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How the Salzburg Festival came to Salzburg 100 years ago

Rick Fulker
July 31, 2020

During World War I, a poet, a composer and a director had a common dream — and out of it came what was to become arguably the world's most prestigious arts festival.

In an elegant courtly setting, a woman in an extravagant dress and a bewigged man with a walking stick (Archiv der Salzburger Festspiele/Ellinger)
This production of "Der Rosenkavalier" dates from 1960 with Hilde Güden as Sophie, and Sena Jurinac as OctavianImage: Archiv der Salzburger Festspiele/Ellinger

Can culture create identity, unite the peoples, fill humanistic ideals with content? Can it strengthen the European idea? Those are the questions people from the culture scene and politicians alike ponder in our turbulent era, at a time when what has long been taken for granted seems to be waning and people speak of a loss of values. As illustrated by the Salzburg Festival, the answer is an emphatic "yes."

World War, loss of values, contemplation

The situation was not all that different in 1917, about a century ago — but for the fact that Europe was at war at the time. In the midst of that calamity, three men dreamed of a cosmopolitan Europe and a festival that would bring peace.

Their names were Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Richard Strauss and Max Reinhardt. Hofmannsthal was a much-celebrated poet, writer and librettist who had a great influence on his generation. Strauss was the most famous composer of his time and Reinhardt the foremost director and impresario.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929)
Hugo von Hofmannsthal had a Jewish ancestor but saw himself as a conservative Catholic Image: picture-alliance/Heritage-Images/Fine Art Images

The vision was shared by opera director Franz Schalk and stage designer Alfred Roller, who also participated in establishing what was to be known as the Salzburg Festival.

The five men picked up on an idea that had been around at least since 1876, the founding year of the Bayreuth Festival, namely to organize a festival in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's home town. Just like the festival in Bayreuth, it would take place far from any cultural metropolis. "The big city is a place of diversion, but a festive performance requires concentration: both by those who participate and by the audience," as Hugo von Hofmannthal put it.

So the Salzburg Festival had something in common with the one in northern Bavaria, but there were also major differences. In Bayreuth, the focus was on Richard Wagner and his ten works suitable for the festival — period. Salzburg would focus on several composers, and even more: The festival would showcase the entire world of culture. It was also meant to tie in with an age-old tradition: In the Middle Ages, Salzburg was the place of mystery plays, festive church festivals and processions. The first opera performed north of the Alps was said to have been staged in Salzburg in the 17th century.

 Richard Strauss
Richard Strauss was popular abroad,too

Utopia in times of war

It was a foolhardy thought that seemed unrealistic not only because of the raging war; there was also no adequate venue. "What gives the Salzburgers and Austrians the courage to do so at the present moment?" Hofmannthal asked, according to a festival advertisement. His answer: "The fact that all people are now demanding spiritual nourishment." 

The townsfolk of Salzburg were skeptical. They feared an influx of tourists would further decimate already scarce food supplies. Max Reinhardt, who had bought an old castle in the region in 1917 and was Jewish, faced growing anti-Semitism from the local population.

Max Reinhardt
Max Reinhardt was successful in Salzburg long before the town became home to the festival Image: Bundesarchiv,Bild 102-10387/CC-BY-SA 3.0

The First World War ended in 1918 and saw the once proud Austro-Hungarian Empire reduced to a fraction of its former size. Practical considerations added to the visionaries' humanistic ideals; they wanted to boost tourism and preserve what was left of the old splendor of the lost Danube monarchy. What better way than to put those plans to work with this lovely city in the heart of Europe as a backdrop? As Max Reinhardt said, "The entire city is a stage."

"Everyman" for the festival, but a festival for every man?

Following the old tradition of mystery plays in Salzburg, a contemporary play was staged on August 22, 1920: Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Everyman, directed by Max Reinhardt. Using simple language, the play based on a religious idea was supposed to move people without lecturing.

In 1921, the second year of the festival, Salzburg Mozarteum director Bernhardt Paumgartner organized concerts with local musicians. Festival co-founder Richard Strauss was not thrilled. He wanted to see the most renowned artists at the Salzburg Festival — and that's what he got.

Street and buildings in Salzburg
The entire city is a stageImage: DW/R. Fulker

With this approach, the festival hit the ground running. Beginning in 1922, the program also had opera performances, works by Mozart and Strauss — in the latter case particularly works that Strauss had created with the librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The three pillars of theater, concert and opera provide the framework for the festival program to this very day. The Felsenreitschule Theater was used as a venue from 1926, and in the following year, construction of a new "Festspielhaus," or festival theater, was completed.

The Salzburg ideal

Everyman has been performed at the Salzburg Festival every year, with the exception of the eight years between 1938 and 1945. After Nazi Germany annexed Austria, the work was declared unsuitable because there had been a Jew among Hugo von Hofmannsthal's forefathers. Max Reinhardt escaped the Nazis and went abroad. He died in 1943 in exile in the United States.

So far, 17 actors have played the title role in Everyman, performing the play about the death of a rich man to the backdrop of magnificent Salzburg Cathedral. In a normal season, the opening is followed by about 200 concerts, plays and operas, including several new productions.

Angela Merkel in a bright blue and red kimono
Chancellor Angela Merkel is a repeat visitor at the Salzburg Festival, here in 2017Image: picture-alliance/dpa/APA/F. Neumayr

Does the festival fulfill the cosmopolitan and unifying ideals of its founders? One thing is certain: The 270,000 visitors in 2019 came from 78 countries, 40 of them outside Europe.  

And the influx of international guests has not caused local food supplies to run out. In fact, revenues from ticket sales amounted to €31.2 million ($36.7 million) in 2019, but the festival's overall impact on the local and regional economy is many times greater.

Salzburg in the era of the coronavirus

That the Salzburg Festival is taking place at all in its centennial year — amidst the coronavirus pandemic, as most other large events have been canceled — underscores the exceptional status of what is often described as the world's most renowned festival of the serious arts. Adapting to the situation, a scaled-back program from August 1-30 features fewer events at fewer venues, no concert intermissions and other measures to meet or exceed mandated hygiene requirements.

A procession of masked characters with a crowd of onlookers on the city street
This time the crowds won't be quite as crowded as in this picture of the ritual "Everyman" procession from an earlier seasonImage: picture alliance/APA/picturedesk.com

What remains is the high artistic standard: from the traditional concerts by the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics to a new opera production, a restaging of Everyman, star soloists like soprano Anna Netrebko and pianist Igor Levit, and much more.

This exceptional season recalls the Salzburg Festival's founding principles: that art may give depth and meaning to people's lives, particularly during a crisis.