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On the Nature and Power of Music

  From Barenboim's 5 Reith-lectures (2006)

5. The Power of Music

Throughout this series of Reith lectures I have been focused on the content of music and its relationship to life. Here, today in this final lecture, I would like to explore the power that music has over us, the power of the association that music evokes - that is to say I would like to distinguish between the substance of music, and our perceptions of it, and ultimately to consider the difference between power and strength in music, and in life.

It is essential to understand that music is conceived of, and eventually delivered, from the point of view of one individual. As a result subjectivity is an integral and necessary part of music. And therefore the permanent relationship between subjectivity and objectivity is an essential aspect of music making, as it is of life. Even the freedom of speed in music, what is called tempo rubato, which is nothing else but Italian for stolen time. Tempo rubato can not be willfully conceived, but must inevitably have at the very least a contact with the objective sense of time, i.e. not stolen. And here again we are confronted with what I like to see as the moral responsibility of the ear. After all, it is the ear that determines audibility and transparency in music. It is the ear that must guide us in tempo rubato to have the moral strength to give back what was inadvertently stolen. In other words, when taking time in parts of a phrase, we must find the right place to give it back. This is not unlike the moral responsibility to give back what has been stolen. ...

It is crucial to distinguish between the nature of music on the one hand, and the associations that it evokes on the other. Consider how Beethoven was misused and abused in German politics, by Bismarck, by Hitler, and by the East German Republic. The irony of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony being played in the Nazi era - 'Alle Menschen werden Bruder' - 'All men will be become brothers' - all that is except a few. In other words the concept of fraternity is being defined in advance in the sense that you can keep some people out of it. We are talking here about a critical distinction. We are back at my earlier question about the knife - a question that I raised in one of the earlier lectures. Is the knife an instrument with which we can commit murder, therefore a violent instrument, or is it one with which we can feed the other? The knife in itself is not moral, it is the human being who has the capacity to make it moral or immoral, and it is the human being who has the responsibility of creating the associations. And therefore the problem with playing Beethoven's music in Nazi times, or even with playing Wagner's music here in Israel, is not the music in itself, but the association that it evokes in people. This I am afraid is linked to political correctness, and is tied to ideological thinking. When you play a piece of music you must find the content, and you can only do that from the point of view of one individual. And no matter how wide and objective that individual tries to be, there is inevitably an element of such activity in it. The use and abuse of Wagner's ideas and music was an integral part of the last years of the Third Reich - in fact of the whole Third Reich - and it is not only understandable, but self-evident, that somebody who suffers from this kind of association is not only unwilling but unable to hear this music. And there is no reason in the world to force him or her to do so.

It is not my intention - it never was, and it never will be - to force this music or any music on anybody, and I certainly do not question the horrible associations that holocaust survivors have with specific pieces of Wagner. I can only hope that time will eventually help to liberate these human beings from previous negative associations, ultimately to hear the music for what it truly is. It is not my place to tell those who suffered from terrible associations what to do about Wagner, but I believe it is my place to tell those who can and want to listen to Wagner, that the music itself is not the agent of the suffering. In the meantime however, I do believe that it is equally important not to force negative associations on those who fortunately do not suffer from them. Therefore, in the democratic society, the decision whether it is permissible to hear Wagner or not must be individual and not imposed by law or even worse, the result of a taboo. True democracy can only exist without taboos.

Obviously it is imperative to differentiate between substance and perception. The problem with association is that one is the victim of the perception, and not of the substance. It is critical that we are not just slaves to the associations created by listening to a piece of music, but that we understand its substance, in the same way that a leader has to understand the substance of what his people are telling him. I went into great detail, and I'm afraid I cannot do it again today, er into the fact that one can only articulate the content of music with sound and not with words, but the fact that one cannot articulate it with words of course does not mean that it doesn't have a content. And although music means many things to many different people, and very often means many different things to the same person at different times - poetical, mathematical, sensual, philosophical - it is only expressed through sound and therefore it can be said without a question of a doubt that it has something to do with the human being, that it has something to do with the human condition. And this is the humanity of music.

I had the great privilege of attending several lectures given here in Jerusalem by Martin Buber, many years ago. It was Buber who made me realise the necessity of always looking beyond one's first impression, of digging deeper and finding connections. As he wrote in I and Thou, and I quote, 'There is nothing that I must not see in order to see, and there is no knowledge that I must forget. Rather is everything, picture and movement, space and instance, law and number included, and inseparably fused.' As human beings we often tend to want to manipulate the element of time. When we are in a pleasurable situation we would like it to go on forever, and when we are in a painful situation we wish we could shorten it, in both cases because we either want change from a painful situation, or we want to keep change from interfering with pleasure. But music shows us the inevitable flaw of life, which depends on change, the fluidity of life. ...

Transition, let us not forget, is the basis of human existence. In music it is not enough simply to play a statement of a phrase, it is absolutely essential to see how we arrived there, and to prepare it. One plays a statement one way at the beginning of a piece, but when the same statement returns later, in what we call in musical terminology the recapitulation, it is in a completely different psychological state of mind. And therefore the bridge, the transition, determines not only itself but what comes after it. It is important to recognise that the present does not exist without the past, and that the present would be different with another past. At the same time, what we do in the present is inevitably the prelude to what the future will be. And the future is determined not by something that we passively wait for, but it is the inevitable outcome that we prepare from the present moment. ...

It is essential in this regard to understand the difference between strength and power. Power itself has only one kind of strength, which is that of control. But even the great power of sound, in Beethoven, Brahms or Wagner, does not have to create the association of power that works exclusively through control, but instead through actual real strength, the accumulative strength that comes from the build-up of tension. Even the most powerful chord has to allow the inner voices to be heard, otherwise it has no tension, only brutal aggressive power. You must hear the opposition, the notes that oppose the main idea. In other words, the concept of transparency is essential in music, because if it is not orally transparent you cannot actually get the totality of the music, you only get one line of it. In Mozart for example, very often in the operas you have perfectly harmonised ensemble, and yet every single voice is saying something completely different, and all this at the same time. But you still have a definite sense of organisation, you have main voices and you have subsidiary voices - music would be totally uninteresting without this. Even at the moment when all the elements are unified, when everything comes together in a single chord, you still hear all the different voices.

Let us consider for a moment the example of playing in an orchestra. When very powerful instruments, the so-called musical heavyweights - trumpet and trombone - play in a chord where the whole orchestra is playing they have to play in such a way that they give a full sense of power, but that they allow the other instruments, who are less powerful, to be heard at the same time. Otherwise they cover them up, and then the sound has no strength, only power. See the difference? Therefore when you play in an orchestra everybody is constantly aware of everybody else.

In my view this is a model for society. Leadership throughout history, and it is probably inherent in the human nature, has been based on the effect it can produce because of the weakness of the people, not because of their strength. How wonderful the world would be if it were ruled by people who understood this lesson from music, and understood the importance of combining transparency, power and strength. But if music is so human, if music is so all inclusive and so positive, we have to ask ourselves how is it possible that monsters such as Adolf Hitler and others had such love for music? How do we explain that? How to explain the fact that Hitler was able to send millions of people to the gas chamber and would be moved to tears listening to music? How? How was Wagner able to write music of such nobility and also write his monstrous anti-Semitic pamphlet? I believe people don't think about music, they just let it wash over them, and operate on them in an almost animal way. Music to me is sound with thought, and as Spinoza believed that rationality was the saving grace of the human being, then we must learn to look at music like this too.

This is why music in the end is so powerful, because it speaks to all parts of the human being, all sides - the animal, the emotional, the intellectual, and the spiritual. How often in life we think that personal, social and political issues are independent, without influencing each other. From music we see that this cannot occur, it is an objective impossibility, because in music there are no independent elements. Logical thought and intuitive emotions are permanently united. Music teaches us that everything is connected.

Throughout these lectures I have been attempting to draw parallels between the inexpressible content of music and the inexpressible content of life. We have talked about the phenomenon of sound, about the distinction between hearing and listening, about the need for having a point of view, both in music and in life, and we have spoken about how music can bring people together, how music itself can be a great connector. As I conclude these lectures here in Jerusalem today, we have come full circle. This too, ladies and gentlemen, I learned from music, because when you perform a piece of music you have to be able to hear the last note before you play the first. Thank you very much.  

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