Rage to the music of time

Classical music is colliding with politics.

Within three months of last summer's England riots a fully staged theatrical response - Gillian Slovo's The Riots - was playing at Kilburn's Tricycle Theatre. A few months later Headlong's Decade saw London theatre revisit 9/11. It was a typical season for British theatre,
a genre moving quickly on its feet to parry and jab at modern politics. But what of music, the art Plato would have banned for taking "the strongest hold" upon the human mind?

Shostakovich's veiled attacks on Stalin's Russia, the Enlightenment politics of Beethoven's piano concertos, Benjamin Britten's musical manifestos for pacifism, even Verdi's Risorgimento rallying cry in Nabucco - classical music has long been plugged into its society, a living art with something to say. But as politics moves on and these familiar examples stay the same, the genre seems vulnerable. If today's Beethovens and Brittens - Luigi Nono, Helmut Lachennmann, Cornelius Cardew - are so niche as to be unknown beyond specialist circles, how can it still claim relevance?

Although largely lost in the summer's media clamour, classical music collided with politics last August. The visit of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra to the Proms reduced the Royal Albert Hall to chaos when pro-Palestinian protestors disrupted the concert, forcing Radio 3 to stop the live broadcast. In an irony lost on few, it was the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony - the composer's musical vision for
a world in which "all men become brothers" - that the protesters chose as battle hymn.

“The concert hall is a house of prayer," Guy Braunstein, the Israeli concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic tells me, "and the protesters violated that. I have a lot of criticism regarding my government, but to bring your politics - however justified - into the concert hall is unforgiveable." Many share his view, but to claim music as sacred, discrete from the rough and tumble of public debate, is to disempower it - to reduce it to a commodity. Orwell writes, "The very notion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political position." Whether or not we endorse the protesters' methods, their gesture sparked a debate as no polite picket line could have, forcing a conversation classical musicians have long avoided.

The conflicting arguments raised by the Proms protest were summed-up in the actions of the London Philharmonic. When four of their players later signed an open letter to the Independent asking the BBC to cancel the Israel Philharmonic's concert on political grounds, they were immediately suspended without pay (three of the four suspensions are still in place). The orchestra issued a statement, claiming that,"for the LPO, music and politics do not mix". That such a denial is a possible, let alone acceptable, response to the situation speaks of a broader philosophical failure - an attitude sadly endemic to the classical music world.

Yet there are dissidents. Chief among them is surely Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, whose chamber ensemble the West-Eastern Divan Soloists appear at the Southbank Centre next month. Formed in 1999, the orchestra comprises young musicians from Israel, Palestine and other Arab nations. "You have a Palestinian cello player from a refugee camp," Braunstein - a longstanding member of the organisation - explains, "and you have an Israeli who is about to start his military service. Normally they would only meet under unfortunate circumstances, but here they speak about phrasing and bowing, and they realise how little difference there is between them."

Its success owes much to its respect for music as an end in itself. Training and musicianship are the primary focus, with politics a background constant to the work. Karim Said, a young Palestinian pianist and relation of the late Edward Said, has been involved with the orchestra since childhood. "When we're playing we're only thinking about the music," he says. "I am a purist; the music comes first for me, and I believe also for the West-Eastern Divan. Of course people are bound to disagree and discussions do occasionally flare up, but in a healthy way."

Some would argue that without the endorsement of all governments involved, the project is fatally flawed. Ten years on and political conflicts in the Middle East still require some musicians to conceal their orchestral membership from the authorities, a situation that seems unlikely to change. "Some of them think it's a political statement but really it's the opposite," Braunstein stresses. "Leave politics out of it and just look at the results we achieve; people who are not supposed to have contact with one another sit down and play at a professional level few orchestras across the world can achieve."

Few contemporary composers have tackled political issues more directly or with more creative value than John Adams. His opera The Death of Klinghoffer receives its English stage debut at English National Opera this month. Exploring the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by the Palestine Liberation Front and subsequent murder of disabled Jewish passenger Leon Klinghoffer, it's a work that has provoked extreme critical and public reaction since its Brussels premiere in 1991. Despite being co-commissioned by Glyndebourne, the opera has never been produced by the company. Its arrival in London over 20 years later may be staged against a very different backdrop of international relations, but still exposes the prescient humanity of Adams's political vision.

“I'm interested in people," the opera's librettist, Alice Goodman, explains to me, "and I think the truthfulness of an encounter is why we go to art, the sense that we can understand a situation or event better through art than by reading the papers or watching the news." The result is a work likened by Adams to a Bach Passion - a meditation on events rather than an enactment. "My first draft was much more dramatic", Goodman says, "but it felt cartoonish and unserious. It was as though we could only deal with the situation by being contemplative."

This indirectness hasn't shielded the opera from attack. Accusations of both anti-Semitic and anti-Palestinian agendas have been hurled at Adams and Goodman (the film-maker Penny Woolcock was asked to leave Gaza before she could screen her adaptation at a Palestinian film festival), focusing on what the musicologist Richard Taruskin has termed the opera's "romanticising" of the young Palestinian hijackers and their cause. After a performance of choruses from Klinghoffer was cancelled by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2001 in the wake of 9/11, Taruskin wrote an article for the New York Times entitled "Music's Dangers and the Case for Control", in which he applauded the BSO's decision and spoke of art's capacity to "inflict harm". It's an argument Goodman emphatically rejects.

“If art can do good then art is not innocuous. Taruskin believes a work like Klinghoffer shouldn't be produced because the hijackers are allowed to be eloquent, that this depiction is too dangerous for the world to see, whatever truth might be in it. So all art must show our nation's foes as lifeless and ugly, our martyrs radiating every form of beauty? A world in which art is like that can't contain me, but more importantly it can't contain Shakespeare. It would be little more than kitsch."

With the West-Eastern Divan performing on one side of the river and Klinghoffer on the other, this spring promises to be an unusual time for music in London, offering not only a riposte to the political apathy of some classical institutions, but also a reminder of classical music's potential. Music's ability to "inflict harm" is real enough - a terrible and wonderful capacity that speaks to its power. So if protestors should disrupt the Divan or picket Klinghoffer they will only succeed in making the case for art, for the seriousness, relevance and political resonance of classical music.

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The God Wars