Thomas Sutcliffe: Barenboim, as much a guru as a maestro

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I would have quite liked to be in the audience for the recording of the first of Daniel Barenboim's Reith Lectures. For one thing I would have been in distinguished company, the BBC having assembled an impressive collection of the musical great and good to pump-prime the question-and-answer session that now forms the bulk of each broadcast (you can hear the first one this coming Friday morning). But it would also have been interesting to study the faces of senior executives as Barenboim began by acknowledging the futility of the whole exercise. "I firmly believe that it is really impossible to really, deeply speak about music," he says - not a startling aperçu in itself but a remark that has a certain freshness when used as the capstone to a five-part lecture series on the subject. A little later he was at it again, commenting on Busoni's description of music as "sonorous air". "It says everything and it says nothing", remarked Barenboim, which also suggested a certain pessimism about the enterprise he was embarked upon.

I'm not sure yet whether this was damage limitation or a kind of striptease flirtation. It could be either, after all - insurance against the potential accusation that he'd not scratched the surface of his subject or an implicit promise that he will succeed where others have failed. What does become clear fairly early on though is that this is a quasi-religious event - a form of spiritual attendance for an essentially secular age. Barenboim, a believer in the power of music to instruct us about life, rather than simply distract us from it, is not so much giving lectures as delivering sermons. And the people best placed to judge the success of his enterprise are not going to be musicologists or neuroscientists but students of homiletics.

The purpose of the homily, as a Catholic dictionary defines it, is to "explain the literal and evolve the spiritual meaning" of a sacred text. Barenboim promises to do both. At one moment he does a close reading of the opening two notes of the prelude to Tristan and Isolde - pointing out that the music commences not with a movement from A to F, but from silence to A. The next, in a traditional parsonical manner, he's drawing out the moral implications from a simple truth of musical composition. "When you play five notes," he says, "if each note had a big ego it would want to be louder than the note before. And therefore I learnt from this a very simple fact, that no matter how great an individual you are, music teaches you that creativity only works in groups, and the expression of the group is very often larger than the sum of the parts."

If you seek a less numinous account of the psychological effects of music - like the neurologist who asks a question in the first lecture - you may be disappointed. Even if you're a true believer you may recognise what the same Catholic dictionary describes as the besetting defect of the homily - "a tendency to lack of unity and continuity". But either way you'll probably find yourself succumbing to the charisma of the priest - the gnomic elusiveness of his aphorisms, the wit with which he sidesteps awkward paradoxes. He's as much guru as maestro - and if you're still sceptical I direct you to the title of his series: "In the Beginning Was the Sound".

Whether it makes sense to treat music as spiritual revelation is too large a question to resolve here - but at least we know it exists.

Chilli to put the heat on show-offs

The announcement that a mail-order chilli firm has discovered the world's hottest chilli, right, caused some scepticism because of its dateline - 1 April. But if it is a hoax, one can only applaud the density of the back story - accessible on www.dorsetnaga.biz - which includes copies of the Southwest Bio-Labs lab report noting a Scoville Heat Unit reading of 876,000 (Tabasco Sauce is a relatively bland 2,500 to 5,000 SHU). I hope it is true, because it should prove an invaluable armament for restaurateurs faced with the drunken show-off who demands "the hottest curry you've got". In the kitchen a porter wearing rubber gloves and a gas mask will slice a Dorset Naga into the vindaloo and nemesis will be gingerly carried towards the victim. The beauty of this punitive vegetable is that it targets only those who have, literally, been asking for it. It is a heat-seeking missile that locks on to heat-seekers.

* As we approach the third anniversary of the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue at least one economic indicator in Baghdad suggests things are getting worse, not better. A report in The New York Times notes that since the mosque attack in Samarra at the end of February, the price for an AK-47 has more than doubled from $112 to $290, while bullets have gone up from 24 cents apiece to 33. You might have thought that if you were setting out to normalise a violently fissile society, widespread ownership of AK-47s would have been one of the things you might want to discourage - but apparently Saddam and Paul Bremer, the former American administrator, were of one mind on this matter. Provided you're over 25 and don't carry more than 50 bullets (surely enough for most daily needs) it's your legal right to own an assault rifle. The theory that a well-armed society is a polite society does not yet appear to be working - and the cost of staying alive gets higher every day.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

Comments