Daniel Barenboim On the Power of Classical Music

Daniel Barenboim has never been afraid to push the limits. The celebrated pianist and music director of the Berlin State Opera has staged Wagner in Jerusalem and holds citizenship in the Palestinian territories and Israel, as well as Spain and his native Argentina. His new book, "Everything Is Connected," explores the relationship between music and life. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Sophie Grove via phone. Excerpts:

GROVE: Why is classical music such a potent art?
BARENBOIM: Classical music touches the innermost part of human existence. It's rational in some ways and completely irrational in others. It's like a drug. (Story continued below...)

Should music be used as a kind of "soft power"?
I don't think music is here to serve anything other than itself and the experience it provides, both for the performer and the listener. It can bring people to a closer dialogue. But it's not a political tool. The Soviets used their great artists, like Prokofiev and Shostakovich. The Nazis did too. But this was just the cleverness of certain autocratic governments. [Music] shouldn't set out to achieve something else.

In 2001 you set up the West-Eastern Divan orchestra with musicians from Israel, the Palestinian territories, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. Was there a political motivation?
[We wanted to] create something that would be positive for a young generation of musicians in the Middle East—to provide a forum, not so they could forget their differences but so they could learn from making music. When you make music, you have to express yourself to the utmost and simultaneously listen to what the other is playing. From that point of view, it is a wonderful school for life. Imagine if politicians could express themselves and listen to what others were saying!

Is it a form of conflict resolution?
It doesn't resolve the problem of human rights or the famine in Gaza. But maybe it gives the model: a society where—provided everybody has the same rights—Israelis and Arabs, instead of destroying each other, enhance each other.

In 2005 the Divan played a concert in Ramallah. What did this achieve?
It brought a lot of pleasure to the people who listened to it. Let's not forget: Ramallah is not Berlin or London, where you can go and hear wonderful music every day. The fact that young, thinking people wanted to go to Ramallah was a gesture of solidarity with Palestinian society.

It was also incredibly difficult to do. First, it was illegal for the Israelis to go to Ramallah. And, because they had to pass through Israel, it was against the law for the Syrians and Lebanese to go, too. The whole orchestra got Spanish diplomatic passports to get over this hurdle.

When you're conducting on the podium, are you in effect a peacemaker?
When I stand in front of my orchestra in Berlin, I try to give a hundred musicians a common lung. They can breathe the music together. The role of the conductor is to take from the orchestra what they are giving and get them to think and feel the same way at the same time. So it is a unifying act. When you get young people from conflict areas, it's much stronger. But the principle is the same.