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Hamburg International Music Festival 2020: »Believe«

Where knowledge ends is where the sphere begins that makes us human.

Do you believe it's going to rain tomorrow? Do you believe that climate change is causing the polar icecaps to melt? Do you believe that local soccer club HSV will be promoted to the First League again? Do you believe in a life after death? Do you believe in God?

The verb »believe«, which the 5th Hamburg International Music Festival has adopted as its motto, is a little word with a large range of meanings. Of course it is associated first and foremost with religion, with the profession of faith. But at closer glance, many other interpretations emerge. Belief starts where knowledge ends, where logical thinking doesn't help, where thought and hope join forces against doubt. An extremely important sphere for man, who in the final event is a pretty irrational creature. Philosopher René Descartes was so preoccupied with the spirit of the Enlightenment, he completely ignored the realm of belief when he declared, »I think, therefore I am.« Something of a pity, really. »I believe, therefore I am« might have got closer to the heart of what makes us human.

Frans Hals: Portrait of René Descartes
Frans Hals: Portrait of René Descartes © Louvre / Wikimedia Commons

The Hamburg International Music Festival explores these different approaches to the subject in a total of 35 productions. They cover over 400 years of cultural history, ranging from solo and chamber music recitals, orchestral concerts and staged projects to classical music, jazz and pop.

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Hamburg International Music Festival 2020

What to believe in? Top international artists answer this question with music.

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Faith in the Western World: Christianity

One central aspect, but by no means the only one, is of course the Christian faith, which had a significant influence on the development of Western culture. In music, Christianity found expression primarily in compositions for church use. The festival collects several magnificent milestones of the genre, such as Mozart's Great C minor Mass, the »Stabat Mater« by Francis Poulenc and the »Glagolitic Mass« by Leoš Janácek. But the programme already offers a certain charming twist here, with Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his splendid ensembles looking at how Claudio Monteverdi adroitly switched to and fro between sacred and secular motets. And tenor Benedikt Kristjánsson presents Bach's familiar »St John Passion« in a version where he sings all the parts himself.

Anna Lucia Richter

Mozart: C minor Mass

Anna Lucia Richter, NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra & Herbert Blomstedt

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Lisa Batiashvili

Opening Concerts

Lisa Batiashvili, Iveta Apkalna, NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra & Alan Gilbert

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Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Francis Poulenc: Stabat Mater

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Bavarian Symphony Orchestra and Choir

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John Eliot Gardiner


Sir John Eliot Gardiner, English Baroque Soloists & Monteverdi Choir

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Benedikt Kristjánsson

An Analysis of Bach: »St John Passion« for Three

Version for Tenor, Harpsichord & Organ, Percussion and Audience Choir

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The Christian faith also has great importance for Sofia Gubaidulina, the leading Russian female composer of our time, who has been living near Hamburg since the mid-1990s. For her, Christianity is the foundation of her life and her work: »Without belief, music has no reason to exist.« She uses her personal faith to create very accessible music that reflects her spirituality as much as her delight in tone painting. The festival offers an extensive retrospective of Gubaidulina's work in six concerts, starting with the opening concert, where the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra is conducted by Alan Gilbert, and culminating with her full-length oratorio »Über Liebe und Hass« (About Love and Hate) based on texts written by St Francis of Assisi.

Sofia Gubaidulina
Sofia Gubaidulina © Peter Fischli
Sofia Gubaidulina at Hamburg International Music Festival 2020: Browse the concerts

Without belief, music has no reason to exist.

Sofia Gubaidulina

The legendary mystic, famous for his sermon to the birds, is also the focus of Olivier Messiaen's lavish five-hour opera »Saint François d’Assise«, conducted by Hamburg's General Director of Music Kent Nagano. This is without a doubt the artistic highlight of this year's festival, making it a worthy successor to the production of György Ligeti's »Le Grand Macabre« at the 2019 festival. Messiaen had a lot in common with Francis of Assisi: he, too, was deeply religious, loved nature as a likeness of God, and experienced ecstatic visions that he imparted to his followers.

Olivier Messiaen, 1937
Olivier Messiaen, 1937 © Studio Harcourt

Thus Messiaen forges an intellectual link with all his fellow composers who convey a personal form of spirituality and transcendence in their works, albeit not necessarily moulded by a particular religion. One example is the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, who developed a hypnotic new style based on medieval Gregorian chant, while others are Gustav Mahler, who anticipated the end of the Late Romantic style in his Ninth Symphony, and Claude Vivier, whose enigmatic music even contained a premonition of his own murder.


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Hamburg International Music Festival 2020

»A likely story!« »Pull the other one!« Typical reactions from cynics and sceptics to all manner of promises of spiritual salvation. But perhaps they are just jealous? The cynics respond to idols of faith with a mild irony, like jazz pianist Stefano Bollani, who pulls apart the musical »Jesus Christ Superstar« with humorous results, or deconstruct them as false gods, like the big band Flat Earth Society, which vilifies African dictators as »Boggamasta«.

From Belief to Knowledge

Instead, they believe in nothing at all, or only in clear and unerring science. Goethe's Faust is one such person; confronted by Gretchen with a direct question about religion, he responds regretfully: »I hear the message, but I fear I lack the required faith.« Hector Berlioz wrote a musical memorial to Goethe's eternal sceptic in his mixture of oratorio and opera, »La damnation de Faust«, which is performed at the music festival by the Symphoniker Hamburg. And Germany's national doctor also gets up to no good in Mahler's megalomaniac »Symphony of a Thousand«. Productions like »Lichtenberg Figures« or »Genesis« would probably have appealed to Faust, which transport scientific experiments with the electric discharge of lightning or with virtual reality into a concert setting.

Faust in His Study: Painting by Georg Friedrich Kersting (1829)
Faust in His Study: Painting by Georg Friedrich Kersting (1829) © Wikimedia Commons

God is dead.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Anyone who mistrusts this source of additional knowledge is left with a single option: believing in himself. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche didn't mince his words, declaring with self-confidence: »God is dead.« Richard Strauss jumped on to the bandwagon and paid tribute to the great thinker with his tone poem »Thus spake Zarathustra«, which became famous many years later in the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick's epic sci-fi movie »2001: A Space Odyssey«. Another figure who had no choice but to believe in himself was Dmitri Shostakovich, who found his artistic freedom curbed on many an occasion by Stalin's brutal dictatorship. And political pioneers like the Cameroon freedom fighter Ruben Um Nyobé, who was shot by French colonial troops in 1958, likewise believe that their cause is right. Singer-songwriter Blick Bassy has dedicated his latest album to Nyobé.

Blick Bassy
Blick Bassy © Justice Mukheli

But the strongest self-confidence in music history was displayed by Ludwig van Beethoven, who regularly argued with landlords, publishers and princes, and whose response to his encroaching deafness was not to beg God for mercy, but to roll up his sleeves and to »reach into Fate's throat«. His music, which can be heard in several concerts in the year of the 250th anniversary of his birth, is constructed on the basis of its own inner logic, lending it breathtaking credibility.

Belief can move mountains, so it's said. Whatever you believe in: the 5th Hamburg International Music Festival believes in music.

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Text: Clemens Matuschek, last updated: 14 Nov 2019

Highlights of the Hamburg International Music Festival 2020

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