Temptation and indulgence at the BBC Proms

That striking image comes from the current newsletter of the Benedictine community of L'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine at Le Barroux, France, and the recording by the monks there of Gregorian chant has been a constant on my iPod since it was released several years ago. But it is 20th century sacred music by Herbert Howells rather than plainsong that provides the soundtrack to this post. Howells' Hymnus Paradisi is one of the highlights of the 2012 BBC Proms in a concert that pairs it with Elgar's First Symphony. Behind the inevitable shenanigans there are many temptations in this year's Proms, including Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, Elgar's Apostles with Mark Elder, Vaughan Williams' Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies in one evening, Tippett's A Child of our Time, and a John Cage centenary bash.

It is also good to see a Proms Beethoven Symphony cycle being given by Daniel Barenboim and his West–Eastern Divan Orchestra. But I am going to voice a plea that the focus during the Beethoven cycle falls more on the music and less on the undoubtedly praiseworthy humanitarian agenda of the orchestra. There is no disputing that the Palestinian tragedy demands our full attention; but building bridges with music in the Middle East must not become a modish indulgence for the remission of sins that classical music is committing elsewhere. A number of these sins have been detailed here recently; however I would add to them the 2011 tour of China, a country where Amnesty International reports serious human rights violations including torture and execution continue, by Daniel Barenboim and the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra.

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