The Salzburg Festival was founded in 1920 in the hope that it would make musical and theatrical classicism contemporary again, at least for some five weeks every summer in the small Austrian city of Salzburg. It has become one of the most prestigious music festivals and is one of the few that has managed over the years to bridge the gap between an international musical tradition unhampered by problems of linguistic translation and a national theatrical one in the native language. The Salzburg Festival's ability to weather the history of central Europe in the twentieth century stems from the flexibility of its original conception and the commercial acumen of its producers. The "Salzburg Idea" had its beginnings in the late nineteenth century, when a group of musicians founded the International Mozart Foundation in 1870 and decided its proper home was not Vienna, where Mozart had spent most of his creative life, but Salzburg, where he had been born in 1756 and from whose archbishop's service he had angrily and permanently resigned in 1781. The founders of the "Mozarteum," as it was soon known, envisioned Salzburg as an Austrian rival to Richard Wagner's Bayreuth. They intended Mozart to be the central but not sole composer whose work would be played, and they sought to re-create the Salzburg-Vienna nexus of Mozart's career.
Despite fund-raising efforts, nothing substantial developed until 1917, when a newly founded Salzburg Festival Society in Vienna approached the theater director Max Reinhardt (1873–1943), whose innovative productions had made him famous in German-speaking Europe. The Berlin-based Reinhardt was interested enough in the possibilities of Salzburg as an artistic center to buy the Schloss Leopoldskron, an eighteenth-century castle in Salzburg, and to begin to gather together fellow artists, including the librettist and playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal and the composer Richard Strauss (1864–1949). The Salzburg Festival subsumed Mozart, particularly his operas, under Reinhardt's and Hofmannsthal's vision of aesthetic experience as something that created an ideal community in which rich and poor could come together and people's deepest spiritual needs could be met.
The first Salzburg Festival featured concerts of Mozart's orchestral music under the direction of Bernhard Paumgartner, along with Reinhardt's remarkable production of Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Jedermann (Everyman), in which Reinhardt used the city itself as the stage. The voice of Death came down from the Hohensalzburg, the city's landmark fortress, above the cathedral square, and actors mingled with the audience. Despite the quasi-mythical aura of this performance, the new festival had to respond to financial and artistic controversies during the 1920s. Paumgartner wanted the instrumental concerts of the festival to focus on the lesser known works of Mozart, thus providing an alternative to big city concerts, but he ran into the opposition of Richard Strauss, who saw mediocrity lurking in the call for diversity of programming. Once the festival began producing three Mozart operas a year, financial problems dominated. Politicians from the leading Austrian parties—the Christian Social Party, the Social Democratic Party, and the Nazi-linked German Nationalist Party—complained that ticket prices were beyond the means of ordinary citizens and that spending by the influx of foreign tourists enriched only a small minority of Salzburgers. Under the savvy leadership of Provincial Governor Franz Rehrl, the festival began to receive large subsidies from local and provincial governments, and from the Austrian state; nevertheless, the strong trend toward ever higher ticket prices and wealthy international audiences continued, as it does in the twenty-first century. Salzburg aficionados look back upon the 1930s, before the German annexation of Austria in 1938, as the most glorious period of the festival, a time when it attracted larger crowds than Bayreuth and, especially after 1933, made real the fragile dream of cultural brilliance associated with enlightenment and toleration. These were the years when the festival became a showplace for Arturo Toscanini's antifascist stance, but also when the glitz led it to be dubbed "Hollywood on the Salzach." After 1938 many of the luminaries of the interwar festival, including Reinhardt and Bruno Walter, fled, leaving it in the hands of sometimes brilliant musicians with dubious moral credentials, Wilhelm Fürtwängler and Richard Strauss among them. Ironically, Reinhardt's vision of a festival for the people probably came closest to being realized during the Nazi years because (as in Bayreuth, though to a more limited extent) the performance arenas were filled with state-subsidized ticket holders, whether workers in "Strength through Joy" programs or soldiers on leave.
With the sponsorship of the United States occupation authorities, the Salzburg Festival was revived after the war. After maneuvering through denazification difficulties, musical luminaries such as Fürtwängler, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, and finally and most important, Herbert von Karajan guided the festival to its postwar glory. New buildings and new repertoires kept it vital, as did new generations of concertgoers. Franz Rehrl's motto, that culture equals business, was never truer than after the war, yet its defenders would argue that the spirit of Mozart and of musical humanism continues to shape its theatrical and musical offerings.
Gallup, Stephen. A History of the Salzburg Festival. London, 1987.
Steinberg, Michael P. Austria as Theater and Ideology: The Meaning of the Salzburg Festival. Ithaca, N.Y., 2000.