Opinion

As war rages, music forces us to confront political complexity. We mustn't look away

You could argue that looking at art, particularly music, as a vital life force at this hinge moment in history is facile. I think it is more important than ever

The Gaza strip has seen hundreds of civilian casualties in recent days. Image: Yasser abu raya, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been losing myself in Times Echo, a new book by Jeremy Eichler. Subtitled ‘The Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Music of Remembrance’, it is on the face of it an exploration of four key works and how they bear some kind of witness to the horrors of the Holocaust – by Schoenberg, Richard Strauss, Britten and Shostakovich.

It’s more than that. It’s a look at an emerging Europe that allowed the Jewish voice, particularly German speaking, to find space and flower through art, from the mid 19th century until Nazi extermination. It reminds of two things – that the Jewish voice was responsible for so much creativity over time and that the same voice has been reviled and suppressed for centuries. It is, of course, timely in the worst of ways.

You could argue that looking at art, particularly music, as a vital life force at this hinge moment in history is facile. I think it is more important than ever.

The book sends us to Babi Yar, Shostakovich’s symphony remembering the massacre of 34,000 Jews in Kyiv in 1941 by occupying Nazi forces. The music is massive and monumental and becomes something else in the shadow of the contemporary moment. History has a way of pulling on dark timely threads. We don’t just remember music, says Eichler, it remembers us. This is important. If we allow an openness we then imprint our own perspective on the art and, in Eichler’s words, the history it carries will not remain quiet but instead it “burns” through to us, making us more keen to be positively transformed.

In the aftermath of Hamas’s attacks on Israel there has been a race amongst many people to show where they sit on the league table of outrage. The knee jerk reaction and finger pointing on social media has been off the chart. It’s easy to congratulate yourself on your moral certainty when you’re several thousand miles from the epicentre.

The truth is we can hold what appear to be differing views at the same time. We can be appalled by the Hamas murders, about the rockets and the indiscriminate killings of the kids at that music festival. We can believe Israel has a right to defend itself against the atrocities Hamas commits.

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We can also be horrified by the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Gaza, at the fate of millions of people who have no means of escape, threatened by Netanyahu while remaining also at the mercy of Hamas.

History teaches us that change is possible, but it is hard and never certain. Just over a generation ago Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres reached agreement as talks between the PLO and Israel edged towards lasting peace. A two state outcome was on the horizon. It took all the political capital and experience they had to get close. Things fell apart because extremists on their own sides saw to it that new shared futures didn’t materialise. Arafat was pushed to the margins as Hamas grew and Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli.

At the moment peace looks far away. Palestinians in Gaza are living in a state of fear and terror. Hamas are digging in and we are warned of the potential for a spiralling of the conflict to bring in Hezbollah, and its backers too. There have been murders in France and Belgium in recent days that are being attributed to what is going on. Jewish schools and businesses and synagogues across the world are feeling under threat.

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Against these spiralling issues the idea of having a conversation about the power of music can land as naïve. Obviously music will never provide a searing moment of clarity that will solve a conflict. But it can make us face realities in all their complex entanglements. We mustn’t look away.

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