In the midst of World War I, a poet, a composer and a director had a common dream — and out of it came what was to become the world's most prestigious festival.
Can culture create identity, can it unite 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. And the answer is usually "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 most important director and impresario.
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.
Utopia in times of war
It was a foolhardy thought that seemed unrealistic not only because of the raging war: There was no adequate venue. "What gives the Salzburgers and Austrians the courage to do so at the present moment?" Hofmannthal asked rhetorically. His answer: "The fact that all people are now demanding spiritual nourishment."
The townsfolk of Salzburg were sceptical. 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.
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, 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.
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 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 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 had 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. The opening is followed by about 200 concerts, plays and operas, including several new productions every season.
Does the festival fulfil the cosmopolitan and unifying ideals of its founders? One thing is certain: Of the 259,000 visitors in 2016, about 80 percent came from outside the Salzburg region. They came from 81 countries, 41 of them outside Europe. Every visitor stayed an average of 7.2 days and experienced 4.2 festival performances.
The influx of international guests has not caused local food supplies to run out. In fact, revenues from ticket sales amounted to €28.6 million ($31.6 million) in 2016. The overall effect of the festival on the local and regional economy is many times greater.