Most musical responses, public and private, to my discussion of religious anomalies in Daniel Barenboim’s Diwan orchestra have taken a markedly hostile tone.
Several professional musicians argued that religious faith should have nothing to do with the process of making music. ‘A majority of Israeli musicians just like most of their international colleagues have no time for religion,’ is how one London violinist put it to me in an email. He, and others, go on to assert that ‘the world would be a better place without religion.’
He is entitled to that view, and can claim support from the spirit of the times whether in science or the arts. It is cool to be an atheist in the 21st century. In recent Lebrecht Interviews with Jonathan Miller and Stephen Hough, it was the God-denying director who was more certain in his convictions than the God-seeking pianist.
Whatever one’s personal beliefs, however, all musicians ought to be aware that without religion there would be no music for them to play. It was the church that laid the foundations for symphonic music and a search for God that led most of the great composers to write as they did. Beethoven may have been anti-authority and Verdi anti-clerical, but with the lone exception of Richard Wagner it is hard to find a major composer before the 1918 who actively denied the existence of God and was not driven to compose by a religious impulse.
It is, of course, possible to separate between a composer’s intentions and the interpretation of music, but to assert that religion is irrelevant or detrimental to the art exposes what the mid-20th century psychologist Leon Festinger called ‘cognitive dissonance’ and Freud referred to much earlier as Das Unheimlich – the uncanny.
Both mean the same thing: a discomfort felt by someone grappling with two contradictory ideas. The therapeutic ‘solution’ is either to find a balance between the ideas or to rationalise one of them out of the picture. That seems to be what post-religious musicians are doing in relation to the faith basis of their art. It is not a viable intellectual position.
As far as the East-West Diwan orchestra is concerned, the cognitive dissonance is the inbuilt imbalance between a multiculturalist respect for Islam and a liberal contempt for those who observe the religious heritages of Judaism and Christianity. Fiona Maddocks argued justly that this inequality needs to be addressed. I would add that a resolution of the dissonance is essential if the Diwan is ever to have more than a decorative, symbolic and largely sentimental role in the search for a Middle East peace.