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Two politically outspoken musicians have rung in the start of the 2017 BBC Proms with performances and speeches alluding to and addressing European unity and cultural diversity. Russian-German pianist Igor Levit, playing the first night of the Proms, gave a performance of Liszt’s transcription of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the anthem of the European Union. Wearing a small EU pin, he delivered a deeply felt rendition of one of the most familiar pieces of classical music to a rapt audience. Levit has described the EU as a “project of unity and peace” in the past, and has more recently challenged European politicians to stand up to the “angry, dangerous” rhetoric of Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, at the second night of the Proms, the conductor Daniel Barenboim gave a long speech about European solidarity and the importance of education in breaking down barriers. A speech punctuated with applause, the audience listened intently to Barenboim’s measured, deliberate words before launching into a spirited rendition of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 with the Staatskapelle Berlin.
Here is an excerpt from Barenboim's speech:
When I look at the world with so many isolationist tendencies, I get very worried... I lived in this country for many years. I was married in this country… I was shown so much affection whilst I lived here that this gave me the impetus if you want to say what I would like to say.
I think that the main problem today is not the policies of this country and of that country. The main problem of today is that there is not enough education. That there is not enough education for music we have known that for a long time, but now there is enough education about whom we are, about what is a human being and how he is to relate with other of the same kind.
If you look at the difficulties that the European continent is going through now, you can see that, why that is, because of the lack of common education. Because in one country they do not know why they should belong to something that the other countries do. And I’m not talking about this country now… I’ll come to that. I’m talking in general.
You know our profession, the musical profession, is the only one that is not national. No German musician will tell you – ‘I am a German musician and I will only play Brahms, Schumann and Beethoven’. We had very good proof of it tonight.
If a French citizen wants to learn Goethe he must have a translation. But he doesn’t need a translation for the Beethoven symphonies. This is why music is so important… And this isolationist tendencies and nationalism in its very narrow sense, is something that is very dangerous and can only be fought with a real great accent on the education of the new generation.
The new generation, they have to understand that Greece and Germany and France and Denmark have all something in common, called European culture. Not only Europe. Culture. This is really the most important thing. And of course in this cultural community called Europe there is a place for diverse cultures. For different cultures. For different ways of looking at things. But this can only be done with education. And the fanaticism that exists in the world with religious backgrounds can also only fought with education.
Religious fanaticism cannot be fought with arms alone. The real evil of the world can only be fought with a humanism that keeps us all together. Including you. And I’m going to show you that I really mean it.