One of classical music's best-known and most controversial figures, Daniel Barenboim was an internationally renowned pianist and symphonic conductor, whose musical and political work drew equal attention. The Argentine-born musician conducted some of the world's most famous orchestras and his commitment to advancing musical education spanned borders and political affiliations for one universal goal.
Daniel Barenboim was born on November 15, 1942 in Buenos Aires to Aida Schuster and Enrique Barenboim, who were of Jewish Russian descent. His musical education started at an early age, with piano lessons from his mother at age 5, followed by training with his father, who would remain his primary teacher. By age 7, he gave his first official concert in Buenos Aires in 1950 and shortly after, his family decided to move to Israel two years later. As parents and teachers, his family was dedicated to training their piano prodigy of a son and he made his official debut as a pianist in Vienna and Rome in 1952. In the summer of 1954, they brought Barenboim to Salzburg to take part in the famed Ukrainian composer Igor Markevich's conducting classes and then to Paris for study harmony and composition under Nadia Boulanger in Paris. As a mere teenager, Barenboim toured Europe, Australia, and then the United States with Leopold Stokowski and the Symphony of the Air in 1957. He quickly earned the reputation as one of the most versatile pianists of his generation.
While he gained acclaimed through world tours, he also started his recording career, which expanded his audience beyond the concert halls of Europe. In the 1960s, he recorded Beethoven's Piano Concertos with Otto Klemperer, Mozart piano concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra and Brahm's Piano Concertos with Sir John Barbirolli, serving as both pianist and conductor. In 1966 he met and then married the famed British cellist Jacqueline du Pré. The two were considered the golden couple of the classical world, but their union was to be tumultuous one. The two toured the world and in 1967, he made his conducting debut in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra, which gave rise to his prolific conducting career. Between 1975 and 1989, he was one of the most in-demand conductors in the world and was dubbed the "Maestro of the Middle East," leading such prestigious ensembles as the Orchestre de Paris. But as his career was reaching unfathomable heights, his personal life was taking its toll. His marriage was the decline and his wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1973. During this time, Barenboim was living in Paris and started an affair with the Russian pianist Elena Bashkirova, with whom he fathered two children. He also made his debut as an opera conductor that same year, conducting Mozart's Don Giovanni at the Edinburgh Festival. While Barenboim was starting a new life in France, his wife's promising career was cut short and she stopped performing at age 28 and later succumbed to the illness in 1987.
Between 1991 and 2006, he held the position of Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Not to be confined to one stage, he simultaneously served as music director of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (from 1992-2002) and the Staatskapelle Berlin, all of which named him honorary conductor for life. Barenboim's passions were not limited to the orchestra pit. He understood the power of music to transcend cultural and political differences. After befriending Palestinian literary scholar Edward Said, Barenboim visited the occupied Palestinian territories in 1999 and decided to create the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra with Said, which brought together young musicians from Israel and the Arab countries every summer to perform together. This fruitful partnership continued and the two went on to start the Foundation Barenboim-Said in 2005, which created music education programs both in Ramallah in the West Bank and Nazareth in Israel. The two also co-wrote an autobiography entitled A Life in Music, and Parallels and Paradoxes", which was published in 2002.
His efforts to pursue peace and understanding in the Israel-Palestinian debate earned him numerous accolades and backlash simultaneously. In 2001, while touring Israel with the Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra, he created a national outcry after playing a piece from Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde opera defying the country's informal ban on playing Wagner. As the favorite composer of the Nazis, and a noted anti-Semite, the decision to play Wagner caused people to leave the show and damaged his relationship with Israeli organizers.
Barenboim's interests in the political power of music led him to Cambridge, where he gave a six-part lecture series at Harvard focused on his understanding of music as a catalyst for political change in 2006. A year later, he was behind a different kind of pulpit and back to conducting opera and chamber music at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan where he presided until 2014.
As impressive as his musical accomplishments were, Barenboim was also praised as an intellectual, who believed the influence of classical music lay beyond the ornate concert halls of the elite. He published another book, Everything is Connected: The Power of Music, in 2008 and continued his work with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.