Found somewhere between the dream of a lost paradise and the fantasy of the ideal city, utopia hasn’t ceased, since Thomas More, to preoccupy artists and intellectuals alike, and to stimulate their creativity. A favourite medium to express utopias, and their corollary, opposite, in the 20th century, the dystopias (from Aldous Huxley to Georges Orwell), literature flourishes with such realizations. Since its main topic is ideal cities, utopia has also been challenging architects for centuries. Such illustrations appear in pictorial art as well. Nonetheless, it’s intriguing to notice that music is the only art form mentioned by name in Thomas More’s founding work (Utopia). Could music, which is a ‘no place’ by definition, be the absolute utopian model?
The settings of ideal cities abound in baroque opera, next to pastorals that evoke the lost paradise towards which the composers’ aspirations tend. And the Indies quest, an idealised and fantasised quest, which multiple traces can be found in the music of that time (and later), is a perfect example of a utopian concept. Utopia in baroque opera often allows a barely disguised critic of the wrongdoings of the power in place.
During the Romantic Period, utopia gets even more clearly political. In Beethoven’s work, for example, it exalts the heroic and revolutionary action. It expresses the idea of infinity, of the search for the absolute. Nationalist schools claim to be utopias in themselves. Romanticism also witnesses the beginning of the absolute work, the music of the future. Composers sometimes confront themselves with technical challenges just for the sake of overcoming them (like Beethoven and his Hammerklavier). The 19th century witnesses the bloom of Orientalism. Once again, it’s about an elsewhere, exotic, idealised and fantasised as a place where everything is possible. It is at that time that Gesamtkunstwerk surfaces, a total artwork concept so dear to Wagner. Simultaneously, the ideology of Saint Simon and the elaboration of a social utopia tainted with the cult of progress strongly influenced composers like Berlioz, Lizst or even Mendelssohn. Here, music and society appear to be indissociably linked. The musician plays a pivotal role in the construction of society. Berlioz will even go as far as materializing this social project in the story of Euphonia (a short story dated back to 1844, with music from Michael Levinas added in 2019), a musical city where « men, women and children are spending all their time singing and playing an instrument ».
We went from celebrating social progress, in the first half of the 20th century, to celebrating industrial progress. Here again, music plays an important part. Varèse, for example, in Amériques, illustrates how fascinating progress is, along with the frenzy that goes with it. Utopia merges with Uphonia for Schoenberg. As for Bernstein, he takes his Candide on an adventure to reach an Eldorado, “…to a land of happy people, just and kind and bold and free…”.
What about the 21th century? « …It can be said, overall, that the periods of uncertainty, worry, or even suffering, are mostly favourable to the appearance of this kind of tales… » (Régis Messac, Les Premières Utopies, Ex-Nihilo, 2009). Whether they have a political, social, cultural or ecological impact, it’s safe to say that utopias still have a bright future.
In tomorrow’s world, a world we keep talking about, what values, what issues, what music will accompany us? How are we imagining our shared future? What society do we wish to build? What place will music and art occupy? Here are the topics, the Eldorados to be dreamt together that Les Festivals de Wallonie intend to approach with the musicians and the audience in 2023.