Editorial: The Slow Horse

The BBC Radio 4 Reith lectures by Daniel Barenboim.

This year, the BBC Radio 4 Reith lectures are being given, for the first time, by a conductor and pianist – Daniel Barenboim. His subject, naturally, is music. Always an occasion for a grand statement about our time, whether regarding science, morality, religion or art, the Reith lectures are a fine example of not only public-service broadcasting but also of pluralism. In a word, that which might appear to be of minority interest is given mainstream treatment.

Occasions such as these could easily be carried off as a token exercise, fulfilling a broadcaster’s remit and thus ticking a box. But rather than treat them as an aside, the BBC storms the public sphere with these lectures, throwing its full weight behind them, demonstrating a faith in the power of deep thought well articulated to shape public consciousness. These five lectures are an event, each given in a separate city – London, Chicago, Berlin, Ramallah and Jerusalem – to audiences of thousands that include leading international musical figures.

Some of the territory Barenboim visits in his talks may be already familiar to those interested in music or music’s place in society – philistinism; the chaos of our aural environment; the potential effect of music in a human being’s education – but the precision and humour with which he presents his thoughts mean his arguments linger on in the listener’s mind. An underlying theme in what Barenboim is trying to say is what he himself has learned from playing and thinking about music, that within the creation and performance of music are countless lessons for our society. But no simplistic statement does he make on this subject. Rather, Barenboim builds up a powerful argument for the idea that music can teach society – ‘through’ its citizens – about such essentials of life as conflict, democracy, memory and knowledge.

Listening to these lectures over the internet – hearing the applause of thousands and seeing the hundreds of messages about the content of Barenboim’s lectures on the BBC website – I think I am just as interested in the fact that he was given an international stage to say such things as I am by what he is saying. The respect given to the Reith lectures is a clear example of pluralism.

In Ireland, pluralism is still the slow horse – requiring an effort and a patience to progress it which often does not seem to be there. Pluralism – the respect and empowerment of different interests – can be so easily reduced to tokenism, with all energy relinquished to the mainstream, and obligations towards a supposed ‘minority’ carried out dutifully but with little more than that. I can’t help but be intrigued by something like the Reith lectures, in which the minority interest is seized as an opportunity to advance society as a whole. TG4, RnaG and the RTÉ Living Music Festival come to mind as three very fine examples of the same thing here, but we can do with much, much more.

Published on 1 May 2006

Toner Quinn is Editor of The Journal of Music. His website is www.tonerquinn.com.

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