Daniel Barenboim – Reith Lecturer 2006

Written by: Colin Anderson

It was on the 20th of January this year that I and about 800 other invitees attended Cadogan Hall in London for the first of Daniel Barenboim’s five BBC Reith Lectures for 2006. “The Reith Lectures were inaugurated in 1948 by the BBC to mark the historic contribution made to public service broadcasting by Sir John (later Lord) Reith, the corporation’s first director-general.” I quote from the information given on the BBC’s excellent Reith Lectures website (link below).

The first Reith Lecture was given by Bertrand Russell – and can still be listened to, on the Reith site. Furthermore – and this has real resonance in the light of dumbing-down, reality shows, and the infestation of intrusive pop and soulless electronic ‘music’ for almost any application: “John Reith maintained that broadcasting should be a public service which enriches the intellectual and cultural life of the nation.”

Step forward Daniel Barenboim, musician and humanitarian. Eminent as the former and impressive as the latter (‘celebrity’ is a no-no word these days given it includes the ‘inadequate and untalented’) – Barenboim said all the right things on that January evening in Cadogan Hall. There are no doubt equally perceptive and provocative sentiments in the four succeeding Lectures. All are about to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4: weekly from Friday 7 April to Friday 5 May at 9.00 a.m., and repeated on Saturdays at 10.15 p.m., with the Reith website publishing the complete transcript of each lecture after each broadcast. The Lectures will also be available as a podcast and as MP3 downloads.

Listening again to Barenboim’s London discourse – an opportunity made possible by BBC Radio 4, which kindly supplied me, on CD, with the version to be broadcast (well edited, too, with nothing recalled from that evening ‘missing’) – is to be in the company of a caring, thoughtful and passionate individual. The BBC is to be congratulated for commissioning Barenboim – and to him for saying what he says – yet it must also be mentioned that the dubious traits of ‘modern’ broadcasters, which can be analogised to Barenboim’s address (even if this is not his specific intention), do not find the BBC blameless; producers and executives of the Corporation will I hope listen intently to Barenboim’s words and not think them ‘for other people’.

“A life saturated with music” is how presenter and moderator Sue Lawley introduced Daniel Barenboim in Cadogan Hall, the music director of Staatskapelle Berlin and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the co-founder, with the late Edward Said, of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra that is made up of young Arab and Israeli musicians. The latter, as Barenboim is always quick to point out, is not governed by politics but by music. Recent releases include Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony on CD and DVD (2564 62190-5) and Beethoven’s 5th (2564 62791-2, CD, and 2564 62792-2, a 2-DVD set that includes a 93-minute documentary, “Knowledge is the Beginning”). The Warner Classics link, below, will give more details.

In this first Reith Lecture, a vivid memory, Barenboim commanded the stage of Cadogan Hall (note the lack of that irritating phrase: ‘on stage’) talking for about 20 minutes without notes and rarely standing at the lectern, preferring to pace. And Barenboim strode the platform inspiringly, and didn’t once cliché with ‘for the 21st-century’. He said he is attracted by the impossible rather than the difficult, that we are neglecting our ears, that we now have information rather than education, and that the eye, “bombarded with imagery”, has become more important than the ear – but it should be the other way round.

Anyone who loves, understands and respects music will surely appreciate Barenboim’s concerns: it’s the reason I am writing this article and I hope that as many people as possible will catch his words, whether on Radio 4, as a podcast, or through reading the transcript.

Under the overall title of “In the Beginning was Sound”, Barenboim’s five Reith Lectures were given in, respectively, London, Chicago, Berlin, Ramallah and Jerusalem. In London, Barenboim made distinctions between ‘listening’ and ‘hearing’ and between ‘power’ and ‘strength’ Although the basis of his comments were all music-related, they went beyond music – as great music does, of course.

The first Lecture’s basis was “why is music so important?” And the art of listening, also – to music’s dynamics, colours, science and silences. Silence! That got me thinking about people who ‘hear’ on ear-pieces in trains (while disturbing others!) – and it’s usually ‘pop’ stuff with its oppressive moronic beat – or the imposition that some retail shops and banks have adopted by force-feeding customers and clients music (‘pop’, of course).If, like me, you find this trend obnoxious, do take a look at Pipedown (another of the links below), a site nothing to do with the writer, but it’s good to know that it’s there. Why do the likes of HSBC, Halifax Bank, WH Smiths, Boots and Woolworth’s – to name but five – wish to be ‘silence destroyers’? Corporately they have no ‘musical appreciation’ (and all I want to do is get out and not buy anything). ‘Muzak’ is among Barenboim’s topics for his second Lecture, for example the inanity of having Brahms’s Violin Concerto played in a Chicago hotel’s lift! “We have anaesthetised the ears … muzak is more dangerous to health than smoking.”

That comment is from the first Lecture, Barenboim speaking about music as being, for him, “more about living than making a living” and of the discernment needed for proper listening. Barenboim confessed to be “unhappy about the place of music in society” – he means of course what we loosely term ‘classical’ music – and, after his 20-minute solo spot, there were questions from David Mellor, Steve Martland, Lesley Garrett, Julian Joseph, James MacMillan, Willard White, and others.

This was a lively evening, Barenboim’s compelling concerns and his witty ripostes will make ‘good radio’ and it’s heartening to know that his views are so accessible, whether on radio or interactively. He was neither moaning nor studied; rather there was a spontaneity that came from deep-rooted consideration. But writing as one who is no fan of trailers – their overuse and hype usually mean avoiding the programme being ‘sold’ – this is where I stop.

  • BBC Reith Lecture Site
  • Lecture 1: 7 April 2006 – In the Beginning was Sound
  • Lecture 2: 14 April 2006 – The Neglected Sense
  • Lecture 3: 21 April 2006 – The Magic of Music
  • Lecture 4: 28 April 2006 – Meeting in Music
  • Lecture 5: 5 May 2006 – The Power of Music
  • Warner Classics
  • Pipedown

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