the founder, it should help to make the “existential distortions” of everyday life – of which there are quite a few – more bearable. Three world religions live side by side in the city, and not always without conflict. With this festival, Bashkirova’s aim is to create an occasion “where political and religious jealousy can be forgotten and international unity sown and developed”.30
The Swiss musician and conductor Gunhart Mattes followed about the same approach with his “Orchestra for Peace”, which consisted of Ukrainian and Russian musicians. He founded it under the patronage of Federal Councillor and Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter and in 2016 organised a series of concerts, including one in the Tonhalle Zurich. The audience was enthusiastic about the idea of sending a signal of peace and willingness of cooperation in the face of the armed conflict between the two countries (since 2014).
Founded in 1978, the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra in Venezuela is a state orchestra and has become world-renowned for developing its unimagined quality under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel. It recorded remarkable CD recordings with Deutsche Grammophon and was regularly conducted by Claudio Abbado, Sir Simon Rattle and Zubin Mehta, among others. At the beginning, the main aim of this project was to give many young people from deprived backgrounds a musical education.
Sir Simon Rattle’s project with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2003, should also be mentioned in this context. Under his direction and that of choreographer and dance pedagogue Royston Maldoom, the orchestra rehearsed Igor Stravinsky’s highly demanding ballet “Le sacre du printemps” with a group of 250 socially marginalised students from 25 nations, an extraordinary achievement that no one had previously thought possible. The film “Rhythm Is It” bears eloquent witness to this.
Does this mean anything is possible with music? Almost – one is tempted to say. Barenboim speaks of the fact that with its help we are able to imagine an “alternative social model, a society in which utopian ideas and pragmatism combine, in which we have the possibility to express ourselves unhindered while at the same time keeping an open ear for the concerns and worries of others”.31 The point is to understand that “the well-being, dignity and happiness of one is inevitably linked to the well-being, dignity and happiness of the other”.32 As expressed earlier: music is the sound of utopia.    •

1    Barenboim, Daniel; Naumann, Michael (ed.). Der Klang der Utopie (The Sound of Utopia). Leipzig 2018, p. 117
2    Divan: Persian term for a collection of poems by Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. West-östlicher Divan (ed. 1819), in Sämtliche Werke (Collected Works). Zurich 1977, vol. 3, p. 284–566
With his collection of poems, Goethe pays homage to oriental literature and culture: he pays tribute to them and draws inspiration for his own poems from them. Cf.: Rötzer, Hans Gerd. Geschichte der deutschen Literatur (History of German Literature). Bamberg (Buchner) 1992, p. 116. D. Barenboim and E.W. Said provide a lively account of the exact circumstances surrounding the founding of the orchestra: Barenboim, Daniel, Klang ist Leben. Die Macht der Musik. (Sound is life. The power of music). Munich (Pantheon) 2009, pp. 67-95; Said, Edward W. Musik ohne Grenzen. (Music without limits) Munich 2015, pp. 313-338
3    Barenboim, Daniel; Naumann, Michael (ed.). Der Klang der Utopie, loc. cit.
4    Barenboim, Daniel. Preface in Cheah, Elena. Die Kraft der Musik, Das West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. (The power of music. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra) German paperback, Munich 2015, p. 10
5    ibid. S. 19
6    Barenboim, Daniel; Naumann, Michael (ed.). Der Klang der Utopie. loc. cit., p. 155
7    von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang loc. cit., p. 402
8    Barenboim, Daniel. Vorwort in Cheah, Elena. Die Kraft der Musik, Das West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, loc. cit., p. 9
9    Barenboim, Daniel; Naumann, Michael (ed.). Der Klang der Utopie. loc. cit., p. 18
10    ibid.
11    ibid. p. 44
12    Cheah, Elena. Die Kraft der Musik. Das West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. , loc. cit., p. 10
13    Cheah, Elena. Die Kraft der Musik. Das West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. loc. cit.
14    Cheah, Elena. Die Kraft der Musik. Das West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. loc. cit., p. 95
15    From this concert an audio CD and a video DVE are available.
16    Barenboim, Daniel; Naumann, Michael (ed.). Der Klang der Utopie. loc. cit., p. 54
17    ibid.
18    ibid.
19    Comment from Mariam Said in the film: Jenseits der Musik, Die Barenboim-Said-Musikakademie from David Bernet, ican films, FLARE FILM in co-production with SRF, rbb, in collaboration with arte, with support from the Swiss Federation (Federal office of culture), 2019
20    Barenboim, Daniel; Naumann, Michael (ed.). Der Klang der Utopie. loc. cit., p. 19
21    Barenboim, Daniel; Mann, Roni. Musikalische Bildung als humanistische Bildung: ein Manifest. (Musical education as humanistic education: a manifesto.) in: Barenboim, Daniel; Naumann, Michael (ed.). Der Klang der Utopie. loc. cit., p. 14
22    The ensemble is “not a clearly defined formation, but a growing international family of musicians, an ‘ensemble modulable’ for the ‘salle modulable’, (i.e. the Pierre Boulez Hall can be adapted to the respective occasion by means of different seating arrangements, W.P.), which attempts to realise what Pierre Boulez has exemplified – to engage intensively with music of all epochs, genres and origins, independent of fixed ensembles, while always remaining open, versatile and curious”. The Boulez-Ensemble, (Curiosity and dialogue), https://boulezsaal.de/de/concerts/boulez-ensemble
23    For further information see the following web sites: Pierre-Boulez-Saal: boulezsaal.de/de/, Barenboim-Said-Akademie https://barenboimsaid.de/home, West-Eastern Divan Orchestra: https://www.west-eastern-divan.org, Daniel Barenboim Stiftung: https://www.daniel-barenboim-stiftung.org/de/ueber-uns
24    Barenboim, Daniel; Naumann, Michael (ed.). Der Klang der Utopie.p. 207
25    ibid. p.123
26    ibid. p.162
27    Barenboim, Daniel; Naumann, Michael (ed.) Der Klang der Utopie. loc. sit. p.106
28    ibid. p.98
29    see Wikipedia keyword “West-Eastern Divan Orchestra”: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/West-Eastern_Divan_Orchestra
30    Frei, Marco. Hier spielt die Klassik zwischen drei Weltreligionen (Here the classics play accross three world religions), In: “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” from 4 April 2019, p. 42
31    Barenboim, Daniel; Naumann, Michael (ed.). Der Klang der Utopie., loc. cit., p. 75
32    ibid.

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