Review: Prom 50, Fidelio played by Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

This post was written by Jacob on August 24, 2009
Posted Under: Israel/Palestine,Jewishness,London,Music,Reviews

The proms don’t normally get much in the way of political coverage. In fact the last time they did was about a year and a half ago when Margaret Hodge decided to make some stupid announcement about them not being inclusive enough, so it was a real joy to have such a politically charged concert as the performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio last night as a highlight of the season. The opera was performed by the East-Western Divan Orchestra, which was set up ten years ago by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said. The orchestra is made up of young musicians from around the Middle East, including members from both Israel and Palestine. Barenboim says that the idea of the orchestra was to find common ground in knowledge, and offer a chance for dialogue to young people.

Daniel Barenboim and members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (image taken from West-Eastern Divan Orchestra website)

Daniel Barenboim and members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (image taken from West-Eastern Divan Orchestra website)

In the context of the ongoing oppression in the Middle East, Fidelio is a poignant work to bring into the debate. It tells the story of Leonore, who rescues her lover from a prison, where he his being held by Rocco under the orders of the corrupt Don Pizarro. It is a story of bravery, hope, and ultimately emancipation. The political message is clear, that there is an analogy between the prisoners kept by Pizarro, and the oppression faced by the Palestinians, and yet there is rather more to the politics of this opera, and in fact the situation in Palestine, that warrants further discussion.

Beethoven is, in many ways, the first self-consciously philosophical composer of the Enlightenment era, and his philosophical concerns are tied to the idealism of the French Revolution, and later to Hegel. These may seem like big claims, not least when we are so often told that “music speaks for itself”, but the reality is that Western European music in the 19th century was completely inseparable from a number of philosophical and political debates. We would miss so much of what this opera has to say if we were unwilling to discuss it in these terms, and whilst new readings are always possible, and new significances can always be brought out, it is useful in understanding the motives of the opera to consider it in its own period and its own intellectual tradition.

The first act of the opera is concluded by a chorus of prisoners, who due to a deal Rocco has made with Leonore, are allowed out of their dungeons and into the open air. Their song of “O welche Lust! In freier Luft / den Atem leicht zu heben! / Nur hier ist Leben / der Kerker eine Gruft” [Oh, what joy! In the open air / to breathe with ease! / Only here is life / the prison is a tomb.] represents the ideals of the French Revolution, both of liberty and fraternity. The prisoners are a radical, or in fact revolutionary, collective, and this is an idea that Beethoven returns to throughout his oeuvre, most notably (and probably less successfully than the end of Act I of Fidelio) in the Finale of the Ninth Symphony. Leonore is the heroine, asserting too a revolutionary consciousness in order that she and Florestan (her imprisoned lover) may be together, where Pizarro, a signifier of the old feudal order, has previously prevented their love. And finally there is Rocco, the jailor, who in the course of the opera undergoes a complete transformation from being the bondsman of Pizarro, to becoming a collaborator with revolutionaries, for he has seen that what is being proposed is not simply humane but a path to a better, freer world.

There is lots to be taken from this opera in terms of a response to the Israel-Palestine conflict, we have to single act of bravery by Leonore, in rescuing Florestan, showing the difference that the bravery and responsibility of each person can make, we have the chorus of prisoners, who offer a glimpse of an imagined future, one in which freedom and solidarity are inextricably linked, and then most importantly Rocco shows that minds can be changed, that the possibility of a freer future is the emancipation not simply of those who are imprisoned, but of the consciousnesses of those who imprison.

Yesterday’s performance was prefaced by the showing of a film called Knowledge is the Beginning, which chronicled the progression of the orchestra from its inception in 1999 to a concert given in Ramallah in 2005. This film, like Barenboim, is relatively hard-hitting. It may not be hardcore anti-Zionism, but it is heavily critical of the Israeli government and the occupation.

(what is cut from the end of this short clip from the film is the Israeli Minister for Education accusing Barenboim of using the opportunity of receiving the award to attack the Israeli state)

Throughout the film there is yet more Beethoven, but it is never quite made explicit that Barenboim sees the politics of Beethoven as offering an ideological critique of the current state of affairs in the Middle East. Nonetheless, it is clearly important to him, although the superimposition of Beethovenian politics on the Israel-Palestine question does throw up some issues. The most notable, which came up a number of times in the short discussion after the film, is that this is possibly taking the form of colonial ideology, the idea that “we” in “the West” achieved this freedom with our bourgeois revolutions, and that maybe some place in “the East” has something to learn from it. Such an issue is backed up again by the description of music (Western classical) as a universal language, and along with that the freedom expressed in Beethoven, which is of course tied to his own time, and his own intellectual tradition is made transcendent and transhistorical.

These are easy remarks to make in an effort to discredit what the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra do, but I think our theoretical approach need be a bit more subtle than this, and the politics of this project are rather more subtle too. The point of the project is that it is not theoretical in this sense, but rather it is entirely pragmatic. If, as such, the ideas in Beethoven become a useful expression for the problems of the Middle East then we should be willing to accept them, despite the problems. The project, in offering dialogue, is not set out to offer an ideology of emancipation, but rather offers a politics of emancipation.

We should be wary of the possibility of Beethoven, or in fact Western classical music as a whole becoming an instrument of colonial discourse, but here they are being used simply because of their expressive capacity, rather than because an accurate analogy is being drawn. The consequence of this, though, is that we must do away with the notion of music as a universal language. It is only when we address each situation of oppression in its particularity and specificity, that we can come to political conclusions, and so the superimposition of transcendent notions of oppression and salvation (such as those that were inherent in French Revolutionary ideology) obscure rather than elucidate the issue at hand. Beethoven, and many revolutionaries of his era did believe in universal concepts of freedom, and universal concepts of emancipation, this is very much the essence of the idealism of that age, but we must reject the idea that these are universal, and I believe we can do this without throwing out the meaning of these works of art, and without accepting the complete enlightenment project, we can accept its striving for humanity.

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is an extremely important project. As Barenboim admits, it will not bring peace, but it is a step forward. It is the same bravery as Leonore, but unlike in the plot of Fidelio, it cannot bring about a revolution. Furthermore, the project is doing a great deal to repoliticise Beethoven, and music in general. That is not to say that music is being made instrumental to external political struggles, but rather that the music itself is being allowed once again to refract on to our society in a way that has been less and less common over the last fifty years.

The concert is available on view again and listen again on the BBC website for another six days.
For more information on the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

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Reader Comments

Hi Jacob,

Great blog, great review. I’d certainly agree that just because Beethoven is a Dead White Male, this doesn’t mean he should not be performed outside the West, or by non-Westerners. To quote Said: the idea that ‘if you’re a white man you can say you have Beethoven, and the black man’s not supposed to listen to Beethoven, he’s supposed to listen to Calypso’ is a trap—rather such cultural objects should be understood as ‘part of the possession of all… humankind’ (Power, Politics and Culture, 116).

Of course Said does not mean this as a romantic idealist assertion implying music is a ‘universal language’–for the historical and cultural specificity of a work like Fidelio remains inescapable, whoever performs it, and wherever, it is performed. Rather that a belief today in an authentic culture, is itself inauthentic, that there is for all us inescapably, ‘a sort of messing up and involvement of everyone with everyone else’.

What that means, of course, is that the continuing inequtable treatment of the Palestinian people at the hands of the international community (including, of course, Israel itself) is only more offensive, more politically and morally unsustainable. What we do to them we indeed do to ourselves.

Written By Peter Tregear on August 24th, 2009 @ 5:53 am

This review made me wish so much I could have been at the concert — thanks for the view again link, which I hope lots of people will make use of. Thanks, too, for the clip of Barenboim’s speech, which is so eloquent, direct and powerful in its simplicity and humanity.

Written By Julia on August 25th, 2009 @ 10:54 am

Wonderful review. Edward’s Said’s narrative is important because it opens the opera out of the opera house and into the real world. So Beethoven’s message can reach people beyond the safe confines of classical music. Said is reminding us, don’t be complacent, millions of Florestans all over the world will never get free. The drama doesn’t go on when the music ends. Which is why this performance was so disturbing to many who want a “happy ending”. It’s incredibly brave of the BBC to do this Prom next to Handel’s Samson which is about ethnic cleansing and suicide terrorism. Some folks in suits have brains.

Written By Anne on August 25th, 2009 @ 10:01 pm

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