Edward Said: the man and his music

Judith Herrin
25 September 2003

Just in case it gets overlooked in the appreciation of Edward Said’s political focus and literary brilliance, I want to remember his love of music. It was not the foremost quality I recognised when I first met him early in the 1980s at John Berger’s house in the French Alps. I had read Orientalism with great respect and enthusiasm, but did not know what to expect. To my delight Edward was immensely handsome, tall, with dark hair and an engaging smile. He turned to all corners of the table as we ate, to make contact with every individual. His warmth and openness generated responsiveness and communication in others.

To my surprise Edward was intensely musical. Later I was to learn how well he played the piano; then we just argued passionately about the different ways of playing Bach. John favoured Glenn Gould, I was more for Andreas Schiff. But Edward was a serious pianist, as was made clear when we discussed technical difficulties, and later when he played for us at his apartment in New York. Later, when he was a Visiting Fellow at King’s College Cambridge, although already ill and with lectures to give, he devoted an hour a day to practicing – using the grand piano in the Dining Hall, repeating the same phrase, a few bars, over and over until he had got it right, I was told by an awed student.

Edward’s knowledge of music was profound. It gave him more than great pleasure. He also realised something often underrated: the power of music to unite players in the creativity of every musical performance. It was this intuitive sense which brought him into contact with Daniel Barenboim. Together they created a unique institution: an orchestra of Arabs and Jews, students of music from very distinct traditions, all representatives of the East Mediterranean.

This recruited young musicians to rehearse together, to discuss their differences and to perform concerts, most recently at the London Proms last August. In Mozart’s concerto for three pianos, the soloists represented the whole orchestra: an Arab, an Israeli, and Daniel himself. When the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’s young oboe player from Egypt was interviewed on the BBC, she expressed her amazement at its success. Never had she imagined she could have the opportunity to meet other players from non-Arab countries or work under a conductor such as Barenboim.

The prodigious success of the project must lay deep impressions. It won the founders the Asturias Prize 2002 awarded by Spain for understanding between peoples. Together Barenboim and Said recorded their discussions about music in Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society (Pantheon 2002, Bloomsbury 2003). While they disagreed about lots of issues in musical interpretation, they collaborated in bringing their understanding of the power of music to the service of divided peoples. Edward supported Daniel’s insistence on performing and giving masterclasses for Palestinian students in Ramallah, which greatly irritated the government of Israel. He took particular delight in winning over the German ambassador to the project, and it was in a diplomatic car with immunity that the journey to the West Bank was undertaken.

Through music Edward and Daniel created a new forum of debate. They brought together estranged musicians from the emiserated regions of Palestine and the privileged areas of Israel and declared that they should and would make music together. Alongside the effort to perform and make music at the highest possible level of technical perfection and imaginative achievement, they engendered in young people from both cultures a novel ability to relate to their alleged enemies. Edward talked to Daniel most days, he told me. Their joint project had given him a way of using music to achieve the end he desired: the unity of young people from Israel, Palestine and Arab countries of the Near East.

May the tireless energies of Daniel Barenboim and like-minded people win over the skeptics, and may Edward’s dreams of a peaceful solution to the problems of the Middle East take root in the creative yet disciplined mechanism which is the orchestra.


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