Music for Peace

Oliver Condy takes a look at the long-running history of musicians working towards peace – and introduces a new international organisation continuing the tradition


‘When music speaks, everybody understands’. The tagline for EMMA (or Euro Mediterranean Music Academy) for Peace is a simple but powerful mantra.

Music, it suggests, can succeed where language simply can’t. It can excite, thrill, console and comfort without the need for words, and it has the ultimate ability to unite disparate and often opposing communities.

EMMA’s aim, according to its founder, a young Italian called Paolo Petrocelli, is to have a ‘positive impact’ on young people throughout the religiously and politically diverse Middle East and Mediterranean regions through, according to its website, ‘a network of music institutions, universities and philanthropic foundations brought together in the shared interest of music and the promotion of peace’. EMMA for Peace was launched at the 13th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in October 2013 (read our news story about it here).

EMMA for Peace joins several other individuals and institutions who, over the years, have harnessed music for the fostering of peace and for social good. Here are just a few...


The World Orchestra for Peace

Set up in 1995 by conductor Sir Georg Solti to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, the World Orchestra for Peace brings together more than 90 of the finest players from the world’s top orchestras. Its aim is to show that, through music, people of different beliefs, cultures and backgrounds can unite as a global family. ‘If we poor musicians from 35 different countries can get together on a stage and talk the same language,’ said Charles Kaye, the World Orchestra for Peace’s general manager and Solti’s right-hand man for over 20 years, ‘why can’t the politicians?’ In 2009, the orchestra, under its conductor Valery Gergiev, performed Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in Krakow to mark 70 years since the start of World War II.


West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

The Middle East’s fragility stems from its fiery mix of different races and religions. And yet Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (the name comes from a collection of poems by Goethe) not only unites Arab and Israeli players from Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and the occupied territories, but manages to be one of the finest ensembles playing today. Set up in 1999 by Barenboim and Edward Said, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is based in Seville, Spain, a city that has seen its fair share of religious and racial tensions over the centuries. In 2005, the orchestra travelled to Ramallah in the heart of the occupied territories. ‘When you live in fear,’ Barenboim told BBC Music Magazine at the time, ‘and it’s only when you play your instrument that you are free to express yourself, music matters.’


El Sistema

The fundación del estado para el Sistema de Orquesta Juvenil e Infantil de Venezuela – known by most as just ‘El Sistema’ – was set up by conductor José Antonio Abreu in 1975. It’s a network of youth orchestras across Venezuela, in which instruments and tuition are provided free, thanks to funding from the government and various benefactors. By offering impoverished children somewhere to go after the school day has finished and giving them guidance that goes beyond just music lessons, El Sistema has prevented thousands from drifting into crime – which might mean anything from petty theft to drugs and guns – and has helped to rehabilitate many others. The best players of the 260,000 that make up this enormous regional network get selected for the Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela (named after the hero who led the region’s bid for independence in the 19th century), made famous by the now principal conductor of the LA Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel.


World Peace Orchestra

The World Peace Orchestra (not to be confused with the World Orchestra for Peace) was set up in 2013. Its mission is ‘to promote peace and understanding through the unifying power of music. We strive to cultivate a new, compassionate generation of leaders who understand that borders, oceans, languages, and cultures cannot break the fundamental bonds of humanity.’ The youth orchestra combines players of Western and ethnic intruments, and held its inaugural concert in New York’s Avery Fisher Hall back in September 2013, under the baton of Lithuanian conductor Gintaras Rinkevičius.


Individuals have done their bit too:


Leonard Bernstein

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Bernstein conducted an orchestra made up of players from different countries in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The word ‘Freude’ (joy) was replaced with ‘Freiheit’ (freedom).


Benjamin Britten

Britten’s War Requiem was commissioned to inaugurate the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in 1962. The soloists were intended to be a Russian soprano, an English tenor and a German baritone, although soprano Galina Vishnevskaya was not available for the premiere.


Mstislav Rostropovich

In 1968, Soviet tanks invaded Prague at the same time as the Russian cellist was appearing at the BBC Proms with the USSR Symphony Orchestra. His moving performance of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto was seen by many as a prayer for peace.


Sir Simon Rattle

Conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 on the site of the Mauthausen concentration camp to commemorate the 55th anniversary of its liberation, just as the far Right was in the process of making a resurgence in Austria. 


Leonard Slatkin

When the World Trade Center was attacked on 11 September 2001, the American conductor changed the Last Night of the Proms music, placing a performance of Barber’s Adagio at its heart as a homage to those who died.


What other organisations or individuals within classical music have had a wider political impact? We'd love to hear your suggestions - do comment below.


  • Article Type: | Blog |
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