- A year before World War I ended, a society was founded to support the construction of a festival building in Salzburg. Its general purpose would be to celebrate and perform the work of the city’s most renowned native son, the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.Proposals to use Salzburg for such purposes had long been in the air. The local music academy, the Mozarteum, had first suggested the idea at the end of the 19th century, but growing doubts about the viability of the Habsburg Empire and its eventual collapse in November 1918 gave the notion far grander dimensions. With the new Austrian First Republic, a fragment of the old empire, straining to develop a plausible national identity, the poet, essayist, opera librettist, and general man of letters Hugo von Hofmannsthal suggested that the Salzburg enterprise dedicate itself to presenting what he believed to be the best and universal elements of Austrian culture, the Catholic Baroque and the music of Mozart being chief among them. These, he thought, ultimately stemmed from popular rather than elite traditions and did not depend on transitory political structures. Rather, they were the basis of the religion, literature, and music of all the Austrian lands and of southern and Catholic Germany. The German classical dramatists, such as Johann Wilhelm Goethe, were to be part of the program as well, because they belonged to the larger German cultural patrimony. Experiencing these works collectively in theaters would increase audience awareness of national and human commonality, which would counteract social fragmentation and rootlessness.In 1920, Hofmannsthal’s reworking of the medieval morality play Jedermann (Everyone), a paradigmatic drama of sin, death, and redemption, was performed before the entrance to the Cathedral of St. Peter in Salzburg. The director was the extravagantly imaginative young impresario Max Reinhardt, who used the opportunity to realize his ideas for open-air productions. Despite shaky finances, the Salzburg festival soon became a noteworthy event in the European cultural calendar, though the musical side of its offerings quickly eclipsed the dramatic ones. Both classical and more contemporary works, most notably the operas of the Bavarian Richard Strauss, were staged.The Festival became something of a cultural battleground following Adolf Hitler’s appointment as German chancellor in 1933. Artists who could no longer work in Germany, such as the conductor Bruno Walter (1876–1962), found summer employment in Salzburg. Following the Anschluss of 1938, however, Austria was no longer so hospitable to these people, especially if they were Jewish. Both Walter and Reinhardt immigrated to the United States, and many other figures who played significant roles at the festival went into exile as well. Still others, such as the Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, refused to participate. Performances continued, however, most notably those of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Clemens Krauss (1893–1954) and Wilhlem Furtwängler.Following the end of World War II, the province of Salzburg was occupied by the Americans, who supported the continuation of the festival. The program took on a far more international and contemporary character, even though such staples as Jedermann were, and are, put on annually. Almost every summer between 1947 and 1961 saw the performance of a 20th-century opera, often for the first time. The conductor Herbert von Karajan, who was first charged with the artistic direction of the festival between 1956 and 1960 and was general director from 1964 until he died in 1989, sought far and wide throughout the world for musicians, actors, directors, and stage designers who could meet his exacting performance standards. During these years, the Salzburg Festival became a social as well as a cultural event. Even matinees were black-tie affairs. Gone, as critics sourly noted, were the audiences of the 1920s, who, in the spirit of the occasion, attended performances in provincial Austrian loden cloth and dirndls. Although the atmosphere of the festival has become less formal than in von Karajan’s day, it is still a comparatively elegant event. Some theatrical and musical performances, particularly experimental offerings, are now performed in locations beyond the city itself.
Historical dictionary of Austria. Paula Sutter Fichtner. 2014.
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