We all need our heroes. They seem to be in rather short supply just now – live ones, anyway. Mine – since the death of Bobby Moore – has long been the pianist, conductor and peacemaker Daniel Barenboim. We went to a concert of his last night, preceded by a seminar addressed by him, in Stockholm’s glorious Konserthus. He was conducting his ‘East-West Divan Orchestra’, recruited from among young Jews and Arabs from the Middle East, with the object of bringing sworn ‘enemies’ together. That is heroic in itself; but the quality of the sound his baton draws from these musicians is remarkable, too. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better Mozart ‘Jupiter’ Symphony since Beecham.
The other item was Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, which showed up the orchestra’s technical qualities, but which I didn’t enjoy so much. The problem was that it’s narrative, like film music, aiming to tell a story in a quite literal way. In my view the greatest music is usually abstract, and connecting directly and mysteriously with the emotions. Story-telling brings it down. I’m reminded of a remark Elgar is reported to have made at a dinner party in the 1920s. A group of arty people – poets, painters, mainly Bloomsbury set – was discussing which is the ‘greatest’ of the arts. Elgar was getting restless, and even irritated; until he burst out: ‘Music is written up there in the heavens, waiting to be grasped. And you dare to compare that with your damned copying?’
One or two of those in our party were irritated, in their turn, by Barenboim’s emphasis on music, and by implication ‘Western classical’ music, to the neglect of the other arts. But isn’t music superior to all of them? OK: it depends on what you’re measuring. But in my view Elgar had something. For me, music is almost the sole thing that justifies the evolution and existence of humanity, in the broadest of perspectives. When our sun finally burns out, and the earth comes to an end, wiping out all signs of human life, I would be most distressed to think that Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 might be destroyed along with it. If we can escape to other worlds, OK. But just in case not, I think we should start now launching hundreds of satellites out into deep space, containing recordings of our race’s greatest music, in the hope of at least one of them striking an inhabited and intelligent alien people somewhere; so that our whole human story won’t have been in vain.