The Barenboim Case: How to Link Music and Diplomacy Studies

Frédéric Ramel
Sciences Po, Paris

Michael Jung
Miller & Meier Consulting, Berlin

doi: 10.18278/aia.3.2.5



“I’m so happy that you are here. Because you are the first thing from Israel that is neither a soldier, nor a tank” (Barenboim 2004a)—this is what a Palestinian girl reportedly expressed after a concert Daniel Barenboim conducted in Ramallah. Such a spontaneous reaction during an autograph session by the world-renowned conductor and pianist implies a breakthrough in representations of the enemy: beyond a military or a strategic dimension, Barenboim introduced a new representation of Israel and Israelis: the enemy may simply embody another human being who is able to share a moment based on music with Palestinians. To change perceptions concerning “the others” is Barenboim’s most important aim as a politically committed musician.

Born into a Jewish family of Russian origin in Argentina (1942) and considered a child prodigy, Barenboim gave his first public piano recital at the age of only seven. Pursuing an astonishing career as both a concert pianist and a conductor, Barenboim held the function of musical director in prestigious institutions such as the Orchestre de Paris (1975–1989), the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1991–2006), and the Scala in Milan (from 2011 onwards). He is currently Generalmusikdirektor of the Staatskapelle Berlin and the Berlin State Opera (since 1992). Barenboim’s life took him to Israel very early where he settled with his parents from 1952 to 1954 and between 1956 and the beginning of the 1960s. If his musical training results from a wide range of foreign travel experiences, he retains his Israeli nationality (in addition to a Spanish, a Palestinian, and an Argentinian passport) as well as a commitment to the values of the founders.[1]

Although Barenboim gave his Carnegie hall debut at age of 14 in a concert series entitled “World Peace Through World Music,” the very “trigger event” for any concrete humanistic engagement in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict dates much later to a random but all the more momentous meeting with the American–Palestinian intellectual Edward W. Said around 1994/1995 in a London hotel lobby (Said and Barenboim 2004). Together, this remarkable tandem—a relationship we might describe as a middle-range couple in International Relations (Ramel 2014)—initiated numerous small-scale structures, and first and foremost, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (WEDO) in August 1999. With subsidies provided by the European Capitals of Culture Programme, this ensemble arose from a first workshop organized in Weimar and was composed of young musicians from Israel, the Palestinian Territories and the neighboring Arab States. Initially, Barenboim and Said’s aim was to merge a musical training program (preparation of concerts in the form of masterclasses, at that time with cellist Yo-Yo Ma) and multicultural experiences between people who have traditionally regarded each other as enemies since the State of Israel was proclaimed in 1948. Since 1999, the orchestra comes together for a yearly summer workshop with rehearsals being complemented by political discussions, guest lectures, and other cultural activities. This is always followed by an international concert tour.

Based on daily practice, participants are encouraged to enrich their career as instrumentalists: “Young musicians build upon their musical knowledge while living side-by-side with people from countries that may be engaged in conflict with their own.” For Said and Barenboim, the project is not only a musical one; it shapes “a forum for dialogue and reflection on the Palestinian–Israeli problem. Through the cross-cultural contacts made by the artists, the project could have an important role in overcoming political and cultural differences between the countries represented in the workshop” (Fundación Barenboim–Said website). Despite Edward W. Said’s untimely death in 2003, Barenboim has continued, consolidated, and broadened this work. Since 2002, the WEDO is receiving subsidies from the Autonomous Government (Junta) of Andalusia and thus found an operational base in Sevilla. Two years later, the two initiators established the Fundación Barenboim–Said (Sevilla) in order to concentrate and formalize all Divan-related activities in a single organizational structure; further, non-profit bodies were installed in New York (Barenboim–Said Foundation), the West Bank (Barenboim–Said Foundation Ramallah), Berlin (Daniel Barenboim Stiftung, now assuming responsibilities as an umbrella organization for Barenboim’s projects), and Great Britain (West-Eastern Divan Trust UK). Beyond the WEDO, this network supports and coordinates a much wider range of educational activities such as the Barenboim–Said Music Centre (Ramallah/West Bank), the Academia de Estudios Orquestales in Sevilla (providing distinct curricula and masterclasses for orchestra studies), or two Music Kindergartens (Berlin and Ramallah)—initiatives that are pursuing varied objectives for different target groups (children, teenagers and young adults from preschool age up to higher education level), but are all aiming at a sustainable transformation of relationships between their participants through music.

From the Praemium Imperiale Grant for Young Artists (2007) to the Westphalian Peace Prize (2010), these initiatives are widely recognized at the international level. Perhaps most prominently, Barenboim himself has been named Messenger of Peace by the Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon on September 21, 2007. During the ceremony, Barenboim insisted that the title should be attributed to “the orchestra in its whole.” Moreover, the Divan has been designated a United Nations Global Advocate for Cultural Understanding in 2016 (United Nations 2016). But what constitutes the pivotal role of the WEDO within the structures Barenboim and Said have established? Why and to what extent does music embody, according to Barenboim, a source for transforming the Israeli–Palestinian conflict?

This research contribution differs from the interview-based ethno-musicological approaches or cultural ethnography dedicated to the study of individual and collective identities within Barenboim’s orchestra (Beckles Willson 2009a, 2009b). It is neither relying on an immersion in this complex musical structure—Elena Cheah’s compilation of autobiographical portraits from Divan musicians, although it only encompasses the first decade of this institution, is still the most authentic and thorough account in this matter (Cheah 2009)—nor following the perspectives Solveig Riiser took by studying the orchestra’s internal socio-politics and power structures as a process of constant identity (re-)negotiation (Riiser 2010). Since we are convinced that those approaches tend to neglect the wider institutional and political implications of Barenboim’s projects, we are hereafter focusing on the task to qualify the potential diplomatic role of an individual musician and an orchestra: based on a content analysis of different public positions (both in verbal utterances[2] and through musical or extra-musical practices), this paper intends to articulate the activities of Barenboim and the WEDO with two specific debates in diplomatic studies beyond the new cross-fertilization between music and diplomacy, an evolution that has steadily grown thanks to the Aesthetic turn in International Relations, the Cultural turn in the history of International Relations as well as an increased sensibility toward historic and political contextualization of music in the field of musicology (Ahrendt, Ferraguto and Mahiet 2014; Ramel and Prévost-Thomas 2018;  see also the introduction to the present issue).

Every serious study at the intersection of IR and music needs to take Jessica Gienow-Hecht’s concept of Sound Diplomacy into account; an approach that is indeed very fruitful in order to accentuate the function of modern orchestras and their directors, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth century (Gienow-Hecht 2009, see also Gienow-Hecht 2012). Based on the assumption that music has an inherent capacity to model international dialog by creating emotional “elective affinities” through nonverbal means, Gienow-Hecht convincingly illustrates how professional musicians may become diplomatic actors and transform bilateral relations (Germany and the United States in her seminal research) at the level of mental representations. However, unlike the nineteenth-century German musicians as described by Gienow-Hecht, whose contribution was no less than to shape the U.S. cultural landscape in terms of musical taste, compositional style, or even regarding the architecture of concert halls in the long run, the Divan musicians are not performing the nation: as specified in the following, it would be neither tenable to reduce the often complex individual trajectories to mere national representatives of their respective countries of origin, nor is their repertoire linked to any form of (perceived) national music. In this perspective, participants in the WEDO projects are rather informal ambassadors of mutual understanding through the means of music and music education.

Beyond that, we decided to focus on issues that extend the main debates that have been shaping the field of cultural diplomacy. By exploring two dimensions (a person and a structure), this paper aims at carrying on two specific concepts in diplomacy studies. First of all, does Daniel Barenboim practice “celebrity diplomacy”? This question refers to the role of the musician within the political international sphere. As introduced by Cooper (2008), “celebrity diplomacy” includes three features: firstly, the use of means of mass communication to disseminate a cause (also called “megaphone diplomacy”); secondly, the desire to interact with heads of state and governments as an equivalent partner in negotiations; thirdly, actual recognition by these heads of state and governments.[3] Besides, does the Divan cultivate a form of “multi-track diplomacy”? This type of diplomacy tends to change the official diplomacy by transforming mentalities and influencing political negotiators in conflictual figurations. It exceeds the classic distinction between track 1 (official and political negotiations) and track 2 (informal interaction initiated by nongovernmental actors). Multi-track diplomacy includes all forms of mediation from the private sector to official state representatives (Diamond and MacDonald 1991; Notter and Diamond 1996). It develops new means of communication beyond the meetings between political leaders and changes the enemy’s image thanks to an individualization of the otherness, thus influencing the official negotiations by solving the root causes of the conflict (Rouhana 1999).

The paper is divided into two sections. A first part will illustrate how and why Barenboim evolves in the public debate in order to explain his own position in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Unlike other artists who intended to penetrate the international political arena by defining themselves as fully fledged negotiators, Barenboim sticks to his autonomy from politics. This is the main reason why the category of celebrity diplomacy seems not quite relevant when applied to the Barenboim case (I). Secondly, we will clarify the main purpose developed by the orchestra, i.e. to promote a new symbol for peaceful coexistence and intercultural understanding through joint concert performances. Taking up this idea, our paper will also discuss how the WEDO is implicitly contributing to a multi-track diplomacy, but entailing several particularities in view of the level of intervention which Barenboim advocates (II). Additionally, both sections will address the underlying ambiguities that are resulting from this double feature (autonomization in part I and symbolization in part II).

  1. A Claim for Autonomy in Public Space

Music exercises power on human bodies but also on hearts. That is why it was used by political leaders, whatever the nature of the political regime. From the birth of the opera in the Italian peninsula (Alazard 2002) to the chanson révolutionnaire, music accompanies the life not to say the ritual of a political organization at large (as Pasler (2009) convincingly demonstrated for the Third French Republic). This process is intrinsically connected to war and militarization more generally (Ramel and Roche 2017). On the one hand, music illustrates symbolically a victory, which promoted the outbreak of a full-fledged programmatic genre like the “battle music” of the Renaissance On the other hand, music offers a resource of energy in combat: from the sound of drums to techno music, rhythmic and sonorous elements are accompanying soldiers during warfare since centuries (a contemporary example, the Iraq war, has been examined by Pieslak 2009). All these phenomena highlighted manipulations of musical art by the political elites.

“I am a musician, not a politician”

Daniel Barenboim’s position is radically different in two ways. First of all, his action is not sponsored by a protagonist in the Israel–Palestine conflict and the created musical structures do not receive any subsidies from Israelis or Palestinians. Furthermore, he considers his action as “outside” the realm of politics. In an interview with Al-Jazeera in 2013, Barenboim clearly stated: “I am a musician, not a politician” (Barenboim 2013a). This qualification is a leitmotif in the discourse produced on the Divan. It is based on two main distinctions:

Politics versus Music. First of all, Barenboim opposes musical and political spheres because both refer to spaces governed by conflicting logics. Performing music is a search of the absolute which does not suffer from any concessions. To serve the aesthetic work supposes a form of devotion which prohibits any concession, any arrangement. To do politics, on the contrary, lies in compromise: “The politician is the master of the compromise. In music, you can accept everything except the compromise” (Barenboim 2013a). Behind this assertion, Barenboim denounces connivance.

Orchestra versus Normalization. The second distinction concerns the position of the orchestra. On many occasions, Barenboim stressed that the Divan cannot be described as an orchestra of “normalization” following the official Israeli standpoint, namely the maintenance of the status quo, which presupposes the de facto recognition of illegal settlements as an integral part of Israeli territory. On the contrary, Barenboim does not intend to translate the musical experience of the orchestra into political terms. If it enables indeed complete equality between the members project (Barenboim 2013a; Tribot Laspière 2013c), this equality is limited to the musical area.

However, this claim for autonomy does not result from celebrity diplomacy of whom Angelina Jolie or Bono are key representatives not to say the icons. Certainly, Daniel Barenboim, like the latter, is not a member of the political elite, but does not adopt the same kind of conduct in the public sphere. Although Barenboim, one of the most media-effective classical musicians alive, is meeting the first criteria (“megaphone diplomacy”), his friendship with high-ranking political representatives such as Felipe Gonzáles, the former Spanish Prime Minister (1982–1996) and initiator of the Middle East Conference in Madrid 1991, or Joschka Fischer, German Foreign Minister within Gerhard Schröder’s coalition of Social Democrats and the Green Party (1999–2005), did not result in any noticeable shifts of agenda setting in national or international politics. It is also worth noting that Barenboim—despite the presence of the German Federal President Joachim Gauck and, even more important, despite the fact that the Federal government covered more than €20 million for the construction costs—did not allow any speeches by government officials during his three-hour opening concert of the new Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin on March 4, 2017.

When Public Action Becomes Political

However, this presumed demarcation from politics causes ambiguities. His interventions in public debates, and especially his philosophical conception of music, establish some links with the political sphere.

Barenboim does not hesitate to take public positions, especially by regularly condemning the policy of colonization implemented by the Israeli Government. Israel must recognize the right to the political existence of the Palestinians (Barenboim 2013b), a claim he mobilizes even by referring to the declaration of independence of Israel itself. Thus, during the reception of the Wolf Foundation Prize in 2004, Barenboim delivered a speech at the Knesset in which he calls for the initial duties of the Israeli state:

I am asking today with deep sorrow: Can we, despite all our achievements, ignore the intolerable gap between what the Declaration of Independence promised and what was fulfilled, the gap between the idea and the realities of Israel?

Does the condition of occupation and domination over another people fit the Declaration of Independence? Is there any sense in the independence of one at the expense of the fundamental rights of the other?

Can the Jewish people whose history is a record of continued suffering and relentless persecution, allow themselves to be indifferent to the rights and suffering of a neighboring people?

Can the State of Israel allow itself an unrealistic dream of an ideological end to the conflict instead of pursuing a pragmatic, humanitarian one based on social justice? (Barenboim 2004b)

An even more remarkable example might illustrate Barenboim’s will to spread his political convictions: in 1998 (i.e. even before the launch of the Divan), Die Zeit published his article “I have a dream.” By this explicit reference to Martin Luther King, Barenboim imagines himself as the Prime Minister of Israel who is about to sign a treaty celebrating the coexistence of Israel and Palestine. The document relies on three conditions:

Firstly, both nations are obligated to work together. […] Secondly, I am in favour of arming both nations. Israel must remain vigilant against the Arab world—but so should Palestine, (at least for her own peace of mind). […] Finally, the treaty will provide for the creation of a new domestic secret service, comprising both the army and the police. How calling it the Ministry for Peace? A Judge, not a soldier, will lead it. (Barenboim 1998)

More recently, and referring to the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War in June 2017, Barenboim addressed the Israeli authorities to end occupation of the Palestinian territories (Barenboim 2017a). In December 2017, Barenboim—by the way open to a final binational solution (Garnier and Lucet 2018)—took position against Donald Trump’s decision to transfer the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and called upon the world community for official recognition of the Palestinian state in a further article (Barenboim 2017b). Barenboim’s latest intervention in the international press, this time provoked by the passing of the Nation-State Bill in the Knesset upon initiative by the Netanyahu government, resulted in a Zola-like J’accuse: the artist condemned “a law that confirms the Arab population as second-class citizens,” which he considers “a very clear form of apartheid. I don’t think the Jewish people lived for 20 centuries, mostly through persecution and enduring endless cruelties, in order to become the oppressors, inflicting cruelty on others. This new law does exactly that. Therefore, I am ashamed of being an Israeli today” (Barenboim 2018).

Multiple events highlight this interest for political statements beyond his articles in newspapers and speeches: Barenboim’s refusal to conduct an interview with a journalist wearing the military uniform of the Israeli army radio (September 2005); his decision to cancel a concert in Gaza following the refusal by the Israeli authorities to accept a Palestinian member of the Divan (December 2007); his enthusiastic acceptance of the Palestinian nationality (December 2007). All of these incidents caused strong reactions on both sides. On the one hand, some voices were calling for the removal of Barenboim’s Israeli nationality, as the ultra-Orthodox Shas party did. On the other hand, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) referred explicitly to Barenboim’s projects. For instance, Omar Barghouti, PACBI spokesman, expressed satisfaction about the cancellation of a Divan concert which was originally scheduled for the Doha Festival for Music and Dialogue (Barghouti 2012).

Then, the Orchestra is based on a principle commonly shared by its members. It takes distance with the political practices developed by Israelis and Palestinians. Thus, Barenboim pointed out that there is “agreement [among orchestra musicians] on the fact that the policy as it is practiced by the various governments of the Middle East is false” (Tribot Laspière 2013c). In other words, behind musical activity, the life of the orchestra indeed presents a judgment with the policy as practical. This judgment directly echoes with Barenboim’s own position, “that I am not a political person, even if I shook the hands of David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres as a child; not politics, but humanity has always concerned me. In that sense I feel able and, as an artist, especially qualified to analyse the situation” (Barenboim 2008b). As an Israeli, he considers that the nonviolent option is coherent with some episodes of Jewish history. For instance, in 2006, an anti-war declaration was—not unanimously—adopted by all musicians and printed in the concert programs. The document considered the dramatic context of Israel–Lebanese war, arguing that “the refusal to have an immediate ceasefire and the refusal to enter into negotiations for resolving once and for all the conflict in all its aspects goes against the very essence of our project as well” (Barenboim 2008a:70). Interestingly, this text incorporates the only explicit political statement signed by Barenboim (and Mariam Said) together with the WEDO members until today, and thus has been harshly criticized by several musicians for violating the orchestra’s self-proclaimed and oft-cited character as a nonpolitical entity (Cheah 2009:127).

Finally, Barenboim defends a philosophical conception of music that does not tend to dissolve the distinction mentioned above between music and politics, but to mitigate them. Firstly, music is not an art disconnected from social reality. In music history, many composers claimed a complete autonomy of their production from any historical context. Igor Stravinsky in the twenetieth century or Pascal Dusapin today strongly defended this idea (Dusapin 2007; Stravinsky 2000). “Committed” musicians, on the contrary, do not conceive their art without giving it a political mission. One of Brecht’s most dynamic collaborators, Hanns Eisler, even attributes modern composers the status of “fighter” (Eisler 1998:96), by struggling against bourgeois music and providing useful artistic insights in the socialist society instead. Barenboim is situated between these two radical perspectives; he neither adheres to the idea of music as an art form abstracted from its environment, nor to any ideological elevation:

I don’t like it when the music is in an ivory tower, that is separated from the rest of the world. Of course music allows us to escape from the world, but it also allows us to understand the world. To isolate it from the world is to lose much of its profound nature. (…) instruments as different as trumpet and violin could dialogue harmoniously together and that (…) constitutes a model for life. (Barenboim cited in Bellamy 2012)

Secondly, this idea of music as a holistic model for life is based on the integration of several individuals in one and the same ensemble, as Barenboim most prominently addressed in his lecture on Sound and Thought: “In music, everything must be constantly and permanently interconnected; the act of making music is a process of the integration of all its inherent elements” (Barenboim 2008a:13). The latter generates a more open-minded view of relationships because “through music it is possible to imagine an alternative social model” (Barenboim 2008a:55). Barenboim strongly emphasizes this aspect when articulating his musical career with politics. In his highly controversial statement to the Knesset in 2004, he expressed himself as follows:

Music is the art of the imaginary par excellence, an art free of all limits imposed by words, an art that touches the depth of human existence, and art of sounds that crosses all borders. As such, music can take the feelings and imagination of Israelis and Palestinians to new unimaginable spheres.

And he adds, “when politics transcends the limits of the present existence and ascents to the higher sphere of the possible, it can be joined there by music” (Barenboim 2004b).

While philosophers focus on movement in order to link music and politics as Gilles Deleuze does for instance[4] (Deleuze 1988; Nesbitt and Hulse 2010), Barenboim proposes an alternative direction: music as a source of imagination for another future. It is one of his central language elements that “there can be no military solution” for the Israel–Palestine question: instead, Barenboim sees the “need for a mutual feeling of empathy […]. In this conflict, we are all losers. We can only overcome this sad state if we finally begin to accept the other side’s suffering and their rights. Only from this understanding can we attempt to build a future together” (Barenboim 2014). This is at the heart of the symbolic action pursued. In other words, when Barenboim speaks about “the political,” he refers to the form of a polity rather than politics as an agonistic sphere where competition between actors is organized.

  1. A Symbolic Project

The Divan is not a love story, and it is not a peace story. It has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn’t. It’s not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. (…) I’m trying to create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives. (Barenboim quoted in Vulliamy 2008)

By refusing the designation as a “peacemaker,” Barenboim extends the idea of empowerment from politics: he does not consider himself a negotiator but rather a societal facilitator. This function must be distinguished from the idea of good offices or direct mediation between conflict parties: Barenboim aims at transforming the representations of “the others.” Not surprisingly, Paul Smaczny’s 2005 Emmy Award-winning documentary on the Divan was entitled Knowledge Is the Beginning (Smaczny 2005): “We Middle-Easterners are all great artists when it comes to abusing historical knowledge in order to demonstrate our victimhood and wallow in self-pity. It would be far more productive to allow our curiosity and knowledge to help us imagine and create the conditions for a better future” (Barenboim 2009:vii). But intentionally or not, the orchestra operates in the area of informal cultural diplomacy (not directly led or initiated by governments) as a dimension of multi-track diplomacy. How does the WEDO concretely relate to this extension of traditional diplomacy?

The Orchestra as a new Political Body

An orchestra can be qualified as a society in miniature. In the history of European thought, this society embodied a strategic figure, as collective musical performances have been compared to military struggle. But it also referred to the “will to live together,” especially during the eighteenth century: tracing back the etymology of the term “orchestra,” we might not only identify a crucial shift from a purely geographic denomination of the place in a theater where musicians or singers performed, to the use of “orchestra” for the musical ensemble itself in the era between 1650 and 1750 (Spitzer and Zaslaw 2005:14–18). Beyond this evolution, an orchestra is also related to the constitution of a political body. For instance, Rousseau uses numerous musical metaphors to make sense of the functioning of the volonté générale and the idea of integration (Rousseau 1966:50). It is also not a coincidence that, during the French revolutionary period, political leaders created large orchestras which offered new forms of concerts. By focusing on quantity (the sheer number of participating musicians) and open spaces (outdoor performances), these orchestras echoed with the political system transformation. Both in the substance and the form, the orchestra embodied a new political body (Kaltenecker 1999:75f.).

Without referring explicitly to these experiences, Barenboim promotes a similar design since the Divan embraces the same idea by focusing on integration or an “organic whole” (Barenboim 2011). Accordingly, the orchestra is regarded as the “sovereign independent republic of the West-Eastern Divan” (Barenboim 2008a:182, 2008c). Living together several weeks, playing together during musical performances, learning together to listen to the other instrumentalists (which is indeed the essence of the musical practices)—all these actions created links that allow them “to hear” the narration of other peoples and how they perceive the political situation. The body of the orchestra is based on the recognition of an equality of votes and voices. Without such basic principles which provide the same conditions of the aesthetic act, a dialog in music is impossible: “[…] The circumstances on the ground in the Middle East create too much inequality, and the prerequisite for any dialogue is equality. Without equality one cannot speak of dialogue, but only of soliloquy, which produces an excellent dramatic effect in the theatre but causes irreparable damage in daily life” (Barenboim 2008a:182, 2008c). By this way, the orchestra “has become a potent symbol of dialogue and peace” (Mahiet, Ferrugato, and Ahrendt 2014:3).

By supporting each other in a common musical performance, the members of the Divan learn to look differently at the de-humanized “enemy” who, until then, had no individual texture and was limited to weapons or soldiers: “Before going to the Divan, Sharon [Cohen] had really no thought of Syrians as human beings. She had only ever heard them spoken of as killers. The only thing she knew about Syrians was that they were sitting on the Golan Heights and shooting Israelis […] Sharon’s mother’s family had nothing against her playing in the Divan, but many of them couldn’t resist saying, ‘So, you’re playing with Syrians, huh?’ whenever the opportunity arose” (Cheah 2009:76). Hence, the orchestra projects a different image of what might happen in the social or political reality because “the fundamental principle of the orchestra was quite simple: once the young musicians agreed on how to play even just one note together they would not be able to look at each other in the same way again” (Barenboim 2008a:54). This is also relating to the observations the American cellist Elena Cheah made as a temporary professional stand-in within the ensemble. Cheah recognizes the idea that “this particular orchestra is a microcosm of a society that has never existed an may well never exist” (Cheah 2009:1). Several interviews with Divan instrumentalists corroborate evidence for this idea. Indeed, musicians share this design by highlighting the fact that the WEDO “does not forget the existence of the other” (Tribot Laspière 2013b). Rachel Abitan, an Israeli violinist, also points out that the common goal is not to resolve the conflict but to establish good conditions for real discussions that are often impossible otherwise. She added that this perspective makes all the political sense of the orchestra, since it “is a good model, even though many times they say what we do here is not politics, but I think there’s a political aspect to it. And I think that if people do see how Israelis and Arabs from different countries are getting along here and have a joint interest […], we wanna spread this message often, show that this is possible” (Tribot Laspière 2013a).

These reactions and comments reinforce Barenboim’s aspiration. If Palestinians and Israelis live in political and economic asymmetry, symmetry appears when it comes to perceptions: both groups are linked through “mutual ignorance” (Barenboim 2013a). Fighting this ignorance is the basic aim of the Divan at the symbolic level. Even though it is unable to “bring about peace,” the orchestra “can create the conditions for understanding without which it is impossible even to speak of peace” (Barenboim 2010:73). That is why the fruitful intellectual relationship between Barenboim and Said may be qualified as a middle-range couple, capable to break the double-bind (Norbert Elias), i.e. the insoluble nexus of opponents in the Israel–Palestine conflict, and thus cultivating a change of mutual representations (Ramel 2014).

The Divan and Music Diplomacy—Considerations from a Best-Practice Viewpoint

While considering the WEDO as a substantial example for informal music diplomacy, a variety of more general methodological and epistemological challenges has to be addressed: how are researchers enabled to assess any long-term impact as well as the question of quantifiability of such initiatives (beyond attendance figures, the number of participants or utilization rates as indicators of extremely limited validity when political and mental change are investigated); and how to verify the authenticity of a given initiative, all the more since event-based and only punctual actions rather than consolidated strategies dominates (the most prominent examples of such rather short-term investments being the semi-official U.S. mission the New York Philharmonic performed in Pyongyang 2008 (Wakin 2008) or the role of Russian “state artists” during the intervention in Palmyra 2016, where the appropriation and enactment of military victory took place through a presumed liberation from terrorism and has been symbolically expressed with a performance of the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra (Schoenbaum 2016)?

As previous research in cultural diplomacy has already considered from a best-practice viewpoint, distance from political and economic agendas (that is to say sufficient integrity in public opinion) together with a high level of interaction with the target audience and long-term commitment independent from ad hoc crisis management seem more likely to be successful (Gienow-Hecht 2010; Goff 2013). Against this background, the orchestra’s extraordinary and long-lasting success can also be attributed to two decisive structural developments: a general evolution toward professionalization (not alone thanks to the standardization of audition procedures from 2003 onwards) and institutionalization. Nearly two decades after the launch of the WEDO as a one-time workshop in 1999, Barenboim drew a positive summary in relation to his and Edward Said’s initial goals: “At the very beginning, more than 60 percent of its musicians had never played in an orchestra. Today, it is recognized as one of the leading orchestras in the world. Musically, it’s much better than we’ve ever dreamed of” (Bourdais 2018). Barenboim himself dated the audible result of this first artistic development boost to 2007, when the Divan musicians were able to perform Arnold Schönberg’s tremendously demanding Variationen opus 31 (the first 12-tone work Schönberg composed for larger ensemble) after 22 rehearsals in Salzburg and eventually got highest appraisal by Pierre Boulez. In addition, the WEDO differs from every other conventional youth orchestra not only in its specific humanistic claim and the related political implications to encourage the participation of people from nations that are intertwined by mutual enmity, but also with regard to its organizational concept itself. Since the very first workshop in 1999, Axel Wilczok (concertmaster of the Staatskapelle Berlin from 1984 until his early death in 2018 and professor at the Rostock Musikhochschule), Matthias Glander (principal clarinettist of the same orchestra), and the conductor Tabaré Perlas (Barenboim’s project assistant in Weimar 1999, CEO of the Daniel Barenboim Stiftung since 2008) supported Barenboim by realizing separate rehearsals for the string and wind sections as well as by conducting the demanding in-site auditions for new musicians (see Cheah 2009:51–65). That said, the institutional consolidation was strongly driven by pioneer spirit and personal commitment; study grants and long-term tutorship, often unpaid and mostly performed by members of the Staatskapelle Berlin, the Berlin Philharmonic, or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (where the third workshop was taking place in 2001), are exceeding the actual project phases. The growing professionalization is reflected not least in a significant increase in the annual performance activities, as the following diagram (Figure 1a) illustrates:

Figure 1a. Performances of the WEDO, August 1999–November 2018 (per annum)

Figure 1a. Performances of the WEDO, August 1999–November 2018 (per annum)

The uncompromising quality of music-making, unquestionably a key factor for the WEDO success story, is as much resulting from the fact that “Barenboim and his team of teachers demanded as much of them as of a professional orchestra” (Cheah 2009:53) as for the extraordinary musical and extra-musical networks of which Daniel Barenboim disposes, for example, the intense artistic cooperation with world-renowned soloists such as the Argentine pianist Martha Argerich or the soprano Waltraud Meier (both named honorary members of the WEDO). Neither should we underestimate Barenboim’s high prestige and awareness level as a catalyst effect insofar as the celebrity factor, albeit not resulting in a distinct form of celebrity diplomacy in this case, amplified the Divan’s almost global visibility. This factor might be one of the major reasons why other ensembles engaged in Middle Eastern intercultural dialog such as the Arab–Jewish Orchestra (an institution consisting of 24 young instrumentalists and singers from different Israeli backgrounds, focusing on crossover programs of oriental and Jewish folk music and led by Nizar Elkathar) are operating in the shadow of the omnipresent Divan.

The recent launch of the Barenboim–Said Akademie in Berlin can be understood as the most extensive product of institutionalization and professionalization as mentioned above: since 2016, between 90 and 100 talented young musicians from the Middle East and North Africa (but also other countries of origin) are selected to pursue a four-year Bachelor of Music or a yearlong pre-professional Artist Diploma, both including a strong focus on the Humanities in the spirit of Edward Said. Beyond scholarships and housing provided in form of subsidies by the German Federal Foreign Office, the Academy offers the opportunity to perform regularly in the Pierre Boulez Saal, an innovative 360-degree concert hall designed pro bono by Frank Gehry and the Japanese acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota.[5] As the Academy’s mission statement clearly emphasizes, “it is through playing and listening that students of the Barenboim–Said Akademie accept the differences of others […], bridging the fierce ideological divides first broached by their West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, and sustaining a dialogue that defies the political rifts that plague our world today” (Barenboim–Said Academy website).

The Other Sides of Symbolic Transformation

However, this movement in favor of another symbolism has some limits: four phenomena, both exogenous and endogenous, affect and curb the process of symbolic transformation.

(1) Limited audiences: the geopolitical map of musical activism. First of all, the WEDO is struck by a double exteriority concerning its sponsors and donors (mainly Europeans) on the one hand, and the audiences (mainly Western) on the other hand. Looking at the orchestra’s statistically most frequent concert venues since 1999, the corresponding tour plans hardly differ from those of other internationally active institutions within the field of classical music: given the major project phase in July/August every year, the Divan established itself as a permanent guest to some of the most prestigious summer festival locations in Europe such as London (at the BBC Proms, among other venues), Salzburg (Festspiele), Berlin (notably as visiting orchestra to the famous open-air Waldbühnenkonzert since 2008), or Lucerne (Festival) (see Figures 1b and 2).

Figure 1b. Performances of the WEDO, August 1999–November 2018 (geographical distribution)
Europe (179) and

United States (20)

Spain (47): Sevilla (17); Madrid (7); Córdoba (3); Granada (3); Málaga (2); Peralada (2); Ronda (2); Algeciras; Almería; Barcelona; Cádiz; Huelva; Jaén; Lucena; Oviedo; San Sebastián; Santander; Saragossa (each 1)

Germany (34): Berlin (16); Cologne (6); Weimar (3); Wiesbaden (2); Bayreuth; Hamburg; Haseldorf; Kiel; Lübeck; Munich; Stuttgart (each 1)

Austria (26): Salzburg (22); Vienna (4)

United Kingdom (22): London (20); Aldeburgh (1); Edinburgh (1)

United States (20): New York (9); Chicago (4); Providence/RI (3); Berkeley; Boston, Los Angeles, Washington (each 1)

Switzerland (20): Lucerne (14); Geneva (5); Basel (1)

France (10): Paris (5); La Roque-d’Anthéron; Marseille; Menton; Strasbourg; Versailles (each 1)

Italy (8): Milan (4); Ravello (2); Castel Gandolfo (1); Rome (1)

Denmark (4): Aarhus (2); Copenhagen (2)

Belgium (2): Brussels (2)

Sweden (2): Stockholm (2)

Finland (1): Helsinki (1)

Norway (1): Oslo (1)

Portugal (1): Lisbon (1)

Russia (1): Moscow (1)

South and Central America (51) Argentina (42): Buenos Aires (42)

Dominican Republic (2): Santo Domingo (2)

Brazil (1): São Paulo (1)

Chile (1): Santiago (1)

Colombia (1): Bogotá (1)

Ecuador (1): Quito (1)

Mexico (1): Mérido (1)

Uruguay (1): Montevideo (1)

Venezuela (1): Caracas (1)

East Asia (9) South Korea (5): Seoul (4); Paju/Imjingak (1)

China (4): Beijing (2); Shanghai (2)

Middle East (7) Qatar (3): Doha (3)

Morocco (1): Rabat (1)

Occupied Palestinian Territories (1): Ramallah

Turkey (1): Istanbul (1)

United Arab Emirates (1): Abu Dhabi (1)

TOTAL (266) Note: in the case of guest performances lasting more than one day in one and the same city, the respective concerts are recorded individually; data is excluding Divan-related events listed on the official website, such as the annual Edward W. Said Memorial Lectures in New York or film screenings).


Source: own compilation, based on

Figure 2. WEDO concerts (by country)


In light of Barenboim’s self-declared goal of having played once in all of his protégés’ home countries (Shemer 2016), the maestro resumed the two past Divan decades, that “from an extra-musical point of view, it’s well below what we expected” (Bourdais 2018).

This map of public musical activities is by no means the mere result of a self-imposed restriction to eurocentrism, but subject to a variety of inhibiting geopolitical factors: in fact, the WEDO (and Barenboim himself, despite being in possession of four different passports) are depending on the political will of the respective governments to support or at least tolerate transboundary mobility, especially as regards circulation and (re-)entry requirements on national territories (Ramel 2014:225–229). Beyond the ongoing mutual criminalization of any form of collaboration between Israel and most of the Arab states, the Syrian and Iranian authorities exerted explicit bans on some orchestra musicians to take part in the WEDO workshops; the oboist Mohamed Saleh Ibrahim even lost his teaching position at the national conservatory in Cairo as well as a scholarship from the Egyptian government after taking the risk to participate in spite of the contact ban that was declared during the Second Intifada (Cheah 2009:198). The history of the Divan is not least a narrative of cancelled, postponed, or relocated performances: envisaged to take place in the 6,000-seat Roman Amphitheatre of Amman, Jordan, a concert was cancelled for security reasons—just a month before, a suicide attacker had shot at the public and musicians from the Amman Symphony Orchestra in same location—and transformed into a “accustomed” musical contribution to the Ravello Festival on Italy’s Amalfi Coast (Cheah 2009:239f.); security concerns were also the reason to adjourn performances planned for Egypt and Qatar in the context of renewed violent escalation of the conflict between the Hamas and Israeli forces in Gaza 2008. His ambitious project to go on tour to Tehran with the Staatskapelle Berlin (under the patronage of the then German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier) proved unrealizable in 2015: in this case, the governments of Israel and Iran appeared united in public outrage, the former denouncing Barenboim for “using culture as a platform for his anti-Israel political views,” the latter refusing to grant entry to any representative of a presumed “illegitimate regime” (Huggler 2015). In a similar vein, Barenboim’s 75th birthday celebrations remained completely uncommented if not ignored by Israeli government officials (Mandel 2017).

Furthermore, as underlined by musicologist Beckles Willson, there are clear disparities in the perceptual patterns about one and the same musical performance. Taking the example of the concert given in Madrid by the Divan in 2006 during Israel’s war against the Hezbollah, she points to a tension in the way in which was attributed a specific meaning: for the local Spanish population, the concert reflected an anti-war sentiment resonating with the end of the country’s military engagement in Iraq, but the concert also embodied a public platform for a small group of Palestinian and Lebanese demonstrators, or even recalled the medieval era of religious tolerance in Spanish history for others (Beckles Willson 2009a).

(2) Questions of repertoire: the prevalence of Western art music. In addition, the repertoire remains highly selective. Whereas the very name of the orchestra symbolically suggests a space of encounters between East and West (thus following J. W. Goethe’s poetry collection of the same title, the West-östlicher Divan), the performed works are exclusively part of the Western musical tradition—a highly standardized repertoire that encompasses the canonical symphonic works from Beethoven to Mahler, including the oeuvre of classical modernism, Pierre Boulez, or the contemporary German composer Jörg Widmann (now professor at the Barenboim–Said Academy). New trends have been set from 2013 onwards, when Barenboim started to integrate commissioned works from contemporary composers with Middle Eastern background, a series that began with Jordanian-born German composer Saed Haddad’s Que la lumière soit and Israeli composer Chaya Czernowin’s At the Fringe of Our Gaze. The pieces Ramal by the Syrian artist Kareem Roustom and Resonating Sounds by Ayal Adler, pianist and director of the Israeli Composers’ League, followed in 2014. The 2018 summer tour might be considered as a further turning point insofar as it includes the world première of a commissioned work which is (for the first time) explicitly referring to individual identity conflicts that are similar to most of the WEDO biographies: written by Barenboim’s assistant at the Berlin State Opera David Robert Coleman, Looking for Palestine for soprano and orchestra is based on an autobiographical play by Najla Said—Edward Said’s daughter—and characterized by the integration of non-Western sounds and instruments, namely a part written for oud. The work deals with the story of a Palestinian-born girl in diaspora, her socialization in a Jewish–American and Christian environment and emotionally painful return to Lebanon during the war in 2006. Not surprisingly, Barenboim once again insisted that the piece should not read as a political, but a human contribution to the Israel–Palestine complex (Mattenberger 2018).

Notwithstanding the fact that Divan musicians regularly played Arabian music for fun after their concerts (Cheah 2009:243), this official selectivity queries the idea of a true encounter between cultures compared with other experiments conducted by classical musicians like Yo-Yo Ma with the Silk Road Project set up in 1998. In contrast to the WEDO, whose effective approach is the integrative power of a common performance of (primarily) Western art music, Silk Road relies on traditional music, transcultural improvisations and genuine musical creations. Organizations of concerts, masterclasses, but also educative programs for enriching the practice of music learning are part of the project that transcends the frontiers and “brought together musicians from the lands of the Silk Road to co-create a new artistic idiom, a musical language founded in difference, a metaphor for the benefits of a more connected world” (Silk Road Project website). Instead of following a postcolonial interpretation and criticizing the patronizing attitude that some authors considered as structurally enshrined in the Western canon and even the project itself (Beckles Willson 2009a, 2009b; Wakeling 2010), it could be argued—in the opposite direction—that this “out-of-region” program might have avoided unfavorable partisanship or the unbalanced musical representation of all national, ethnic or religious groups participating in the orchestra.

(3) WEDO biographies: the heterogeneity of socio-professional motivations. With regard to the variety of participants, it is questionable if their primary motivation is public engagement. Joining the Divan does not necessarily result from an ideological conviction but—at least as described by several musicians themselves—a strategic choice of professional development: “I came to the Divan thinking I just wanted to play Mahler with Daniel Barenboim and go on this great tour to Argentina and all over the place,” remembers Yuval Shapiro, member of the WEDO trumpet section between 2004 and 2007 (Cheah 2009:122; similar accounts Cheah 2009:227). Although we would refrain from the by far too narrow conclusions the Irish composer and activist Raymond Deane drew in his essay devoted to the WEDO musicians by emphasizing that “the real glue binding these young people together is ambition: the Divan provides an exceptional opportunity to gain experience under Daniel Barenboim, a famous and influential conductor, and hence is a stepping-stone to professional advancement. In itself, of course, there is nothing reprehensible about this—but it is a far cry from stylising the orchestra as an exemplary space of reconciliation and understanding” (Deane 2009), the levels of individual involvement may have varied considerably. Retrospectively, several participants had to admit they were “not aware or interested enough” (Cheah 2009:14) to actively engage in the variety of political debates, guest lectures, or film projections which Barenboim organized in collaboration with Edward W. Said (later his widow Mariam) as a complement to the rehearsals. Overall, however, it seems to be a banal rule of thumb that the more often the participation, the stronger the transformative effect for the individual musician.

A few words need to be said on the turnover rate—a concise quantitative analysis of individual socio-professional biographies of WEDO participants remaining desideratum for further research. In general, the institution reached a balanced tableau of natural fluctuation with new entrants and “graduates” on the one hand, including a stable core group of senior musicians on the other; Barenboim recently estimated that around 1000 participants have passed through the orchestra since 1999 (ZDF Mittagsmagazin 2018). Many of these “veterans” are pursuing professional careers in both Western and Middle Eastern symphony orchestras (Cheah 2009:229); however, it would be necessary to reassess the older empirical findings by Solveig Riiser and reexamine how substantial the Eurocentric brain-drain through scholarships and a veritable Divan diaspora in Berlin is today (Riiser 2010:32f.). There are examples of outstanding engagement to advocate Barenboim’s vision in follow-up projects such as the violinist Nabeel Abboud-Ashkarin, founder of the Barenboim–Said Conservatory in Nazareth (later renamed into Polyphony Conservatory), an institution facing the geographical and mental separation of local Arab and Jewish communities (Cheah 2009:40–47; Jaggi 2014). For others, societal and political obstacles seem too high to consider any form of long-term engagement in their countries of origin. Such are the reflections by the Lebanese cellist Nassib Al Ahmadieh, a permanent resident of the Divan since 2000 and today member of the Staatskapelle Weimar, who instead shifted his focus on pedagogical work in the East-German provincial city of Finsterwalde, where he is teaching at the local music school and initiated a festival for chamber music:

All we Divaners can do is to present an example in our own countries. Maybe I can soften the fear and hate, maybe I can help to put these emotions in a rational perspective […]. For me, the obligation to participate in the development of the Lebanese society is always in my mind, but the society there is so restricted. If I want to teach music in southern Lebanon, thy might see it as a Druze initiative from a political leader who wants to diminish the influence of another political leader, and so on and so forth. (Cheah 2009:109)

(4) Returnees and representations of conflict: the potential risks. Finally, and most importantly, Barenboim’s action through the Divan faces the problem of the musicians returning to their homelands, once the transformative experience is made. Those musicians then cover the structural elements that make the Israeli–Palestinian conflict non-negotiable: political actors on both sides, from the grass-root level to the elites, are keen to maintain static images, myths, and stereotypes of their respective enemy in order to reassure and consolidate their own identity in the conflict. After having engaged in a work of (re-)humanization of the latter within the protected framework of the WEDO, many musicians find themselves caught again in what Stuart Kaufman describes as a “symbolic trap,” namely the prevalence of representations of the conflict which reproduce enmity across time (Kaufman 2006:206). A few examples might illustrate this argument: according to the autobiographical account by Sharon Cohen (an Israeli violinist, herself army musician before joining the Divan), a Palestinian musician once complained about his disturbing re-encounter with a female orchestra member, which happened in Ramallah when the latter—as a reservist of the Israeli Defense Forces—was patrolling with a gun (Cheah 2009:77). Beyond a purely anecdotal value, such scenes emphasize how fragile the coexistence and the mutual trust were that have been laboriously struggled through toward “a certain communal identity,” as a longstanding participant resumed the Divan spirit (Daniel Cohen cited in Cheah 2009:19). The 34-day Lebanon War in 2006 proved a particularly severe “stress test” in this respect: Nassib Al Ahmadieh, the aforementioned cellist whose family already had to flee from the Iraqi invasion in Kuwait 1990 back to their homeland Lebanon and later witnessed the Lebanese Civil War, describes a situation of utmost psychological tensions: “I didn’t feel like going on tour playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—O Freude—at a time when 1.5 million people were dislocated in Lebanon and a hundred people were dying every day for a month” (Cheah 2009:106).

The musician expressed his frustration regarding the Divan’s artificial setting on the one hand, and the conflicting geopolitical realities on the other even more generalized: “As soon as crisis strikes, people on all sides react as if they had never been exposed to other ideas” (ibid.:108). In sum, 15 musicians from Arab countries out of around 80 were unable or, despite the insisting persuasive efforts of Barenboim himself, unwilling to participate in the summer workshop that year. Generally speaking, WEDO returnees seem often confronted with incomprehension, a biased press coverage on the orchestra in Israel (which is characterized by reduction to isolated events that are perceived as politically scandalous, such as the Ramallah concert or Barenboim’s decision to let descendants of Holocaust survivors play compositions of Richard Wagner (ibid.:135), or even reproached of having taken part in a “brainwashing” exercise by their relatives and friends without first-hand experiences with people from their respective “enemy states” (examples ibid.:81, 213, 215, 259). This phenomenon also includes cultural strata beyond political discourses that aim for reproducing threats. A passive exposure to political music can alter the process because such music strengthen militarism in the Israeli case (Peled 2013): protest songs, most prominently the genre developed in the Intifadas as an expression of Palestinian nationalism, play a crucial role in Arab popular culture and clearly exclude the idea of peaceful coexistence with Israel (see McDonald 2013).

Conclusion: Barenboim versus Disintermediation, Toward a Diplomacy of Links?

“I have always believed that there is no military solution to the Jewish Arab conflict, neither from a moral nor a strategic one and since a solution is therefore inevitable I ask myself, why wait?” (Barenboim 2004b).

A striking discursive ambiguity arises in the way Daniel Barenboim described his action through the Divan as an intermediary: Initially, he distanced himself from the idea of a peace project and considers the orchestra’s character “more humanistic than political” (Barenboim 2008a:61); nevertheless, he indicated a path toward peace. Beyond this tension, it is rather the two characteristics of the action carried out that crystallize the paradoxes: the claim for autonomy from politics (which is debatable in view of Barenboim’s regular political statements, but also and above all because of his philosophical conception of music as a metaphor for life), and symbolic action (which weaves one new imaginary relationship with another while bumping to factors that prevent its realization). Nevertheless, essentializing judgments such as Beckles Willson’s display of two contrasting features in WEDO, that is “a highly politicized, semi-public platform on which specific identities (Spaniards, Arabs, and Jews) interact” versus “a conventional youth orchestra playing highlights from the Western classical canon” (Beckles Willson 2009b:322), are not inclined to meet the unique complexity of Barenboim and Said’s project, nor is it the interpretation by ethnomusicologist Kate Wakeling according to whom the organization of these musical structures is “more as [a] Euro-American fantasy of cooperation and a vehicle for individual musical ambition, than a positive contribution to Middle Eastern social dynamics” (Wakeling 2010).

Precisely in view of such unsatisfactory conclusions, it is necessary to localize and specify the level of Barenboim’s intervention as a musician acting in the public space: if his actions’ repertoire differs from celebrity diplomacy, Barenboim cultivates an indirect form of multi-track diplomacy at the grass-root level. Indeed, his cultural activism can be neither located at the macro level (political restructuring of the regional agenda focusing on involvement in government-wide action to prevent war) nor at the meso level (which would imply the organization of concerts between different countries). The scale Barenboim favors is finally a micro level (that of individual trajectories) with a focus length devoted to music education. On the one hand, he provides local audiences, especially the Palestinian one, with another way of satisfying their primary needs (insofar as, beyond a purely material dimension, free participation in cultural life is internationally recognized in article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). This is what a resident of the Gaza Strip raised after a Divan concert in 2011: “The world has forgotten us. Those who remember us bring us medical care and food and we are grateful. But you would do the same thing for animals that require food and care. Coming in here, remember us that we are human beings” (Barenboim 2013). On the other hand, his direct intervention is restricted to individuals actively participating in the Divan workshops. It is the representations of the latter that are the subject of the first investment. This micro-scale does not alter the paradoxical effects of Barenboim’s action, but it allows us to identify the registry from which this action can be evaluated. This conclusion does not entail any implicit criticism of such cultural initiatives; it only aims at identifying the specific place of individual musicians like Barenboim and a collective musical structure like the Divan in peace processes and, more broadly, in diplomacy. Both are not sufficient for establishing peace: as the musicologist Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco pointed out, “we must also be aware that political action resulting in structural changes is a necessary condition for the effectiveness of conflict resolution and the establishment of peace” (O’Connell and El-Shawan Castelo-Branco 2010:246).

To a certain extent, these actions may be qualified as a diplomatie des maillons (diplomacy of links) at the grass-root level. This image of “maillon” suggests a link that is individually needed for constituting a chain. Whether for a fabric (wool mesh) or a string (the link of iron), links turn more or less resistant depending on their number and their robustness. This diplomacy of links is thus able to strengthen the connection between ordinary individuals regardless of what is playing on the macro-scale—an image that also relates to Elena Cheah’s impression of “the tapestry woven by so many individuals from mutually hostile nations” in the Divan (Cheah 2009:7). To cite Edward W. Said’s acceptance speech of the Principe de Asturias Prize in 2002, a diplomacy of links is here relating to “what I might call the long-range politics of culture, that provides a literally wider space for reflection and ultimately for concord rather than endless tension and dissonance. The literature and music open up such a space because they are essentially arts not of antagonism principally but of collaboration, receptivity, re-creation, and collective interpretation. No one writes or plays and instrument just to be read or listened to by oneself: there is always a reader and a listener, and over time, the number increases” (Said 2002). This finally raises the question how to distinguish such nongovernmental diplomatic initiatives from cultural relations stricto sensu: first and foremost, the orchestra’s demographic realities and the four normative components (legitimization, equalization, personalization, differentiation as mentioned above) that are characterizing its particular nonpolitical approach remain intrinsically intertwined with the political sphere, be it major shifts in the geopolitical constellation or the concrete Middle Eastern family histories of each individual WEDO musician. In addition, Barenboim and the Divan can count on discrete forms of political backing at least from several European powers: most prominently, all musicians participating in the Ramallah concert in 2005 were handed out diplomatic passports from the Spanish government, the permanent representations of Spain, Germany, and France to Palestine contributing to solve transportation and security issues. As a highly institutionalized and professionalized initiative, the WEDO does not reach the stage of intergovernmental, but interpersonal negotiation-like settings.

On top of that, this type of diplomacy at the micro-level must be strongly articulated to one of the main issues in the international system: Barenboim and the WEDO respond partly to the current crisis of diplomacy that is qualified by a lack of intermediation, perhaps disintermediation (Cooper 2017) per se. Protests and insults against accredited diplomatic personnel within the respective host countries as well as the increasing weakness of the implementation of diplomatic practices especially between state leaders are the most conspicuous symptoms of this process. The actors of disintermediation call into question the very pillars of diplomacy, i.e. to recognize an alterity and to cultivate lasting relationships with the otherness. By focusing on mutual recognition and equality within a cultural institution, “this most unusual of orchestras” (Cheah 2009:5) opens a very broad range of possibilities between human beings.

Such findings refrain from the traditional conception of diplomacy as a state monopoly (Berridge 2015; Nicolson 1939). Barenboim and the WEDO show that, although their reluctance to be qualified as genuine diplomatic actors, their positions and actions are contributing to the evolution of conflict representations at the grass-root level. These phenomena highlight the extensive definition of diplomacy that several scholars aim at promoting in the field nowadays (Hocking 2016; Langhorne 2004; Lee and Hudson 2004).


Frédéric Ramel is a full professor in Political Science and the Head of Political Science Department at Sciences Po, Paris, France. After his Ph.D., he became a postdoctoral fellow at the Raoul Dandurand Chair (University of Quebec at Montréal). As tenured Professor, he taught at the Jean Monnet Faculty of Paris Sud XI and participated in the creation of the Institute of Strategic Research at the Military School (IRSEM), of which he had been the scientific director between 2009 and 2013. He deals with international security, intergovernmental organizations, and normative issues in IR. One of his current research programs is dedicated to the relations between aesthetics and international relations. More specifically, he analyzes the role of music in diplomacy and armed conflicts conceptually and historically. For instance, he studied the idea of Concert as a philosophical convention in the perpetual peace tradition during the eighteenth century. He also focuses on current musical experiences of reconciliation thanks to music and especially the East–West Divan Orchestra initiated by Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim. Among his last publications: International Relations, Music and Diplomacy (as editor with Cecile Prévost-Thomas, Palgrave MacMillan, 2018), “Teaching IR through Arts: some lessons learned” (International Studies Perspectives, 19 (4), November 2018) and in Presses de Sciences Po: L’Enjeu mondial 2018. Guerres et conflits armés au XXIème siècle (with Benoit Pélopidas), L’Attraction mondiale (Alfred Thibaudet Award 2013).


Michael Jung holds a master’s degree in Public Policy (cum laude) from the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris and a bachelor’s degree in History (distinction) from the University of Konstanz. In 2017–2018, he was fellow of the German Academic Scholarship Foundation. Beyond his research interests in cultural policy and international relations at the intersection of music and politics, he continues his dedication to musical practice as a semi-professional pianist. Since October 2018, Michael Jung is working as an associate for Miller & Meier Consulting in Berlin.



[1] A first autobiography was published as early as in 1991 (revised as Barenboim 2013c); up-to-date biographical information is available on Daniel Barenboim’s official website:

[2] N.B.: Unless otherwise specified, all translations from French material are our own. All online sources used in this paper were last accessed and checked on September 7, 2018.

[3] Here, we refrain from interpreting Daniel Barenboim’s position as fully representative for “celebrity diplomacy.” Other authors, however, adapt this approach (for instance, Mahiet, Ferrugato, and Ahrendt 2014:9).

[4] As Gilles Deleuze reflects, “la musique fait et nous fait faire le mouvement. […] elle nous rappelle que la raison n’a pas pour fonction de représenter, mais d’actualiser la puissance, c’est-à-dire d’instaurer des rapports humains dans une matière (sonore)” (1988:26).

[5] Supervised by Frédéric Ramel, Michael Jung has been preparing a Master’s thesis (unpublished) on “The Barenboim–Said Akademie: Towards a Hybrid Form of Federal Cultural Policy and Diplomacy in Germany” at the Sciences Po School of Public Affairs. This first in-depth study devoted to the most recent institution in Barenboim’s universe will not only examine his role as a cultural entrepreneur, but also discuss the unconventional multi-stakeholder cooperation and the strong impact of lobbying that enabled successful institution building. Furthermore, the work will illustrate how the Academy is showcasing Germany’s post-national approach to domestic and external cultural action.



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Related websites

Arab–Jewish Orchestra | <>.

Barenboim–Said Akademie | <>.

Barenboim–Said Foundation Ramallah | <>.

Daniel Barenboim | <>.

Daniel Barenboim Stiftung | <>.

Fundación Pública Andaluza Barenboim-Said | <>.

Pierre Boulez Saal | <>.

Polyphony Foundation | <>.

Silk Road Project | <>.

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra | <>.