For six weeks every summer one of Europe’s most beautiful cities becomes a stage, as the Salzburg Festival comes to town. From July 20 to August 30 this Alpine citadel hosts a wealth of opera, theatre and orchestral music, but the greatest attraction is Salzburg itself. A cluster of spires and battlements, surrounded by snowcapped peaks, it’s a spectacle at any time of year – what German speakers call a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art.
Most arts festivals are driven by a vain desire for novelty and innovation, and so produce more transient and esoteric programmes every year. Thankfully, Salzburg has never chased fashion for fashion’s sake. What makes its festival so special is its proud veneration of the past. There’s always something new to see, but they’re just as happy to reprise old favourites. Jedermann (Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s version of the English medieval mystery play, Everyman) is still the highlight of the programme, still performed every year in the cathedral square, where it was first performed a century ago.
Other treats this year include Mozart’s Magic Flute, Richard Strauss’s Salome and Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, plus a range of recitals by the Vienna Philharmonic, who’ve played here every summer since 1925. Yet there’s nothing stuffy about this programme. There are also child-friendly ‘opera camps’ where punters can sit in on rehearsals. As Hofmannstahl said himself, all those years ago, ‘Organising a musical and theatrical festival in Salzburg means reviving an ancient, living tradition in a new way.’ Although it’s unashamedly highbrow, Salzburg’s Festival is all about merrymaking. Its biergartens are just as vital as its theatres and concert halls.
Salzburg has been a cultural capital ever since the Middle Ages, thanks to the Catholic Church, which established a powerful Archbishopric here. By the time Mozart was born here, in 1756, it had become an independent city state, ruled by a Prince-Bishop, who wielded temporal as well as ecclesiastical power.
Consequently, Salzburg was both creative and conservative – averse to innovation, but a cultivated sponsor of music and fine art. For the glory of God (and also for his own amusement) Prince-Bishop Hieronymus von Colloredo supported a small army of musicians, employing Mozart’s father, Leopold, and subsequently Wolfgang himself. This wealthy patronage gave Wolfgang his start in life. It also gave him something to rebel against. By the time he left for Vienna, in 1781, his genius was fully formed.
Salzburg was actually rather slow to recognise its most famous son (the statue of Mozart in the main square wasn’t erected until 50 years after his death) but by the end of the 19th Century Mozartmania had finally come home. In 1887, the conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic proposed a Mozart Festival in Salzburg. After numerous delays (most notably on account of the First World War) the first Salzburg Festival eventually kicked off on August 22, 1920, with a performance of Hofmannstahl’s Jedermann.
Blessed by the brilliant directorship of Max Reinhardt, the Salzburg Festival flourished – but in 1938 Hitler marched into Austria, and Salzburg became part of the Third Reich. The festival survived, but it inevitably acquired a Nazi character. More liberal performers and spectators decamped to Lucerne, where a rival festival sprang up, in the relative tranquility of neutral Switzerland. The Salzburg Festival stumbled on until 1944, when Goebbels put a stop to it, but it was revived in 1945, only a few months after Hitler’s suicide. The great conductor Herbert von Karajan (who was born in Salzburg) re-established its reputation. It’s been going strong ever since.
If you’re looking for a place to stay, I can recommend two fine hotels. I’ve stayed in each of them several times, and each time was just as good as the time before. The Blaue Gans is a sleek boutique hotel in a 14th Century town-house in the antique city centre. The Auersperg is a stylish family run hotel in the ornate Neustadt, with a lovely garden and a rooftop spa.
And if you’ve had enough of plays and concerts, you can always do the usual tourist stuff that’s available all year round. The schmaltzy Sound of Music tour is terrific fun (all the key locations are in Salzburg, or a short drive away) and Mozart’s Geburtshaus and Wohnhaus (the two houses where he lived in Salzburg) are both fascinating and full of atmosphere.
But in the end, the biggest treat is simply wandering the winding alleys of the Altstadt, getting lost in the cobbled backstreets and ending up somewhere you’ve never been before – a quaint bierkeller, a deserted chapel… Never mind the festival crowds, the sold out shows, the booked up restaurants. Even in the heart of town, you’re never far from woods and meadows. And a cable car up into the high Alps is only a few miles away.