Who is Daniel Barenboim? Everything you need to know about the legendary pianist and conductor

A quick guide to the eminent Argentinian pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, a musician known and loved around the world for his musical commitment to bridging gulfs between nations

Daniel Barenboim

Daniel Barenboim has managed to maintain joint careers as pianist and conductor, something most musicians struggle to do. For his 75th birthday, two boxsets were released, showcasing the breadth of his output: 39 CDs on the piano, 46 as conductor. As well as being a prominent recording artist, Barenboim is best known for creating the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in collaboration with academic Edward Said, which brings together musicians from Israel and Arabic nations to play together.

Advertisement

How old is Daniel Barenboim?

Daniel Barenboim was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on 15 November 1942. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia and both were piano teachers. Because everyone who came to the house was there for a piano lesson, the child Daniel thought everybody in the world played the piano. His father was his only teacher.

How old was Daniel Barenboim when his career began?

Barenboim was a child prodigy and gave his debut concert at the age of seven. At 15 he attended a conducting masterclass with Igor Markevitch, who brought him to the attention of the legendary maestro Wilhelm Furtwängler, who in turn found him phenomenally gifted. He made his first piano recordings when he was 13 and in his mid-twenties recorded the complete Beethoven sonatas for the first of four times.

How does he manage to be both a conductor and a pianist?

Good question. Over the decades he has held long-term posts with international orchestras including the Orchestre de Paris, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and ultimately the Berlin Staatskapelle from the Staatsoper, for which he has been made “conductor for life”. With this secure base, plus concentrated periods each year with the orchestra he co-founded, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (more of which in a moment), he manages to schedule recital tours as well. But principally he can do both because a) he has a formidable memory and b) he works extremely hard. Don’t say: ‘When is he retiring?’

Read Daniel Barenboim reviews here.

What music is Daniel Barenboim most associated with?

The heartland of Barenboim’s piano repertoire is the Viennese classics: Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms and more. As a conductor he is particularly celebrated for his Wagner; his efforts to break through the taboo on that composer’s music in Israel, where it has long been unofficially banned because of Hitler’s one-time enthusiasm for it, are perhaps even more celebrated. But his expertise extends as far back as Bach – he’s performed and recorded plenty of the keyboard music – and forward to present-day stars of live electronics such as Philippe Manoury. He was close to the late Pierre Boulez and championed his challenging music to magnificent effect. For many fans, though, he still remains associated with certain pieces by Elgar

When did  Daniel Barenboim meet and marry Jacqueline du Pré?

Barenboim and the great British cellist Jacqueline du Pré met in their twenties in 1960s Hampstead and were married in Israel in 1967. Their recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto became legendary. Together they became emblematic of a very special moment in Britain’s cultural life when its classical musicians were international celebrities and its concert life was flourishing as rarely before.

The documentaries of film-maker Christopher Nupen helped to preserve for posterity something of the joyfulness of du Pré and Barenboim’s musical partnership. After du Pré had to stop playing due to multiple sclerosis, of which she later died in 1987, Barenboim did not conduct the Elgar Cello Concerto again for many years. In 2011 he recorded it with the American cellist Alisa Weilerstein. His recordings with the Berlin Staatskapelle of Elgar’s two symphonies were tremendously successful too.

What role does his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra play in Israeli-Palestinian relations?

Barenboim co-founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra with the Palestinian scholar Edward Said in 1999. It brings together young musicians of Israeli and Arabic backgrounds to collaborate through shared musical endeavour. These young people might never otherwise have had the opportunity to meet. Nobody pretends that music can bring about peace, but the project does help to build bridges between the individuals involved and to show the outside world that they can work together. That offers, at the very least, some kind of hope.

Advertisement

Daniel Barenboim will be BBC Music Magazine’s cover star in our April 2022 issue, on sale 17 March.