By Helga Rabl-Stadler, President of the Salzburg Festival (since 1995)
"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 – during his first public appearance in front of the Austrian people – General Mark W. Clark, Commander in Chief of the American Occupation Forces in Austria, opened the Salzburg Festival of 1945. (Later, as a Deputy U.S. Secretary of State, he helped negotiate a treaty for Austria.) 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 created in 1920 by playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal, along with theater and film director Max Reinhardt and composer Richard Strauss as a project against the crisis following WWI, the loss of shared values and meaning, the identity crisis of the individual, but also of an entire people. Through the festival, feuding peoples across Europe were to be reconciled – in Salzburg: the city 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 mission of its founders still drives today’s festival.
The festival’s founders regarded their efforts in 1920 as part of a necessary quest to achieve lasting peace and 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 a uniquely appropriate setting in Salzburg, a triumphal arch celebrating Austrian art, with Mozart as its crowning glory, in order to weave a new social fabric based on our shared 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 come true. On August 22, 1920, the famous call "Jedermann" ("Everyman") from Hofmannsthal’s same-titled one-act morality play echoed in front of Salzburg’s 17th-century Baroque cathedral for the very first time.
The Salzburg Festival owes its existence to the conviction that, "through all the upheavals of this war not only has art, and especially the art of the theater, maintained its position but it is clear that 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 seems enormously important to me today – in times of refugee crises, the 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 WWI would be occupied by creating 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 were made of was later used to build the first stage for "Jedermann". In this sense too, "Jedermann" was a kind of peace project.
Shortly before the end of the war 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 First World 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 WWII. There are serious historical indications that the "Big Three" (U.S. President Roosevelt, UK Prime Minister Churchill and Russian Premier Stalin) meeting in Yalta knew and recognized the festival as a proof of Austria’s independence from Germany, so that the festival was part of the dramatic process of creating the identity of Austria’s Second Republic.
Only a few weeks after Salzburg surrendered without resistance on May 4, 1945, – against orders – the American General Clark 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 impassable because of heaps of rubble – although the neighborhood of the Festspielhaus, or concert hall, was blocked by heaps of rubble from the air raid protection shelters, although the city was so overcrowded by 10.000 refugees and about 40.000 American troops that no hotel or private room was available," stated Emanuel Jenal, former head of the city’s culture department.
General Clark commented on this 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 otherwise" was to be avoided was ignored.
The Americans had a clear idea of how the festival was going 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. Salzburg benefited from supplies of aid as the headquarters of the American military administration and came to be considered as the "Golden West" of occupied Austria.
The festival of 1945 was to be a symbol of moral regeneration and was to strengthen Austrian self-confidence but the Americans were dominant. Two thirds of the seats were reserved for Americans; the festival almanac was published in English only. In January of 1946 the Society of the Friends of the Salzburg Festival was founded at the New Yorker home of Basil Harris, president of the shipping company United States Lines. This carried on tradition from 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 United States lasting several weeks to advertise the Salzburg Festival – quite successfully. During his return to Europe, he wrote to Franz Schalk: "(…) I bring 4.000 dollars for Salzburg with me; further actions have been initiated with great energy".
In 2018, the Salzburg Festival is in its 98th 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 therefore is a breathtaking backdrop in itself, the Salzburg Festival presents performances of opera, drama and concerts of the highest artistic standards.
Each summer, the venerable festival becomes the center of classical music. Conductors, theater directors, orchestras, singers, actors and virtuoso instrumentalists of world renown can be seen and heard performing live in the months of July and August in the picturesque city on the river Salzach. Even the most eminent opera stars come together 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 each summer, the boundaries between daily life and stagecraft blurr, as the Salzburg Festival offers one of the most comprehensive programs in the (classical) festival world – from Mozart, the genius loci, to modern works, from classical interpretations to avant-garde experimentations, 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 world’s leading festival of music and theatre, and this reputation is confirmed by countless superlatives: witness the number of performances and of annual visitors, or 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. The press office of the Salzburg Festival accredited 677 journalists from 34 countries, including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt, Israel, Japan, Lithuania, Lebanon, Russia, South Africa, Turkey and the USA. The overall economic impact of the festival in business volume and productivity is estimated at around 300 million euros (350 USD). 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 around 60 million euros (70 million USD) 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 at the Salzburg Festival 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 architectural restoration of the House for Mozart, once a royal stable, now a venue where concerts, plays and operas are performed. Gerhard Andlinger helped to make the dream of the SalzburgKulisse on the roof of the House for Mozart a reality.
The Salzburg Festival Society is concerned with furthering the tradition of classical music and supports festival opera productions and young artists. During the summer, they organize talks with artists in English. Personal connections and friendships – united in the deep appreciation for the Salzburg Festival – contribute to a successful and lasting relationship between the United States and Austria.