Writers and Company

Maestro Daniel Barenboim on his life in music — and its role in bringing cultures together

Daniel Barenboim spoke to Eleanor Wachtel about his lifelong passion for music, in a conversation recorded in 2008 from Milan.
A musical conductor raises his hands as he leads an orchestra.
Conductor Daniel Barenboim rehearses with members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at the Berlin Philahrmonic. (Sean Gallup, Getty Images)

This episode originally aired in 2008.

Daniel Barenboim believes in the transformative power of music.

As a child in Buenos Aires and the son of piano teachers, Barenboim gave his first concert when he was only seven years old. This was the beginning of an illustrious career that soon led him, as both pianist and conductor, to the world's greatest stages. 

He's been conductor of the Orchestra of Paris and musical director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin State Opera, a position he held for the past three decades.

But Barenboim's influence goes beyond the concert stage. In 1999, with the Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said, he founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which brings together young Arab and Israeli musicians. He's said it's about "learning to listen to others through music."

Daniel Barenboim spoke to Eleanor Wachtel about that project, and his lifelong passion for music, in a conversation recorded in 2008 from Milan.

Musical childhood

A black and white photo of a young boy with sitting with his hands on a piano smiling.
Thirteen-year-old Daniel Barenboim rehearses at the Royal Festival Hall in London in 1956. (Reg Burkett, Keystone, Hulton Archive, Getty Images)

"Well, you know Argentina is a very unique place. Argentina was a very cosmopolitan country. Buenos Aires was a very cosmopolitan city. There were two large Jewish communities — one Sephardic and one Ashkenazi. There were many different Arab communities, Syrians and Lebanese mostly, but also from Iraq and other places. There was an English community, German and then later on Japanese. [Argentina was] much more cosmopolitan than most other countries in the world, especially for that time in history.

"Both my parents were piano teachers and we lived in a rather modest small apartment in Buenos Aires. And both my parents gave lessons at home. So whenever the bell rang, it was for somebody to come and have a piano lesson. As a small child, I must have thought the whole world played piano because I never met people who didn't play piano. Music was a very natural form of expression. And I like to think it still is for me.

"From early on, I was used to living on two levels — on the music level with grown-ups and on the child level, going to school and having friends my own age. So I never mixed the two. I don't think I ever spent or wasted a moment thinking about that. I just got on with what I had to do and what I love to do."

Third culture

"We moved to Israel when I was 10 years old and I found it extremely difficult. I had left Buenos Aires in the middle of the school year because in the southern hemisphere, as you know, the year is the other way around. So when we left in July, it was the equivalent of January for the Northern hemisphere. And when I arrived in Israel it was the end of December. So I left and arrived at the same time in the school year. But I had to learn a new language and a new alphabet. I couldn't read anything. It was very difficult — that I remember very clearly — that it was anything but easy. 

"Israel in the early 1950s was a completely different place from anywhere else in the world, and a completely different place from what Israel is today. There was, for the Jewish population of Israel, a sort of double ideology that consisted of Zionism, of the fact of wanting to return to Zion, to create the state of Israel, to live as a nation and not only as a people and all that, with the very well-founded admirable socialistic ideas that the creation of the kibbutz stems from.

I had to learn a new language and a new alphabet. I couldn't read anything. It was very difficult — that I remember very clearly — that it was anything but easy.- Daniel Barenboim

"There was a wish to create a new profile. Our generation was not so interested in the diaspora and in all the sufferings that had happened for centuries, culminating with the atrocities of the Nazis. We wanted to create a new positive profile for young Israelis, to create a profile of an Israeli, if you want, as opposed to the profile of the traditional Jews, so that there would be not only artists and bankers, but there would be also working in agriculture and soldiers and police and prostitutes and everything that belongs to a normal country." 

A man and a woman both playing violin while sitting down.
Israeli violinist Mariela Matathia (L) and Palestinian Israeli violinist Nabeel Abboud-Ashkar rehearse along with other members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Berlin in 2006. (Sean Gallup, Getty Images)

Building bridges

"The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra began not with the idea of creating an orchestra. It began as an idea of creating a forum for young musicians to come together from all the countries of the Middle East, from Israel and different Arab countries — from Palestine, from Syria, from Lebanon, from Jordan and from Egypt.

"I thought we would get a small group of 10 or 15 people and maybe do a chamber music workshop and also deal with all the other subjects that we wanted to, which is music as part of culture and music as part of society. But we got so many applications. We had more than 200 applications from the Arab world alone. So we realized that we had to create an orchestra. And when we finished the first summer we realized that it was not only necessary to create an orchestra, but that it was impossible to just leave it as a one-time affair, and it has been in existence since then."

A reflection of life

"An orchestra is a mirror of society. In an orchestra you have intelligent people and less intelligent people. You have curious people. You have people who are totally in their own world, who are not curious. And in our orchestra, you have people who come for the idea and for the music, others who come just for the idea, and others that come just for the music. There's a mixture of all those things. 

An orchestra is a mirror of society.- Daniel Barenboim

"When I say that this is not a political project, everybody sort of smiles benignly because how can you speak of a project that has people from Syria and Israel and Palestine and Iran and call this a non-political project? What I mean by that is that we don't have a political line. We don't say 'We think politically like this, and you must adhere to this line.' But I hope that people who come in are curious enough to learn to listen to the narration of 'the other,' of 'the enemy' — and if not agree with it, at least learn to see the logic and the legitimacy of that narration."

A conductor with his back to the camera leads and orchestra or classical musicians.
Daniel Barenboim rehearses along with other members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra before their performance at the Berlin Philaharmonic on August 27, 2006. (Sean Gallup, Getty Images)

The moving power of music

"I don't attempt to define what music is. I try to observe how it is possible to see music, how it affects different human beings.

"Because sound is a very extraordinary phenomenon. It is a purely physical phenomenon that doesn't live on this Earth. It only comes into this Earth when a human being makes it — in other words, when he plays or sings or whatever the case may be. Sound is also the first thing that the baby does when it's born. This is really what is the language of music.

You can say this music moves me, or this music is emotional, or this music is essential, or this music is poetic, or this music is rational, it's mathematical.- Daniel Barenboim

"You can say this music moves me, or this music is emotional, or this music is essential, or this music is poetic, or this music is rational, it's mathematical. You can say all those things, but that doesn't speak about the music, it speaks about your reaction to it."

Daniel Barenboim's comments have been edited for length and clarity.