an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:

Essay: When music plays politics, can it change a thing?

Professor David Schoenbaum, author of The United States and the State of Israel and The Violin, is an authority on international relations and, as a sideline, string instruments. He offers Slipped Disc the following reflection on initiatives that musicians have taken to bring peace and justice to the world. Do any of them achieve much? Read on….



In 1984, I found myself at a workshop on intelligence – as in spooks, not IQ — whose sponsors and panelists without exception were believing Reaganites.  By coincidence, a Juilliard summer course was underway across the street.  So far as I know, only I shuttled between them.


The connection, including a Mozart concerto by Nina Beilina, a protégée of the legendary David Oistrakh, was good for my morale.  But it was also a salutary kick in the intellectual inertia.  Of course, she was wonderful.  Yet it struck me as I listened that I might have heard a performance just like it in Leopold Auer’s studio in St. Petersburg 80 years earlier.


Meanwhile, the world had changed, and Mozart performance with it.  How did this fit, I wondered, with the party line across the street, where it was an article of faith that the Russians were 10 ft. tall?


At breakfast the next morning, I mentioned this to our co-host, a professor of international relations, still active a generation later as a consultant to Donald Rumsfeld’s Department of Defense.  “What has that to do with anything?” he demanded.  A few months later, Mikhail Gorbachev, whose wonderings seemed to resonate with mine, was named General Secretary of the CPSU.

Then and since, musicians, editorial writers and professors of international relations have insisted in unison that music, its institutions and players are unpolitical.  Yet the last couple of centuries alone should tell us that this is just wrong.


The Paris conservatory was a direct by-product of the French Revolution, the Berlin conservatory of Bismarck’s wars of unification.  Not only did royalty and the diplomatic corps appear for the grand opening of London’s Royal College of Music.  The New York Times considered it news fit to print.   From its debut in 1958 to the Soviet Union’s demise, Moscow’s Tchaikovsky competition was about as unpolitical as the Olympics.  In 1956, Isaac Stern was dispatched to break the ice and show the Stars and Stripes in the Soviet Union.   In 1979 he did the same in China.  In living memory, the New York Philharmonic has made it to North Korea, though not to Cuba.


Yet PR – or soft power – is only half the story.  In an essay published posthumously in 1921, Max Weber, the great German sociologist, noted that Western music, with its diatonic scale and user-friendly notation, has been one of the West’s most successful exports.


By the mid 19th century, Central and East European Jews had recognized its potential as a ticket to the modern world and middle class. Armenians followed.  Beginning in 1868, Japan considered the violin and piano as essential to its modernization strategy as German constitutionality, French schools, British naval building and baseball.


By the 1920’s, Western music had made its way from Seoul to Shanghai.  It now extends to Singapore.  The little Jewish boys of a century ago are now little Asian girls.  It was reported this year that as many as 12 Chicago Symphony players took off for China to celebrate the lunar new year.  In the 1920’s, a young Japanese named Suzuki came to Berlin to study.  Today the Berlin Philharmonic is on its second Japanese concertmaster, and Suzuki’s violin method is as familiar to middle class Americans as Honda and Sony.


The exception, the only major region where Western music has failed to make it, is the Moslem world and Middle East.  Since at least 1869, when De Lesseps, the Suez Canal, Verdi and “Aida” arrived in Egypt, it has also been the region with the most conflicted relationship with the modern world.


Of course, there are qualifiers.  Israel, settled and culturally defined by Europeans, is the most obvious case.  But music was among Kemal Atatürk modernizing reforms as it was among Japan’s, though Fazil Say, Turkey’s most distinguished pianist currently lives in Berlin while charged at home with insulting Islam.


A Malaysian Philarmonic, recruited by IMG in London, can now be seen on YouTube, playing Mahler.  More or less recently, both Oman and Qatar have established orchestras and opera houses too.  Qatar has even hired a Chinese woman conductor.  But in all three orchestras, local players are about as common as ski slopes.


It’s true that orchestras in Cairo and Baghdad have longer roots and really are local.  But they’re also cultural niches, equivalent to the rugby clubs occasionally found on American college campuses.

The regional parameters can be seen at their most drastic in Mali and Afghanistan at one end, and Berlin at the other.  “We do not want Satan’s music,” Mali’s Islamist invaders declared last year.  With French intervention still some months away, one of Africa’s most admired music establishments prudently took off for other parts.  “The occupiers made all kinds of threats, that they would chop off your hand so you couldn’t play, or cut out your tongue so you couldn’t sing,”  a Malian guitarist told a New York reporter.  One of Mali’s most distinguished hip-hop artists now lives in Washington.


Among Afghanistan’s post-Taliban reforms is a music school in Kabul with a contingent of girl students and a Juilliard-trained, American violin teacher.  Its future will be a credible metric of America’s 11-year engagement.  Unsurprisingly, there is nothing to match it in Kandahar.

afghan cellist

At the same time, the West-Eastern Divan orchestra, the Middle East’s most interesting ensemble, is flourishing, but in Berlin with a 20 million Euro advance on its future training academy from the city’s government.  Conceived in 1999 by the Israeli conductor, Daniel Barenboim, and the late Palestinian literary critic, Edward Said, its personnel are recruited from Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Turkey, even Syria.  The Free University of Berlin, one of early Cold War America’s most creative initiatives, has just awarded Barenboim its Freedom Prize.

Ironically, the orchestra has played to acclaim at Carnegie Hall and the Proms.  But it has only twice played in the Middle East, in Morocco in 2003, and Ramallah in 2005, where the players arrived on Spanish diplomatic passports.  A Said-inspired conservatory opened on the West Bank in 2009.  Its string ensemble of 15 girls and two boys, 12 to 22, appeared at this year’s Proms.  Unsurprising again, there is no match for this in Hamas-ruled Gaza.



As so often, the Lessons of History await the Long Run.  But a few interim thoughts might at least be worth a chat in the corridor at the Institute for Strategic Studies and  the Council on Foreign Relations.

One is that Weber got it right.  A second is that the option for Western music tends to be an option for the modern world fir both societies and individuals.  A third, as Barenboim told a recent al-Jazeera interviewer, is that, while the West-East Divan orchestra can’t make peace, it can at least make a point.

Yes, we should probably ask more than a taste for the violin or piano when auditioning allies in Syria.  But if and when parents in Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus start sending their kids to Suzuki lessons, we would do well to take notice.

(c) David Schoenbaum/Slipped Disc

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


  1. Dare one suggest a two-way street? Would “we would do well to take notice” when parents in New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles “start sending their kids to study” classical Arab music — which is profoundly beautiful and sophisticated?

  2. Bravo, David, always a pleasure to see you in print

  3. Very interesting to read this in the same edition of SD as your piece on the Metropolitan Opera and Gays in Russia which seems to take a rather contrary view. Professor David Schoenbaum’s piece has some excellent evidence about the role of music in society alongside some enlightened thinking. It’s not so much about what you can achieve, but about your moral starting point and compass.

  4. Eduard Weissmann says:

    Dear David,
    Delighted to read your article in SD! As always food for thought.
    My thoughts circle around one question:do you consider that the contemporary Muslim world
    as being developed enough to accept widely the Western diatonic music?
    The examples you gave are just delicate saplings in a forest of traditional Arab music.
    The other point I would like to make is the successfully bridge built between psalmodic prayers and Western diatonic music such as chazanuth, Kol Nidrei by Max Bruch, a Hebrew melody by Joseph Achron or compositions by Ernst Bloch.
    Why should it not be possible to integrate in the same way the traditional Arabic music.

    • (Mostly) Jewish composers. Traditional Arabic music will be fused with western music when Arab composers write it.

      …Which brings us back to the original thesis.

    • The difference is that Arab music is not banned nor discouraged in the west. In the Middle East, many countries ban or discourage western music under the guise of protecting their culture. Until all sides agree that freedom to choose what you listen to and perform is afforded to everyone, music will continue to be a pawn of politics.

  5. A brief factual point regarding this: “A Said-inspired conservatory opened on the West Bank in 2009 …. Unsurprising again, there is no match for this in Hamas-ruled Gaza.” The National Conservatory of Music in fact opened in the West Bank in 1993, and was named in honour of Edward Said in 2004. One of its branches is indeed in Hamas-ruled Gaza. Originally named the Gaza Music School, it was established by the AM Qattan Foundation in 2008. It was destroyed by shelling during the Israeli invasion in 2009, but was rebuilt and in early 2012 made part of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music. Interested readers can support its work here:

  6. “Can it change a thing?”

    Not if it ain’t got that swing.

an ArtsJournal blog