The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, and the politics of western art music in 21st-century Israel-Palestine

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Holloway, University of London
Department Name: Music


Research has often been undertaken in traditions understood to be long connected / or long-ago connected / with Israel-Palestine, but the local role of more recently-imported European repertories has been less explored. Today western art music is grasped by some Arab Palestinians as a vehicle for their own self-definition, and my aim is to analyse the formations of the consequent musical initiatives (some pedagogical, some performing and some compositional), and their interfaces both with Arabic musical practices and political movements. Studying these may offer novel perspectives on western art music's translatability and also new insights into cultural politics in the Middle East.

The pilot study will examine the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (WEDO). Since its foundation in 1998 by pianist/conductor Daniel Barenboim and literary historian Edward W. Said, WEDO has been celebrated in Europe and the USA as a symbol of hope that Israel-Palestine may one day reach peaceful coexistence. Made up of young Israeli, Arab and Andalusian musicians, the orchestra meets annually for a workshop and short concert tour, enabling Israelis and Arabs to play music together, to perform in places with political regimes of relevance to them all, and to attempt to transcend the political barriers that normally divide them. My study aims to analyse WEDO's significance today from three main critical perspectives as follows.

(i) The decline in the significance of western art music today.
The analysis will attempt to understand the ways in which WEDO attracts renewed attention to an art form that has seemed to become irrelevant to (even) the majority of western elites. What aspects of the orchestra have entranced western listeners and writers? A related objective is to examine the way the orchestra's press campaign and its Spanish sponsors have been active in shaping its positive reception in the west. The former has issued numerous statements that assert western art music's ostensibly universal power to build social bridges; and the latter has promoted an idealised vision of Muslim-Jewish coexistence in Andalusia 900-1200.
(ii) Cultural politics in the Middle East.
A further aim is to examine responses to the orchestra's performances in precisely the non-Western contexts with which it ostensibly engages (Damascus, Jerusalem, Rabat and Ramallah). So far, whereas many academics and journalists in Jerusalem seem to regard it positively, Arabic Palestinian web bloggers have dismissed it as a political gimmick. Other negative responses are polarised between Palestinian nationalists (for whom public collaboration between Israelis and Arabs is tantamount to suggesting that the two groups are equal partners in the region) and rightist Israelis (for whom Barenboim's use of the orchestra to promote Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories renders his work anti-Semitic).
(iii) Music-making in the everyday (life within the orchestra).
The final aim will be to examine life within the orchestra in terms of participants' interaction with music and politics. How do these young musicians (some of whom have been taught to conceive each other as warring ethnic and/or religious others) communicate musically and politically during the workshop? Is there space for music of other traditions in spare time? What role does music play within the political dynamic of the collaborative enterprise? In what ways are the musicians changed by the experience?

The research will provide the orchestra with a larger context than most western readers and listeners currently perceive. It will also expose a particular rehearsal and touring situation and introduce to musicology, thereby, a new view on musical production.


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Beckles Willson R (2009) Whose Utopia? Perspectives on the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Music and Politics

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Beckles Willson, Rachel (University Of Bristol) (2013) Orientalism and Musical Mission: Palestine and the West

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Willson R (2009) The Parallax Worlds of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Journal of the Royal Musical Association