Skip to content

Reith 2006: Points for debate

Updated Wednesday, 5th April 2006

How does music make sense of our world? Richard Langham Smith discusses Daniel Barenboim's 2006 Reith Lectures

This page was published over five years ago. Please be aware that due to the passage of time, the information provided on this page may be out of date or otherwise inaccurate, and any views or opinions expressed may no longer be relevant. Some technical elements such as audio-visual and interactive media may no longer work. For more detail, see our Archive and Deletion Policy

Barenboim on music: A way to make sense of our world, our politics, our history, our future and our very essence.
Barenboim’s main thesis in his first lecture is to counter the argument that music is merely a way of escaping, unwinding or relaxing. What do we make of his bold statement that music is involved in politics, history and our future? Many of the other points he and the audience makes develops these broad aims.

As for politics and history there is of course our nationalism: music that gives us a sense of our Britishness. Sue Lawley will know this well: how many of her subjects for Radio 4's Desert Island Discs choose at least some music which reminds us of our nationhood? As a regular listener I can confirm that there are quite a lot. Is this healthy I wonder? Some might say not, and find Elgar, Vaughan Williams and the Dam Busters jingoistic. And anyway, what is it about Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ that is so British anyway?

So much for the past. What about our future? Are we doing enough for music? And are we making enough music?

How do we talk about music? Isn’t the whole point that it expresses the inexpressible?
In one of several neatly expressed paradoxes Barenboim claims that it is impossible to speak about music. ‘All we can do is to speak about our own reaction to it’. However, he jests, he prefers the challenge of the impossible over the merely difficult!

Does talking about the form of music, pointing out what to listen for, help us to appreciate music? (I hope so, since I’ve spent my life as a lecturer doing this very thing!) But maybe it’s a question we need to reconsider. Some of the respondents may think that the very fact that we need some knowledge puts people off classical music, makes it a ‘closed universe’. A big question.

On the other hand, doesn’t merely talking about our own reactions become our own biographies, not really much to do with the essence of music. And this ties up with education: you can learn to appreciate, to benefit and to enjoy on deeper and deeper levels.

What’s your experience of this? Teachers of music: what do you think?

Too much neglecting of the ears and too much emphasis on the visual?
A line of thought which permeates many of Barenboim’s arguments, and is one of his underlying themes is the idea that our culture has become too visual at the expense of the aural.

Is this to do with television’s replacement of the ‘wireless’, to which we only half-listen? Or is it colour print, coloured movies from TV and now our laptops even? Beautiful things to look at replace the images we used to conjure up from Radio, which claim to have the ‘better pictures’. Many of us still listen a lot and would miss the simple pleasure of listening without the pictures.

Do you share Barenboim's views?

Music as an aid to broader life-skills

The skill of listening and understanding, for Barenboim, extends beyond music and he seems to claim that listening to music—possibly while making music rather than merely listening—also helps us listen to words more carefully. Several times he returns to the point that music can be a peacemaker.

A further lesson that music teaches us is the way in which all aspects of life—like the musical phrase—form into groups which are more than the sum of their parts. For Barenboim as conductor and pianist, it is the binding together of these groups, in musical terms with a legato, which is the essence of this.
Another fundamental lesson that music teaches us is the necessity of a controlling force which balances discipline and passion. In music talent is not enough: music teaches us to think deeply, and above all develops our powers of understanding.

What life-skills has music taught you?

David Mellor, politician and well-known enthusiast of music asks about Barenboim’s celebrated West-East Divan Orchestra made up of Palestinians and Jews. Barenboim counters any suggestion that this was a ‘peace initiative’ but rather relates it to the notions expressed above of helping ‘listening’ and ‘understanding’ in the utopian republic of the orchestra. ‘All are equal in front of a symphony’, claimed Barenboim, going on to suggest that the elements of music—harmony, melody, rhythm—were a metaphor for life itself.

Orchestral players: is this your experience?

Personal experiences of learning music: his and yours
Barenboim talks of his early experience of music, teaching us the difference between power and strength. Music also can teach us eloquence.

What has music taught you?

Music’s centrality: is it more than a relaxant? Nietszche’s celebrated quotation that ‘life without music would be a mistake’ leads Barenboim into musings on how music is more than a relaxant. On the other hand, the brain-scientist Professor Parsons tells us that his work has proved that while listening to Bach ‘large other regions of the brain are de-activated’. To put into simpler terms, music leads us into an ‘inner peaceful place’.

A question for performers: music and silence
Music, Barenboim claims, has to relate to silence, out of which it inevitably rises. This he illustrates with one of the late sonatas of Beethoven, showing how carefully the first notes had to be voiced, as if arising out of silence, rather than merely starting. This is the first of several telling musical examples. For him, this interruption of silence is the ‘tragic’ element of all music.

How many musicians out there think this way?

The living composer: Essential or elitist?
Composers Steve Martland and James MacMillan challenge Barenboim for a comment on Classical composers today. What is their role? The cellist Julian Lloyd Webber raises the question of elitism, wondering whether there is a sense that classical music is only for the gifted few. MacMillan calls it a ‘closed universe’. And Willard White asks why there are so few black people in classical music.

Where have we gone wrong?

Can popular music and jazz be as transcendent as classical?
Not for Barenboim it seems. He celebrates with those for whom pop music could have a transcendental quality, but it is apparent that it did not for him. The Jazz musician Julian Joseph asks Barenboim about the value of improvisation. Barenboim calls improvisation the highest form of art, and suggests that one’s first encounter with a new score is often akin to improvisation, and an important gut reaction which will later grow from deeper knowledge of the piece.

What do you think?

More points to debate





Related content (tags)

Copyright information

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?