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Music as Utopia

What would happen if…? »Utopia« is the motto of the 3rd Hamburg International Music Festival.

All men shall become brothers! These words conceal a grand vision, a utopia. What would happen if…? What would the world be like then? Is a better future for all of humankind really conceivable? It’s no coincidence that these words are taken from the text of what is probably the most famous work in music history: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Utopia – a big word that combines vision with imagination, optimism and even a touch of pathos. Most of the concerts at the 3rd Hamburg International Music Festival relate in some way to the utopia idea, and not only Beethoven’s Ninth, which the Mahler Chamber Orchestra will be performing at the Elbphilharmonie on 15 May.

More about the Hamburg International Music Festival

A two-day guest appearance by La Scala, Milan, concerts with the Philadelphia Orchestra, a Stockhausen retrospective and a performance of Beethoven’s »Missa Solemnis« to open the festival: the Hamburg International Music Festival returns for a third round starting 27 April.

Mehr zum Internationalen Musikfest Hamburg

Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elisium, Wir betreten feuertrunken / Himmlische, dein Heiligthum.

From Schiller’s »Ode to Joy«

Friedrich Schiller’s »Ode to Joy« is one of his best-known poems. Ludwig van Beethoven set parts of the poem to music in the closing chorus of his Ninth Symphony, which stands today for peace, brotherliness and international understanding. It was declared the official anthem of the European Union in 1985.

Thomas Morus
Thomas Morus


The actual term »utopia« was coined by the English statesman and scholar Thomas More, who published his philosophical novel »Utopia« almost exactly 500 years ago. After the Bible, it is the most frequently printed book in the world.

In the novel, the humanist More settles score with the political and social excesses of his day in a tone of biting criticism, and offers as an antithesis the imaginary island Utopia: an ideal, completely democratic society where money, possessions and crime don’t exist, where people live by the rule of law, enlightened reason and unconditional collectivism.

Thomas Morus: Utopia (Titelholzschnitt)
Thomas Morus: Utopia (Titelholzschnitt)


In the course of history, More’s vision of a (supposedly) ideal state has seemed to be within our reach on many occasions – but time after time, people’s hopes were dashed.

Utopia and its negative mirror image, dystopia, are often closer comrades than one might suppose. The 20th century writers Aldous Huxley and George Orwell can be seen as More’s dystopian heirs: their novels »Brave New World« (1932) and »1984« (1948) portray totalitarian states devoid of humanity.

»Metropolis« / Stummfilm von Fritz Lang, 1927

Such dark places are presented in the festival as well: the outlaw city of »Mahagonny«, for example, whose rise and fall was depicted in music by Kurt Weill, and can be heard live at the Laeiszhalle. Then there is the very first full-length science-fiction film »Metropolis«, where in 1927 director Fritz Lang showed audiences a society based on the brutal suppression of the working class.

Erstens, vergeßt nicht, kommt das Fressen / Zweitens kommt der Liebesakt / Drittens das Boxen nicht vergessen / Viertens Saufen, laut Kontrakt.

From Brecht’s »Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny«

After their famous »Threepenny Opera«, »Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny« was the second big project created by the duo Brecht and Weill. The premiere in Leipzig in 1930 triggered a theatre scandal: »In their opera, Berthold Brecht und Kurt Weill present a travesty of the bourgeois world with its capitalist rules. Here, Man is a predator, capitalism is doomed, and the soundtrack consists of remnants of new music and old, of music classical and trivial«.

Deutschlandfunk: Flop, Skandal, Erfolg / 75 Jahre »Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny« (German only)


Technology, outer space and the distant future (or all three together) have always been fruitful soil for utopians. The archetype of the futuristic monster created by an out-of-control scientist is the creature »fathered« by Dr Victor Frankenstein, who first saw the light of day in 1818, and can now be heard at the festival in a spectacular opera performance.

Since that time, robots, replicates, cyborgs and other artificial beings have struck terror into people’s hearts in countless books and movies.

Mary Shelley’s novel »Frankenstein« was first filmed with sound in 1931. Director James Whale produced a true classic of the horror film genre, which in turned spawned many sequels. In the role of Frankenstein’s monster, Boris Karloff had his breakthrough as an actor.

»Frankenstein« at the Hamburg International Music Festival


But the greatest utopian of all was German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, to whose work the festival devotes an extensive retrospective. As head of the studio for electronic music at West German Radio (WDR), Stockhausen produced an entire cosmos of unprecedented sounds with early forms of the synthesizer, thus breaking new musical ground.

Stockhausen was convinced that there was a higher level of human existence, and that music was the key to it. It’s worth following him down this path: the utopia of music is still alive.

If our mind makes an extreme effort and arrives at the limit of what can be analysed and described, that is where mysticism begins. And that’s my home as a composer. That’s where I want to get to.

Karlheinz Stockhausen

In 2001, two Hamburg concerts featuring Karlheinz Stockhausen conducting his own works were cancelled in the wake of rash comments that the composer made about the terrorist attacks of 11 September. Ten years after Stockhausen's death, the time seems ripe in Hamburg as well to revisit the musical worlds of the erratic master of starry sounds without prejudice.

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