Can Music Be an Instrument of Peace?

Leon Botstein is a conductor and academic known for his innovative programs and interest in contemporary and neglected repertory. He was a violin student of Roman Totenburg and studied conducting with James Yannatos, Richard Wernick, and Harold Farberman. He pursued dual careers in academics and music and became a teaching fellow in general education at Harvard University from 1968 to 1969, and then a lecturer in the department of history at Boston University in 1969. Meanwhile, he began conducting and from 1973 to 1975, and he was the principal conductor of the White Mountain Music and Arts Festival. In 1975, he became president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, a position he still holds today.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: Have you had any political difficulties playing with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra? 

Leon Botstein: I’ve experienced several kinds of criticism. Number one, when we were on tour last year, there was a threatened protest at the University of Michigan because we are the radio orchestra of the State of Israel, so there is a growing sentiment on American campuses which is anti-Israel. There are talks of boycotts. There is a lot of anti-Israel sentiment. And we picked up a little bit of that. In addition, the extremely articulate anti-Zionist, anti-Israel intellectual group views me as a kind of apparatchik for the Zionist state. 

So they’re very suspicious of me for taking this position, which I have had for seven years, which I do, by the way, without compensation. I take no fee. I do it, I give my fee back to the orchestra. So there is a little bit of pushback. On the other side, since Bard has the only dual-degree program between an American university and a Palestinian, we have a cooperation with Al-Quds University on the West Bank for a Master’s degree program training teachers, an honors college and we’re building two high schools. I’ve been attacked by the Zionist right for being too cooperative with the Arab population and being in favor of a two-state solution, and so the Israeli right doesn’t share my point of view. 

And so this cooperation between an American university and a Palestinian has not earned me some friends on the right. So I’ve been attacked from both sides as a result of my involvement in Israel. But the problem is that I would have liked to see the Jerusalem Symphony reach out to all of the residents in Jerusalem, including the residents of East Jerusalem. But it’s very hard. It’s a very polarized situation. I’m not a citizen of the State of Israel, so I’m there as a foreigner and as a guest. So I try to stay away from politics as much as possible. So, by and large we’ve had good luck but there’s been some criticism, not as much as I might have expected. 

Question: Can music be an instrument of peace? 

Leon Botstein: No, I don’t think music can be an instrument of peace. It is an instrument that can be a common ground. You know, there’s a lot of talk about music being a universal language. But it is, in other words it’s fascinating to see different cultures want to play the same repertoire and the same music. A Chinese orchestra, Japanese orchestra, Venezuelan orchestra. Vietnamese, there are three classical orchestras in Hanoi. So it is perfectly compatible with multiple identities. You can be a nationalist, Chinese nationalist, and love Beethoven, but you can also be a Nazi and love Beethoven. You can be a freedom fighter, anti-fascist and love Beethoven. 

So everybody owns it and nobody owns classical music. It’s a common ground. But it is not itself a builder of peace. One would hope that our sense of being musical, that you’re musical and that I’m musical and that we both enjoy music, we might enjoy the same music, would lead us to respect each other. But that hasn’t happened with language. You know, we’ve killed people who speak the same language we do for other reasons. The color of the skin was different, their religion was different, their political views were different, their gender was different, their sexual preference was different, but they speak the same language. Somehow the fact that you and I speak the same language is not enough for me in the larger sense to respect the sanctity of your own life. 

So I’m going to go to war against you even though we speak the same language, nominally. So music is much the same thing. It’s an illusion to think that it is an instrument of peace. 

Recorded on May 10, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman

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