West-Eastern Divan Orchestra


Model for the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra new concert hall

God’s land is the Orient!/God’s land is the Occident!/Northern like as Southern lands/Rest in peace between God’s hands.” These lines, written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1819 in his late work West-Eastern Divan, were inspired by Persian poetry. They are an early example of the stimulating exchange between Orient and Occident. West-Eastern Divan is also the eponym for a renowned orchestra with Muslim, Jewish and Christian musicians from the Middle East, founded in Weimar in 1999 as the brainchild of the extraordinary friendship of Daniel Barenboim and Edward W. Said.

Project against ignorance

In 1992, Daniel Barenboim, music director of the Berlin Staatsoper, became a close friend of Palestinian-American literary theorist and public intellectual Edward W. Said. Together they launched the orchestra which Barenboim calls a project against ignorance. For him it is “absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it. I’m not trying to convert the Arab members of the Divan to the Israeli point of view, and I’m not trying to convince the Israelis to the Arab point of view. But we want to create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives.” An Israeli orchestra member: “We try to go to the extremes in dialogue, we try to go to new places in our imagination, and this project creates a platform for us to do so.”

In September 2015, an extraordinary music academy in the spirit of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra will welcome its first students. The Barenboim-Said Academy will eventually train up to 100 young musicians from the Middle East. Former German secretary of culture Michael Naumann is the executive director of the academy. He explains that students will receive a four-year musical education, complemented by a liberal arts curriculum, focusing on music history and intellectual history. Maestro Barenboim will assume responsibility for the academic and musical direction. Naumann estimates the initial building costs at € 32 million. The academy was made possible by contributions by the German government as well as philanthropists. Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry designed the concert hall, situated in a landmarked building provided by the City of Berlin, as part of a pro bono project.

Mutual respect

Tim Renner, Berlin’s Secretary for Cultural Affairs, is proud to add yet another flagship institution to the city’s burgeoning cultural scene: “Over the last decades, Berlin has become a meeting place for talents from all over the world. For artists from different cultures, the city is the place to be for creating mutually powerful spill-over effects.” In Barenboim’s words: “The Academy’s Arab and Israeli graduates will carry a new message with them back to their homelands – the message that mutual respect is not just possible, but necessary if people want to work together and live alongside each other in harmony. People are going to have to listen to them.”

The Academy has been called a utopia in a world of harsh reality; exemplifying how people from a notoriously unstable region can work together, understand and listen to one another. Said, who passed away in 2003, would certainly be pleased. He once said: “Humanism is the only, and I would go as far as to say the final resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.”

Simon Vaut is a political advisor to the SPD Parliamentary Group in Brussels and Berlin

Photo Credit: Gehry Partners

What Next?

Related Articles