The question from the audience was fairly innocuous. Daniel Barenboim’s answer was anything but.
A woman had asked about the problems facing musical education in America. Barenboim, who is currently serving as the Charles Eliot Norton professor of poetry, gave a bewildering answer that lasted for five minutes, indicted all of American society, and concluded with an outburst about vegetables.
“You have artificial vegetables! And food!” Barenboim called out. “And so the problem of musical education is very small.”
In a way, the exclamation was oddly emblematic of Barenboim’s visit. Though there were moments of profound musical insight, Barenboim’s time at Harvard was not the overwhelming success some hoped.
Barenboim—one of the world’s most eminent and prolific conductors and pianists—spent the last two weeks at Harvard lecturing, conversing with students, performing, and teaching. But most Harvard students wouldn’t be able to tell you that.
Though Barenboim, spoke out in favor of a broad, humanistic approach to both music and education, a small, very specific audience attended his lectures at Sanders Theatre: mainly music students, Harvard faculty, and elderly residents of Cambridge and Boston.
At the beginning of Barenboim’s residency, Knafel Professor of Music Thomas F. Kelly predicted in a statement that Barenboim would “remind Harvard that we are the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.”
It’s unclear, however, whether the people who needed to be reminded even bothered to show up
Though Barenboim spoke out in favor of a broad, humanistic approach to both music and education, a small, very specific audience attended his lectures at Sanders Theatre: mainly music students, Harvard faculty, and elderly residents of Cambridge and Boston.
At the beginning of Barenboim’s residency, Knafel Professor of Music Thomas F. Kelly predicted in a statement that Barenboim would "remind Harvard that we are the Faculty of Arts and Sciences."
It’s unclear, however, whether the people who needed to be reminded even bothered to show up.
INSISTING ON OBJECTIVITY
Barenboim’s lecture series at Harvard was entitled "Sound and Thought." Expanding on (and sometimes repeating) his autobiography, "My Life in Music," and a series of lectures he delivered for the BBC this spring, Barenboim’s concerns ran from how to break the silence at the beginning of a symphony to what it means to be human.
"The main purpose of these lectures is to show that music is not divorced from the rest of the world," Barenboim says in a later interview with The Crimson.
Barenboim also says that he had hoped to deliver lectures that were objective. "I have really tried to measure every syllable, and to shy away from any subjective comment on music," he says.
His insistence on objectivity in his lectures sometimes limited him to observations that bordered on vagueness or obviousness. Statements like "the first thing to notice about sound is that it disappears as it stops" popped up throughout the lectures.
However, in the question and answer sessions that followed each lecture, Barenboim enthusiastically defended a very non-objective set of opinions.
Responding to a questioner who observed that young musicians today are more technically proficient than their counterparts fifty years ago, Barenboim argued that technique often comes at the cost of other valuable skills.
He consistently rebuffed questioners who complained about the current state of classical composition as a whole. "There is a lot of wonderful contemporary music, and the element of individual taste…is just as important in the 20th century as it has been in the 18th and 19th centuries," he said. But, true to form, Barenboim didn’t confine himself to discussion of music. Criticizing American cultural exceptionalism, he jokingly made a formal appeal "for the name of this country to be changed to what it really is: The United States of Central North America."
Such rhetoric is nothing new for Barenboim. His talents have been ushering him onto both musical and political stages for decades.
Born in Argentina to Russian Jews, Barenboim grew up in both Argentina and Israel. He was a child prodigy who began his performing career at the age of eight.
Over the course of a long career, Barenboim has both played with and conducted the world’s premier orchestras, most recently the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which he left last July after a 15-year tenure.
According to Dwight P. Robinson, Jr. Professor of Music Robert D. Levin ’68, who sat on the 5-person committee that invited Barenboim to Harvard, Barenboim was a natural choice for the Norton Lectures.
"To call him a conductor is not to do him justice," Levin says. "He is an intellectual powerhouse."
Each summer, he invites young musicians from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, and Israel to play in his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.
"His perspective is unusually interlaced with the larger issues of society and tolerance," says Levin, in reference to Barenboim’s activism for dialogue between Israel and the rest of the Middle East.