By Liam Hoare
The notion that music has both a transcendent and transcendental quality has done much to shape the life and work of Henrik Chaim Goldschmidt, solo oboist with the Royal Danish Orchestra in Copenhagen. In 2003, Goldschmidt founded the Middle East Peace Orchestra with Jewish and Arab musicians. Their repertoire spans from classical to klezmer to Arabian love songs. Later, in 2008, he set up Goldschmidts Musikakademi, a charitable school for children of all faiths in the multiethnic neighborhood of Nørrebro in the Danish capital. The school’s core value is that all children should have the opportunity to learn music.
I spoke with Goldschmidt recently over the phone from Copenhagen in order to discuss these projects, as well as his life as a musician, composer, and tremendous enthusiast for and promoter of klezmer music.
Let’s start with the Middle East Peace Orchestra. What was the impetus behind founding that?
My background has a very big influence on my work. I come from a refugee family. My parents escaped the Holocaust and came to Denmark and so there’s this gratitude of being alive, coming from a family that was very lucky. We all have an obligation to repair the world and give back if we have been so lucky. Since I’m a musician, I thought music would be the only way I could contribute, on a small scale, bringing enemies together in an orchestra – Israelis and Palestinians; Muslims, Jews, Christians – to play and show the world it is possible to make collaboration.
It seems like many of your musical projects, including the Goldschmidts Musikakademi, involve music as a means for improving or enhancing Jewish–Muslim cooperation. Why is this idea so important?
Music is a fantastic means of getting to know each other in a non-political way, with no words. When you meet in music, you meet on a middle ground. That’s why I go on visits to Palestine every so often to play with young Palestinian musicians, to show that between us there’s only a desire for friendship and peace.
There is a lot of prejudice in both our environments. In the Jewish environment, there is skepticism towards Arabs. In the Arab world, there is inherited skepticism and even hate towards Jews and Israel. This is the only way I can try and make some connections between these two populations: through music. When I play Arab music, I get to learn a very fine tradition, a very beautiful tradition, and a very emotional tradition that I didn’t know about. It’s a good way to start to get to know each other.
Do you think there’s a shared musical tradition between Arabs and Jews, or Jews and Muslims, or is this more about a meeting or blend of traditions?
Both traditions have many influences and there’s a huge difference between Jewish music coming from the Middle East and the one I grew up with which is a eastern European Jewish tradition: klezmer music, traditional Jewish music coming from the synagogue combined with east European dance music, with the clarinet and the accordion and singing in Yiddish. From the Middle East, you have the Mizrahi tradition that uses the same musical scale as the Arab tradition – we can play very easily together.
Did you grow up listening to klezmer music or was this something that came into your life later?
With our background in my family it was very important to disguise the fact that we were Jewish. When I was child, we tried very hard to be Danish, to blend in, so the klezmer came in later when I thought it would be a great shame is this tradition would not have a revival. Thirty years ago, there was a big revival of klezmer music in Denmark, and I was part of this revival and now we have a few very good klezmer bands. It’s very important for me to show we’re still here and that our culture is still alive. It’s a matter of insisting on keeping our culture – and it’s important for Arabs too. Everyone wants us to be exactly the same and behave in a certain way, but it’s important to show the beauty of our traditions.
Your family background is in Poland and they came to Denmark.
They came from Breslau, now Wrocław. At the time, this was in the eastern part of Germany. My grandparents didn’t speak Yiddish – they spoke German. They came out of a modern Jewish environment. They felt German. They participated in the First World War and fought for Germany, and then all of a sudden they weren’t German anyone – they were just Jews. They were very lucky to escape (though some family members were sent to concentration camps in 1937) to Denmark. I have a great fortune to be born into a free country.
What is it that you love about klezmer music?
Now my son has a klezmer band so we use it as it was supposed to be used: when we come together in the family. We dance and have brought a lot of joy back into the family – a lot of happiness and soul. What I think is so beautiful is although it’s happy music, it’s sad at the same time. There’s a melancholic sound to klezmer music that I really love. In our tradition, we cannot be totally happy but we cannot be totally sad. There is hope even in the saddest hour. My grandmother, who was a refugee and fled many times in her life, having to leave everything behind, always told me that she was so rich because she had such a strong education. She had so many stories and so much music in her. No matter where she was, she had many songs to sing.
When I play klezmer music at my school, which is in one of the toughest areas of Copenhagen, even though people don’t know where the music comes from, everyone seems to be affected by this music. It has such a power. People start to sing. They can’t sit still. That’s why I love so much to go out and play, including for people who are not Jewish.
The reason I ask this is because you also write new and modern Jewish music. Is that something that naturally comes out of you or, because you had to discover it, does it require a certain amount of thought and research?
It’s very interesting because when I write music, I don’t make any sort of research. I’m a limited composer – what comes out of me always sounds Jewish. It’s very strange. It’s in my way of playing and writing. I don’t fight it because that’s the way I write.
It’s very important for me that everything I write has an impact on people so it doesn’t get academic – I’m not writing to show off. I only write music to tell a story, about beauty or sadness or any of the strong emotions we feel or experience every day. I have a very intense life, since my school is full of students who come from complicated backgrounds: kids coming from Syria who’ve had incredibly horrible experiences in their lives, even though they’re still kids, family members being killed in front of them and seeing their homes demolished, having to life in a new country where you aren’t able to speak the language.
What I have discovered is that these children can have no tears left. When you have so much horror in your life, you become a robot. You shut down. But I often see that music is an entry into emotion. Music can be a way of gradually opening and beginning the long process of feeling again.
This interview has been edited and condensed.