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The Conductor: Daniel Barenboim

Daniel Barenboim, Conductor and Pianist Extraordinaire, Has Two Passions in Life: His Music and His Cigars
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96

(continued from page 1)

"I took the box with me to the rehearsal, and before it began I told him I had something for him. He was standing with his back to me looking in his briefcase, and he turned around and there was something in his hand. I gave him the box of Montecristo No. 3s and he gave me what he had brought for me--a box of Montecristo No. 3s!"

As he talks, Barenboim resembles nothing so much as a fervent Israeli politician. He is attired like one, in an open-collared white shirt and dark pants, and his intense, penetrating, almost Svengali-like eyes are redolent of the passion with which he approaches his most ardent cause: music. "I don't have the feeling that I use music to fill my life," he says, "but rather that I live in music. I obviously have my two feet on the ground, but I don't finish my music and think, well, now I'm going to start living. It is an absolutely integral part of my life, and it is the part of my life where I feel I can express myself completely, the part of my life that gives me fulfillment."

What is it about music that appeals to him so? In his 1992 autobiography, A Life in Music, Barenboim showed a penchant for philosophy and metaphysics, and his answer is very philosophical and metaphysical. Music is, he says, a matter of creativity and of the fourth dimension.

"First of all," he says, "music is an art that has the ability to take you totally away from the physical world. I don't mean this in a poetic sense, but in a very real sense. Music can mean different things to different people. For some it's a philosophical experience, for others it's a sensual experience or a mathematical exercise.

"Basically, music expresses itself only through sound. The essence of the music is in sound. Which means that a Beethoven symphony does not exist in the physical world at this moment as you and I are talking. It is only spots of ink on paper. It's only an idea of how it could actually come into being," Barenboim says. "Which means that when you actually make music, when you actually play a Beethoven symphony, you bring these thoughts, these sounds into the physical world. They were not there before, and they are not there afterward. A Beethoven symphony exists only every time an orchestra somewhere on the globe plays it. It doesn't exist just because it's been stored on a compact disc. That doesn't mean it's here. It's not like food that you put in a refrigerator that stays there until you open it. A compact disc is a record of one experience, one moment when the music was in the world. But basically that music is not in the world. It is the musician, and only the musician, who brings these notes into the world."

Then there is the element of time, or rather, of timelessness. "If you are really able to concentrate totally on it, to grab the sound and hold onto it the way you hold onto a rope when you go mountaineering, and if you stay fully attached to the sounds as they develop, as they unfold, you are basically coming out of time," Barenboim says. "You must be able to do it with all your faculties, physical and psychic, with total concentration. And suddenly, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony takes 33 minutes, and for those 33 minutes you are out of physical reality. Music gives you the physical and metaphysical possibility of totally detaching yourself from the world. As if you were able to fly."

But in all of this there is an essential paradox. "At the same time," Barenboim adds, "the laws that govern music are the same laws that govern nature, that govern thought, that govern feelings, that govern our own selves and our relations to other people, our relations to the universe. Therefore, while on the one hand, music allows us to get away from the world, on the other hand, if you are able to gain enough knowledge of the essence of music, you are better able to understand human nature and the universe through it. For me, this is the reason I feel I live in music. I would almost say I lead two lives, one in music and one outside music, but the music is really always in me, in the same way that when you are in love the person you love is constantly in you, even though they may be thousands of miles away."

A love of music began for Barenboim at a very early age. As a young boy, he met, was influenced by and studied with some of the great names in twentieth century music: Wilhelm Furtwängler, Edwin Fischer, Adolf Busch, Nadia Boulanger, Igor Markevich, Wolfgang Sawallisch and, of course, Rubinstein. Furtwängler, the legendary German conductor, called the young Barenboim a "phenomenon." Markevich, after hearing Barenboim play, predicted he would become a conductor (and indeed, in 1954, Barenboim at 11 became Markevich's youngest conducting pupil).

Barenboim was the classic definition of a prodigy. He made his international piano debuts in Vienna and Rome in 1952, at age 9; he debuted in Paris in 1955, in London in 1956, and in New York, with Leopold Stokowski, in 1957. The next year, he toured Australia. He made his first recording in 1954.

The life of a prodigy can be a difficult one; many burn out early and become very unhappy adults. But Barenboim considers himself lucky.

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