28. September 2004 · Comments Off on What We Fight For · Categories: General, History

Three or four years ago while Saddam Hussein still had a death-grip on the Iraqi people and a slightly looser grip on the Western journalists who came to commiserate with them, I listened to an interview on NPR, an interview with an Iraqi gentleman and musician, who was the principle cellist with the symphony orchestra in Baghdad. The orchestra then existed against great odds and every deprivation that the UN sanctioned, and out of which certain western powers were profiting.

It was heartbreaking, listening to the voice of the cellist, and his account of the orchestra, much reduced, and with its surviving coterie of musicians having to work day jobs, and starving not only for materiel sustenance, but for connection with the larger world, with other musicians, to travel, to perform for a world audience. The Iraqi cellist longed for it, longed with the desperation of a man stranded in the desert who craves water, a desire all the more poignant because of dread, dread of what might, would, probably take place in order to make all those longings a reality. And of course, with Saddam’s media minders vetting every word of interview, the cellist could not voice his hopes or fears in any but the most banal and inoffensive phrases and I am sure the interviewer knew this, and so did any sensitive listener.

The interviews were taped during rehearsals for a concert featuring Elgar’s Cello Concerto. I rather like Elgar and composers like Smetana, Dvorak, Neilson, and Delius; the agreeably second-rank, late nineteenth and early 20th century composers of symphonic music, with a mildly nationalist interest in the folklore and musical traditions of their respective countries. It’s accessible in a way that the jangly and self-consciously modern later composers are not. They composed and performed largely in a time and world which was hopeful, where great and wonderful advances in everything—medicine, machinery, political movements, and communications— were making lives better and more rewarding, and most Americans and Europeans were confident that things would get even better. Even the Cello Concerto, completed in 1919 after the wreckage of much of that sunny confidence during the First World War, still offered a bit of hope, and a refuge in music, when everything else is gone.

I don’t know how the concert itself went over, but I wonder now if it wasn’t something like an occasion caught for newsreel cameras sometime during the last months of Hitler’s Germany; one last performance by the Berlin Philharmonic; the faces of the audience somber and exhausted. The vengeful Soviets are advancing from the East, the British and Americans from the West, every night, the nights are hideous with high-explosives as the Allied air forces methodically steam-roller cities into rubble, the thousand-year Reich is imploding, its’ functionaries seeing enemies and saboteurs everywhere, nemesis and blood. There is no refuge for the concertgoers, except for a little while in the music. That little is all they have left, before the ending of their world, and so they are lost in it, grateful for this little respite, the reminder that there is order, and beauty, and hope in the world, and a promise that the present nightmare may pass. And so I think it was for the principal cellist of the Baghdad symphony— a hope and a reminder.

I don’t know about Afghanistan; it seems to be very like what it was in Kipling’s’ day, all swashbuckling and intrigue and tribal feuds. But for a country like Iraq, where there can be a symphony orchestra, and a musician who loves Elgar’s Cello concerto; that is indeed a light and a promise of order, beauty and hope.

Comments closed.