Music can help to heal the divisions in society

Martin CullingfordWed 17th August 2016

High-profile projects and grassroot initiatives both have a vital part to play

We live in a world of division – though of course, sadly, we always have. Sometimes we ignore it, muddling on or turning away. But sometimes events force those divisions unavoidably into the public eye. The horrific massacre in Nice; the following day the attempted coup in Turkey. And, in the UK, a referendum which threw stark and overdue light on divisions within British society. Light illuminates the divisions, but also enables us to see more clearly the cracks, the better to address them.

Music has a proud history of uniting, sometimes intentionally, sometimes simply as a reflection of what it is and does. At a high-profile level, projects such as Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra bring players from different backgrounds together and inspire their audiences. Concerts such as the Beethoven Ninth that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall can be as eloquent as any speech. Or the playing (and tears) from Rostropovich in Dvorák’s Cello Concerto, a Czech masterpiece, at the 1968 Proms on the day the Soviet tanks rolled forward to crush the Prague Spring (released by BBC Legends). Or the powerful simplicity of opening this year’s BBC Proms with the Marseillaise as a tribute to the victims of Nice and to the ideals of a free society.

But step away from the global stage, and perhaps music’s even greater unifying role is less celebrated and more subtle. I think of the extraordinary work done by teaching organisations or the education departments of orchestras, or groups like Streetwise Opera whose belief in the power of music to change the lives of homeless people found such moving testimony in a Bach St Matthew Passion earlier this year (available on YouTube). Such outreach projects are of course conceived to help the disadvantaged, but at their best it’s not always clear-cut who is the giver, and who is the recipient – such interaction channels understanding in both directions, to participants and audiences alike. A hand is extended to people to help them up, but one hopes that, through shared experiences, seeds are sown on both sides of a divide, until such a boundary becomes blurred and ultimately irrelevant. The role such community and grassroots initiatives can play in healing society cannot be overestimated, and it is where new support now needs to go if we really believe art is for everyone and can change lives – which I believe it is and can.

Finally there’s the simple fact of the international nature of music-making. Just take a single disc from this year’s Gramophone Awards shortlist: a Norwegian violinist joins a German orchestra and an American conductor in concertos by an Englishman and an American forced to flee his native Austria – and recorded by a label based in France. 

Difference and division are not the same: the former can be a creative catalyst and source of learning. Division not so. The more thoughtful people today are looking at the fractures around us, reading through the rhetoric and seeking solutions. Music has a part to play in that, and where it can, we all have a responsibility to be its greatest cheerleaders: let us not waste the opportunity. 

martin.cullingford@markallengroup.com

This article appeared in the September 2016 issue of Gramophone, available now

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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