Salzburg Festival: Austria’s Annual Tribute to Music, Arts and Culture

Don't like to read?

Salzburg Festival

The Salzburg Festival is an annual summer event of concert music, opera and theater in the city known for its many sounds of music. This year’s festival began July 18 and continues through August 31. The Arts section of Guardian Liberty Voice will be highlighting various concert halls and museums during this annual Austrian tribute to music, dramatic arts and culture. This article focuses on the history of this internationally acclaimed festival.

Music and theater have been popular in Salzburg since the Middle Ages when mystery plays were presented as a way of enacting Biblical stories. Through the centuries, the Salzburg Cathedral was the place for sacred music and religious festivals; Salzburg University offered secular dramas and singspiels or musicals with dialogue. The 18th-century composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was born in Salzburg, Jan. 27, 1756, and died in Vienna, Dec. 5, 1791.

Salzburg Festival
Mozart Monument, Salzburg, Austria

After the Mozart Monument by sculptor Ludwig Schwanthaler was unveiled in 1842, discussions followed for the city to have regularly scheduled Mozart music festivals. The Vienna Philharmonic accepted an invitation to perform at such a festival in 1877. This was also the first time the orchestra performed outside Vienna. Ten years later, discussions continued in favor of modeling annual Mozart festivals after the Bayreuth Festival in Germany which began in 1876.

Near the end of World War I, the idea of an annual festival re-emerged with renewed determination. The Salzburg Festspielhaus-Gemeinde, or Salzburg Festival Society, was founded in 1917 to raise money for building a festival hall. Writer and playwright Hermann Bahr supported the idea as did Max Reinhardt, the Austrian actor and director. Reinhardt proposed building a festival house on the grounds of Salzburg’s Schloss Hellbrunn, or Hellbrunn Palace. He purchased Schloss Leopoldskron in 1918 and spent years renovating it for stage plays and formal festival gatherings.

Salzburg Festival
Jedermann 1920 Salzburg Festival

The Viennese playwright and librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, published a draft in 1919 of the proposed program for the first Salzburg Festival which included the premiere of one of his plays. In 1911, he had adapted the 15th-century English morality play, Everyman, as Jedermann. The plot centers around what the common man must do to achieve salvation. Along the way, he interacts with allegorical characters, resulting in the drama between good and evil. Jedermann, directed by Reinhardt, was performed on the Domplatz, or Cathedral Square, Aug. 22, 1920, for the inauguration of the Salzburg Festival.

The success of Hofmannsthal’s play quickly launched the festival into becoming an established tradition for all of Austria and at the international level. In addition to Hofmannsthal and Reinhardt, they had the full cooperation of stage designer Alfred Roller, composer Richard Strauss, and conductor Franz Schalk. These five worked together to continue the annual tribute of music and theater arts in Salzburg’s culturally rich environment despite some economic obstacles, one which was imposed by Hitler in 1933.

Salzburg Festival
Trapp Family Singers

Any German citizen who traveled to Austria from 1933-1936 had to pay a fee of 1,000 Reichmarks. This was known as the Tausendmarksperre, or the Thousand Mark Ban. Tourism dropped dramatically as a result. Festival organizers used this obstacle as a way to reach new audiences by promoting the Salzburg event as a counterpart to the Bayreuth Festival. Wealthy Americans and Europeans came to enjoy the concerts as well as the architecture and Alpine scenery. The festival featured internationally acclaimed conductors and performers such as Arturo Toscanini and the Trapp Family Singers. However, once the Anschluss, or annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany, took place in 1938, some associated with the festival resigned in protest and those who were Jewish, like Max Reinhardt, left Austria. The morality play, Jedermann, was also canceled.

Salzburg Festival
Herbert von Karajan

The 1945 festival was seen as a return to the original intent of the founders of bringing people and nations together in Salzburg, Austria. It was intended to bring back the time before 1938. The internationally known conductor from Salzburg, Herbert von Karajan, had made several guest appearances after the war and was appointed music director of the festival in 1956. Under his leadership, this annual event continued to grow. He conducted Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss for the inaugural concert at the 1960 opening of the Grosses Festspielhaus, or Great Festival Hall. Karajan’s time with the festival is referred to as the “Karajan era” and lasted approximately 30 years.

The Salzburg Festival, under Karajan, became more of a world stage, attracting stars from Milan, New York and London. The emphasis on concerts of Mozart’s works continued even after Karajan’s death in 1989. In 2006, all of Mozart’s 22 operas were performed at the festival in honor of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. For 2014, performances range from the morality play, Jedermann and other dramas, to operas, symphonic and contemporary music. The Salzburg Festival began as an Austrian annual tribute to the music, arts and culture of the city. In doing so, it is not only recognized in Austria, but throughout the world.

By Cynthia Collins

Photo: 1920 Jedermann from Salzburg Festival Archives

Related articles: Salzburg Austria’s ‘Sound of Music’


Salzburg Festival – Program Schedule

Salzburg Festival – Art & Culture

Herbert von Karajan

Austria 1933 timeline

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart