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Argentinian born Maestro Daniel Barenboim conducts the West-Eastern-Divan Orchestra, during a concert at the Lucerne Festival, Lucerne, Switzerland, 21August 2007
Barenboim's project brings people together with musicImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Israeli-Palestinian music

August 27, 2011

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra makes headlines with its message of peaceful coexistence. It is the hallmark of conductor Daniel Barenboim and his young musicians.


There is a modern day Tower of Babel on stage at the Cologne Philharmonic Hall. Young musicians from Israel, Palestine, Egypt and half of the Middle East, mostly in their mid-20s, are discussing ambiguities in the score shortly before rehearsal.

But when Daniel Barenboim enters and raises his baton, the young musicians of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra quickly find a common language: music - in this case Beethoven. All nine of the master's symphonies are on the program in five sold-out concerts at the Philharmonic hall.

In 1999, the Argentine-Israeli conductor Barenboim and the late-Palestinian literary scholar Edward Said first brought together young Israeli and Arab musicians to attend a workshop in Weimar. The two friends founded the orchestra, named after Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's poetry collection "West-Eastern Divan," to build bridges between people who until then had very few opportunities to meet.

Although Barenboim had always stressed that the goals of his project were non-political, the ambitious unifying project inextricably linked art and politics.

"The idea is to create a forum to bring young Arab and Israeli people with enthusiasm for music together to talk," said Barenboim.

At first it was simply an experiment, but twelve years after its foundation, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra has long been a highly successful project.

Together at the podium

Barenboim with the orchestra
The musicians have been anxiously following events in the Arab revolutionImage: WEDO/Luis Castilla

Many Israelis in the orchestra meet an Arab for the first time in their lives - and vice versa. For example if a Syrian member joins the orchestra his musical partners at first might only see an "enemy."

"At first, he probably sees him as a monster," Barenboim said. "But then when they make music together, they see not an 'enemy' but something different. Six or seven hours of rehearsals creates common experiences, goals, feelings and above all, respect for each other."

Clearly, orchestra members won't always agree on political questions, but for many, working in the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra has become an important fixture in their lives. They often form friendships here that would never have emerged without this experience.

You have to admire the courage of the young musicians in this orchestra, Barenboim said.

"Many of them have been attacked in their home countries," he said. "There is even danger because they make music with the so-called enemy."

Recent conflict

Barenboim at a rehearsal
Given a few rehearsals, enemies become friends in music, Barenboim saysImage: DW

The 68-year-old Barenboim has been impressed by the recent upheavals in many Arab states.

"It's a bold move for these people to fight for change and freedom," he said. Since the orchestra was founded, it was his ambition to play in the countries where his musicians come from. For years he has struggled to play in Egypt or Syria. "We have not succeeded, but maybe now, with the Arab revolution, we finally have a chance," he said.

But his optimism is scarcely justified by recent developments in Syria and along the the Israeli-Egyptian border. The Syrian orchestra members followed the news about the unrest in their homeland closely, as the Israeli and Egyptian musicians reacted with horror to the recent violence in the Gaza Strip.

"This conflict is constantly in our minds, we are anxious and fear an escalation of the situation," said Barenboim.

"In our orchestra musicians from both countries sit peacefully together. No matter how different their political views are, none of them believe that we can resolve this conflict by military means."

Politicians in the music school

Barenboim with Guido Westerwelle
Guido Westerwelle presented Barenboim the Westphalian Peace awardImage: AP

Music is not necessarily resolve all the tensions, but with his orchestra of reconciliation Barenboim has shown that young musicians from Israel and other countries of the Middle East actually all speak a common language, if they are only given the chance to meet.

"Our orchestra represents an alternative way of thinking compared with what is happening now in the Middle East," Barenboim said. Because for him all Beethoven symphonies require the same thing he added, "All politicians should go to music school to learn something essential - listening."

As Barenboim points out, the only way to achieving musical harmony is for each musician to listen attentively to the voice of the composer and to his or her colleagues. According to the conductor, it's the same with politics: "This harmony can only develop by listening, by opening the ears to the perspectives and narratives of others."

Candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize

Barenboim's commitment to reconciliation has been recognized throughout in the Arab world and in Europe, where Barenboim was awarded the Westphalian Peace Prize in 2010 and now the Tolerance Prize of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts.

He's since been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The conductor was filled with gratitude but he is very modest.

"I really don't want to comment on that," Barenboim said. "Either you get the prize and you have to think hard about what to say about it, or you don't get the prize and then you should remain silent."

Author: Marita Berg (st)
Editor: Ben Knight

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