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The Salzburg Festival and the U.S.

Author: Helga Rabl-Stadler, President of Salzburg Festival

"Americans are not new to the Salzburg Festival. In former, better times my fellow countrymen often crossed the ocean to Austria, to attend the Festival at Mozart’s birthplace, and to be entranced by this famous music tradition. Now there are again many Americans here, this time not just as guests, but as part of the American forces which liberated you from seven years of subjugation. These young people, just like those who have planned and organized this festival, will experience the same enthusiasm as their parents in happier days. I am convinced that this timely introduction of your Festival is evidence that the common efforts of the Austrian people and the United Nations to restore a free, independent Austria will soon succeed."

With these words – at his first public appearance in front of the Austrian people – General Mark Clark, Supreme Commander of the American Forces in Austria, opened the Salzburg Festival of 1945. It is part of the Austrian postwar miracle that a festival could take place not even three months after the U.S. troops had entered and taken over the ruins left behind by the air raids.

The Salzburg Festival was founded in 1920 right after World War I by the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the stage director Max Reinhardt and the composer Richard Strauss as a project against the crisis following World War I, the crisis of meaning, the loss of values, the identity crisis of the individual, but also of an entire people. Through the festival, feuding peoples were to be reconciled – in Salzburg,  the city von Hofmannsthal called “the heart of the heart of Europe.”

The first memorandum on the plan of the festival in Salzburg placed peace and the belief in Europe at the center of the project. This wonderful, timeless founding mission is still ongoing today.

The Festival’s founders regarded their efforts in 1920 as part of a necessary quest to achieve a lasting peace: The very existence of the Salzburg Festival is therefore inextricably linked to the events that were taking place in Europe at that time.  “To build in Salzburg, a uniquely appropriate setting, a triumphal arch celebrating Austrian art, with Mozart as its crowning glory to repair the torn threads of our common European heritage” – this was Max Reinhardt’s dream. With the help of other great artists, of Salzburg citizens interested in the arts, and of Franz Rehrl, Salzburg’s determined State Governor, he succeeded in making this dream a reality. On August 22, 1920, the famous call Jedermann ("Everyman") - from Hofmannsthal’s same-titled morality play - echoed across the Cathedral Square for the very first time.

The Salzburg Festival owes its existence to the conviction that, “through all the upheavals of this war has art, and especially the art of the theater, maintained its position and its continued existence and its promotion are absolutely essential. The world of the imagination, which seemed at first to have been utterly overthrown by the terrible reality of the times, has survived unharmed, it has become a refuge for those back home, but also, too, for many returning from the fray seeking refuge and spiritual comfort. It has been demonstrated that art, far from being a luxury for the rich and sated, is nourishment for the needy.” The political mission of the Festival is enormously important to me today – in times of refugee crises, threat of terrorism and fear of globalization.

Max Reinhardt – actor, impresario and founder of the Festival – was born in 1873 in Baden near Wien and died in 1943 in New York City. In 1893, he came as a young actor to the newly-opened Stadttheater (City Theater) today’s Salzburg Landestheater (State Theater). He fell in love with the city and had great plans for it, as did many others, both before him and among his contemporaries.

It seems difficult today to imagine that people in the middle of the First World War would be occupying themselves with ideas such as founding a festival. From 1915 onwards there was a prisoner-of-war camp not far from the city where 40,000 people were being held – this was more than the total population of Salzburg itself at that time. The wood that the huts there were made of was used to build the first stage for Jedermann. In this sense too, Jedermann was a peace project.

Shortly before the end of WWI, Salzburg was shaken by hunger riots and shops were looted. But the founding fathers of the Salzburg festival wanted to restore order amidst the chaos of the war and, above all, amidst the turmoil of the post-war period. They regarded the theater as a festive institution which in the wake of the collapse of the existing system and the breakdown of order could recreate a sense of tradition, national identity and community. Away from the hectic pace of city life and the political unpredictability of the great metropolises, “festivals and games” were intended to reduce daily pressures and serve as an antidote to the hustle and bustle of everyday life. In Salzburg, a new harmony was to be established, recalling the values of the past. The festival, in Hofmannsthal’s words, was all about “reviving ancient living traditions in a new way” and “doing things in a new way in an ancient and meaningfully chosen site, things, be it added, that had always been done there”.

Or, to quote Max Reinhardt: “I believe that because of its wonderful central location, its scenic and architectural splendors, its historical sights and memories and, not least, its inviolate virginity, Salzburg is well suited to becoming a place of pilgrimage for the countless people who long to escape from the blood-stained horrors of this age and find redemption in art. This war has shown us that the theater is no dispensable luxury for high society but an indispensable staple for the public at large.”

The Festival also assumed an eminently political function in the process of the reestablishment of a free, independent Austria after World War II. There are serious historical indications that the Great Three meeting in Yalta knew and recognized the Festival as a proof of an Austria independent from Germany, so that the Festival was part of the dramatic process of creating the identity of the Second Republic after WWII.

Only a few weeks after Salzburg surrendered without resistance on May 4, 1945, the American General Clark, against the wishes of his own high command, ordered to organize a festival for the very summer - “although the train tracks had mostly been destroyed here and elsewhere, and only military and refugee trains were running on an emergency schedule, although large parts of the city were still in ruins (1,800 buildings had been destroyed wholly or partially by the air raids, and some alleys were still impassable), although the neighborhood of the Festspielhaus was blocked by heaps of rubble from the air raids, although the city was so overcrowded by 10,000 refugees and about 40,000 American troops that no hotel or private room was available.” (Emmanuel Jenal)

Against this background, General Clark commented in his Festival opening speech: “Furthermore, I am pleased that my first public address to the Austrian people in the American territory takes place on such an occasion, a celebration of the rebirth of cultural freedom. I am certain that this early introduction of your festival proves that the work undertaken jointly by the Austrian people and the United Nations, to restore a free, independent Austria will soon be successful.”

At the opening ceremony and reception high-ranking Americans and Austrian officials met socially for the first time. The public impact was accorded such high priority that even the official ban on “fraternization” of the Allied Forces Headquarters according to which “entertaining of Germans and Austrians officially or otherwisewas to be avoided” was simply ignored.

The Americans had a clear idea of how the Festival was to be after the war. They wanted to revive the Reinhardt legacy; they wanted the return of an international festival in cooperation with American cultural life.  America did not close its eyes to Austria’s Nazi past but was willing to accept the concept of the liberation of the country – as laid down in the Moscow Declaration of 1943 – and gave economic aid to Austria. As the headquarters of the American military administration, Salzburg benefited from supplies of aid and was considered the “Golden West” of occupied Austria.

The Festival of 1945 became a symbol of moral regeneration and was to strengthen Austrian self-confidence, although  the Americans remained dominant. Two thirds of the seats were reserved for Americans; the Festival Almanac was published in English only.

In January 1946 at the home of Basil Harris, president of the shipping company U.S. Lines in New York, the Society of the Friends of the Salzburg Festival was founded. This picked up on a tradition of the pre-war period: in 1921 at the instigation of Richard Strauss a committee had been set up in New York to raise money for “the construction of Festival venues and the holding of festivals in Salzburg”. Richard Strauss himself used a concert tour through the USA lasting several weeks to advertise the Salzburg Festival quite successfully. From his crossing back to Europe, he wrote to Franz Schalk: “[…] I bring 4,000 dollars for Salzburg with me; further actions have been initiated with great energy.”

The Salzburg Festival is now going into its 97th season and its magnetic impact is greater than ever. What is the secret of this festival? What is the basis for its special charm and success? In a city that has preserved its baroque architecture in almost perfect condition and as a breathtaking backdrop in itself, the Salzburg Festival presents performances of opera, drama and concerts of highest artistic standards.

Each year in summer for about five to six weeks Salzburg becomes the natural cultural capital of the world. Conductors, stage-directors, orchestras, singers, actors and virtuoso instrumentalists of world renown can be seen and heard in July and August in the town on the river Salzach. Even the most eminent opera stars come together here to rehearse productions intensively for several weeks, thereby fulfilling the creed of the Salzburg Festival as it was originally envisioned by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, one of the Festival’s founding fathers: “Dramatic play-acting in the strongest sense is our intention; routine, run-of-the-mill performances have no place here.”

So every summer in Salzburg, the boundaries between daily life and stagecraft become blurred and the Salzburg Festival offers a more comprehensive program than any other festival – from Mozart, the genius loci, to modern works, from classical interpretations to avant-garde experimentation, from Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Jedermann to Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, one aspect always remains the main focus: quality.

The Salzburg Festival is often described as the greatest and most important festival in the world, and this reputation is confirmed by countless superlatives, from the sheer number of performances and annual visitors to the wide-ranging program. In 2016, the festival lasted 41 days. 192 performances in 14 different venues were seen by 259,018 visitors from all over the world. While the press office of the Salzburg Festival accredited 677 journalists from 34 countries, including the United States.

The overall economic impact of the Festival in business volume and productivity is estimated at around € 300 million. Unlike other cultural enterprises, the Salzburg Festival bears a double responsibility, one artistic and one for the overall economy. Since its founding, it has been an artistic and economic motor for an entire region. The overall budget of the Salzburg Festival was € 59.6 million in 2016. Up to 20% of the budget is provided from means made available by sponsors and the Association of Friends and Patrons. In addition to this, individual donors make generous gifts.

Over the last decades the American tradition or promoting culture through private patronage has made many projects possible which would never have existed without such financial contributions. Betty Freeman supported the concert series Komponisten der Zeitenwende and Next Generation. The generous donation contributed by Donald Kahn was crucial for the Haus für Mozart, Gerhard Andlinger helped to make the dream of the SalzburgKulisse on the roof of the Haus für Mozart a reality.

The Salzburg Festival Society is committed to furthering the tradition of classical music and supports Festival opera productions and young artists. In the summer there are arranged discussions with artists in English. Personal links and friendships – united in the love of the Salzburg Festival – contribute to a successful relationship between the USA and Austria.