Fine by me if Barenboim strikes a false note
The great conductor’s views on the EU may not move me, but I’m happy to leave that to his music
There’s an old Jewish joke about the curse of the Plotnick Diamond. The diamond is magnificent – one of the largest and purest in the world. But the woman who wears it tells everyone that it comes with a curse: Mr Plotnick.
That’s sometimes how I feel about Daniel Barenboim. There is no greater musician on earth. He is incapable of a routine performance and his insights, either as a pianist, a conductor or a lecturer on music, are peerless. But to get that side of him you have to put up with the other – the compulsion to tell the rest of us what we are doing wrong in our non-musical lives.
It’s a price I am more than happy to pay, but his antics on Sunday night at the Proms have riled many. He didn’t mention Brexit by name – and was careful to say his words were “not political” – but you’d have to be verbally tone deaf not to get what he meant. “When I look at the world with so many isolation (sic) tendencies, I get very worried.” He went on to deliver a rather thoughtful plea for more education about European culture and the dangers of religious fanaticism.
According to many on social media, as a Brexiteer I should take great offence at all this. I’ve two objections to this response. First, I agree with every word Barenboim said. I don’t want to leave the EU to withdraw into petty nationalism. It is precisely because I worry that an anti-democratic EU is fostering extremism across Europe that I want out. Brexit was about embracing the rest of the world with equal vigour to our relations with our European friends. Indeed a key problem with Brussels is that the drive towards EU nationalism smothers those European cultures – German, French, Finnish etc – that Barenboim rightly cares so much about.
But I’ve a deeper issue with the idea that Barenboim should be, as it were, seen and not heard. I’ve been lucky enough to meet a large number of great artists and for many of them their engagement with the wider world beyond their music, literature or acting is integral to their art. For the likes of Barenboim you simply can’t have one without the other.
Take Igor Levit, the pianist who opened the Proms on Friday. I’ve rarely heard a more intellectually rigorous musician, equally blessed with pianistic talent. His encore on Friday was his own political statement – a transcription by Liszt of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the EU anthem. But he is sometimes unable to contain himself to such subtleties and has been known to make overtly political remarks from the stage.
Would I rather they kept their mouths shut when they’re performing and confined politics to other occasions? Certainly. Does it matter that much when, every so often, they can’t help themselves? Not really.
But although the caricature of the lefty-liberal artist berating the rest of the world is probably accurate when it comes to lecturing us after a performance – when was the last time you heard an actor interrupt a curtain call to attack the Government for letting the national debt rise too high? – it’s misleading in other respects.
Take our greatest living composer, Sir James Macmillan. Once on the Left of Labour, Sir James now says he votes Conservative – and is a powerful voice for a form of thoughtful conservatism that one might – wrongly – be led to think is entirely absent from the arts.
In 2015 the Catholic Herald made him its Catholic of the Year for what it called “his fight against the new secular establishments… waging a holy war on 1970s-style Mass settings that he describes as ‘musically illiterate’”. And he is an unstinting defender of what he describes as “a civilisation shaped by Judaeo-christian values and culture”. That has led him, as a long-standing antifascist, to take a stance against the SNP, whose rhetoric disturbs him greatly.
Or take the Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin, a British citizen since 2002. Some years ago he wrote a piece attacking the BBC for its anti-israel bias. On the back of that I arranged to interview him. I thought if I was lucky I might get 45 minutes. Three and a half hours later I turned off my tape recorder having been treated to an intellectual tour de force of modern conservative thinking, rooted in his time growing up in the Soviet Union. He has just published his Memoirs and Reflections – musical and otherwise.
Intellectual engagement is a key part of being an artist. If the politics of the former overwhelm the beauty of the latter, there is, of course, always the option of walking out.