Daniel Barenboim turns 80: “Never abandoned a habit: showering before concerts”

from Daniel Barenboim

The pianist and conductor tells himself on the eve of his birthday: “As a child I performed for Ben Gurion and I was convinced that everyone knew how to play the piano”

LMusic has always been a constant and essential part of my life. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that my earliest reminiscences of when I lived in Buenos Aires are of a musical nature. I was born in November 1942 and at the time in Argentina the cultural life was vibrant and healthy, somewhat informal, open to all, with a large number of chamber concerts and in private homes. It was perfect for young and old. My parents were terrific. Not wealthy, but with a rich inner life. Book eaters, they immersed themselves in all aspects of philosophy and culture. Every Sunday, my father and I went to the bookstore, and for me that was one of the highlights of the week. From an early age I was interested in biographies, especially those of musicians. Music was always a topic of conversation with my parents and their friends.

I still have in mind the hilarity aroused because as a child I thought everyone played the piano. My father and mother were both teachers of this instrument and, outside the family, the only people who entered our house during the day were students and other pianists. I had never met individuals outside our circle who didn’t play the piano. People found my belief very amusing, and I didn’t understand why. In fact, I was surrounded by music. On an instinctive level I understood that music was a language in which I could communicate, even if, of course, I was not able to formulate the concept at the time. Music was a serious matter, but above all it always brought me enormous joy. I originally chose the violin, because my father had performed in a series of concerts with a violinist and I was convinced that if I wanted to play with him, I had to do it with that instrument. Unfortunately my parents couldn’t find a violin small enough for me when I was four.

So I started playing the piano at the age of five and a half. The first notions I learned from my mother, but within a few months my father took over as a teacher. I held my first public concert at the age of seven. Word got around and on August 19, 1950 I was invited to play a solo performance at the Bayer Hall. I remember that it seemed quite natural to me, I was not at all agitated, even if my feet barely reached the pedal! At that point I realized that the other seven-year-olds weren’t doing the same things. I played whatever they proposed to me, I don’t seem to have had any particular likes or dislikes. When I was 9, my parents decided to move to the state of Israel, founded a few years earlier. My maternal grandparents were Zionists, not politically active, but still convinced that the most natural thing for us was to move to Israel.

We left Argentina the day after our death by Evita Peron, July 27, 1952. Nobody said it explicitly, but it was clear that it was goodbye forever. In those days, jets did not exist yet, and the journey to Europe took an excruciatingly long time. It took us three days, first by plane (propeller, of course, with stopovers in Montevideo, São Paulo, Dakar, Isla de la Sal, Lisbon, Madrid and Rome) then by train. When we finally got to Salzburg, I was exhausted. However, as we passed the Festspielhaus, now called the House for Mozart, I noticed a billboard announcing a performance of The magic Flute. I asked my parents what it was, and they explained that it was a Mozart opera. Of course the tickets were sold out, but my mother, a very enterprising woman and not at all shy, she said that I should try to enter the Festspielhaus on my own. Being small, I was able to sneak in secretly. I saw an empty box and sat in there like a prince. The musicians tuned the instruments, the conductor approached the podium and I fell asleep immediately in that dark and welcoming box. After a while I woke up and, not knowing where I was or where my parents were, confused, I began to cry. A theater assistant rushed towards me and immediately led me out: thus ended my little adventure.

At the end of 1952 we left for Rome and from there we boarded a ship bound for Haifa to start our new life in Israel. It was a very exciting time; a new land, a new country of enormous significance for a Jewish family. I remember that I liked that life very much, except for the linguistic aspect. But I found some friends right away, which I imagine was much easier back then than it is today. Among my memories are also a solo performance at the Tel Aviv museum in January 1953 and an audition for the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. They had decided to invite me and to that concert and in the audience there was none other than David Ben Gurion! An uncle of mine was a member of the Mapai Socialist Party. He had connections among the members of the government and had made sure that Ben Gurion was present. I met him after the concert and saw him very happy. He knew absolutely nothing about music, but he read a lot. The school I attended was very close to his residence and so he suggested that I go and practice piano in his house. Shimon Peres was his secretary, and it was he who opened the door for me when I went to study with them. I had been taught to be very polite and I thanked Ben Gurion very much for allowing me to use the piano in his residence. I asked him if there was anything I could do in return. Yes, he answered him, and then he told me that he loved to read, even in languages ​​he didn’t speak well. One of his favorite books was the Don chisciotte by Miguel de Cervantes and so, making a rather suggestive agreement with me, Ben Gurion asked me to read him some passages from the Don chisciotte in Spanish when I went to practice and he was at home.

I stayed in Israel without making any other trips from December 1952 until the summer of 1954, when we returned to Salzburg, this time to attend Markevitch’s conducting lessons. That summer I also met Wilhelm Furtwängler, one of the figures who most influenced my entire musical life: he was extremely kind and invited me to play with the Berlin Philharmonic. If I think back to those early years, now that there are only a few days left to turn eighty, they seem to me both completely normal and equally extraordinary. At the time I didn’t feel as young as I actually was, just as I don’t feel as old as I actually am now. In hindsight, I understand that my experiences as a child might seem odd to someone who hasn’t had them. But to me they are only my life. How can I say? It all seemed normal to me. With the love, care and wisdom lavished on me, my parents instilled in me a deep sense of trust and security that guided me throughout my life and career: I grew up and became a young man who he traveled and performed alone, starting to make himself known as an orchestra conductor, reaffirming over and over again the fact that he was an orchestra conductor, as well as a pianist. For me, music has always been a joy, never a duty, even if very soon I realized that there were some indispensable things, for example taking a shower before the concert, around six in the evening. I have maintained this habit all my life. Music is not a profession, it is a way of life. This is how I spent my entire existence: in music and thanks to music.

November 12, 2022 (change November 12, 2022 | 20:51)

Daniel Barenboim turns 80: “Never abandoned a habit: showering before concerts”