If the Last Night of the Proms was a focus of Brexit discontent in 2016, this year it was has been the been the first few nights. In the opening concert, Igor Levit performed Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the adopted anthem of the EU, as an encore (he was also sporting an EU badge on his lapel). If that wasn’t enough, on the third night Daniel Barenboim made an impassioned humanitarian plea that appeared to be inspired by his opposition to Brexit.
Inevitably this has caused outrage in various wings of the press. Normal Lebrecht in the Spectator (reproduced on Slipped Disc) called the speech ‘out of order’, Stephen Pollard in the Telegraph called it ‘deeply irritating.’ The tabloids were rather more colourful, The Sun saying that ‘Barenboim ranted against the UK leaving the EU and had a German orchestra play Elgar’s Land of Hope of Glory in protest;’ the Express, in a similar vein, saying that the BBC Proms had been ‘hijacked by conductor’s anti-Brexit rant.’
I have some sympathy for Lebrecht’s take on the two events. He made a distinction between Levit’s intervention, which was purely musical and hence acceptable, and Barenboim’s which could more easily be said to have overstepped the mark. Similarly, despite Barenboim’s protestations that his speech was not political—he didn’t once mention Brexit— Pollard was right to observe that ‘you’d have to be verbally tone deaf not to get what he meant.’
Despite this, however, it is not unfair to say that Barenboim’s words were only rendered controversial in the context in which he said them, that context being Brexit. A plea for greater education, for more European unity and for us to fight against extremism seems a fairly reasonable one for any person, including a musician, to make at any time. If he had said similar words at the Proms before 2016, I don’t think anyone would have remarked much upon them. That they are controversial now is another rather worrying sign of the times.
Daniel Barenboim’s speech: