Nelson Mandela and classical music: "A great blessing"

by Jay Gabler, Minnesota Public Radio
December 11, 2013

As the world fondly remembers and pays tribute to Nelson Mandela, we're thinking about some of the music that the great South African leader loved. "Music is a great blessing," said Mandela. "It has the power to elevate and liberate us. It sets people free to dream."

Mandela loved all forms of music, classical music included. While imprisoned, Mandela formed a friendship with Helen Suzman, an activist and politician known for her lifelong opposition to apartheid. Suzman would send classical recordings to Mandela each Christmas; he's said to have particularly favored Tchaikovsky and Handel.

Earlier, in the 1950s, Mandela was a close friend of Welsh-born pianist Harold Rubens, a former prodigy who had moved to South Africa and become active in the resistance. Notably, Rubens hosted meetings where Mandela and other leaders would share their secret plans while Rubens pounded away with an intentional lack of subtlety at Beethoven's fourth piano concerto.

"Happily the music was very loud," remembered activist Albie Sachs, "and if there were any bugs, all the security police would hear would be Beethoven and not us planning resistance to apartheid."

Music for Mandela, a new documentary making the festival rounds, documents Mandela's lifelong, integral relationship with music of all kinds. "It can unite us to sing with one voice," said Mandela. "Such is the value of music."


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