The Salzburg Festival: A Brief History

Tony Palmer’s 2006 documentary about the Salzburg Festival is over three hours long and uncomfortable to watch in the way the best films are.  He combines interviews with performance and other documentary footage to extremely good effect to go beyond telling the “Salzburg story ” to explore fundamental questions of the arts and the state and the very purpose of art.

salzburg1From the very beginnings the tension is there.  The choice of Hofmannsthal’s reworking of English mystery plays into Jedermann to open the festival (which, except under the Nazis, it has almost every year since) raises all kinds of questions.  Who was Jedermann then and who is he now?  Does familiarity and repetition just make the play into a kind of ritual or does it symbolise our ever changing relationship with the fundamental existentialist questions of the arts?


The relationship between the festival and Salzburg’s population and government is explored too.  The early days seem uncontroversial but it’s hard not to sense that Salzburg embraced the Nazis with an unusual degree of enthusiasm and that was slow to fade.  One understands that difficult decisions had t be made under the regime about whether to conform or go into exile but basically turning the festival into a personal fief of Herbert von Karajan, no mere fellow traveller, after the war raises uncomfortable questions.  It’s worth noting that this treatment aroused considerable ire from the festival authorities but then Austrians are hypersensitive in this area.


It’s after Karajan’s tenure that the really difficult questions surface.  Karajan’s legacy was of impeccably performed traditional productions of rather mainstream repertoire that did little to challenge the jet set audience that he had cultivated.  Tellingly, almost no 20th century works apart from Strauss were performed on Karajan’s watch and certainly nothing by composers who had been banned by the regime.  It was an approach that largely suited the good burghers of the town as it brought in plenty of money to the hotels, restaurants and increasingly glitzy shops.  But it was bucking the trends in the European art world more generally.


The last third of the film is really the classic “traditionalist” versus “modernist” debate with a Salzburg flavour.  It’s pretty obvious where Palmer’s sympathies lie.  The spokeskritters for modernism are the likes of Gerard Mortier, Peter Sellars, Simon Rattle and Thomas Hampson whereas the traditionalists are represented by past-their-sell-by-date singers and ancient aristocrats some of whose views would shock Metternich with their extreme conservatism.  He even manages to find one woman (now an American) who shows distinct nostalgia for the Nazis.


Nonetheless I found the interviews with the modernists interesting enough.  Mortier perhaps shows rather too much de haut en bas for my taste but Sellars is as articulate and passionate as ever.  If I had to pick one spokesperson for why opera needs to be kept relevant it would be he.


The other flavour of this debate is more Salzburg specific and it concerns whether the festival is really about economic benefits for the region or art.  The good burgers (notably extortionate as Ann Murray amusingly explains) are clearly about the Euros.  The director of tourism for the city is clearly better versed in global Mozart Kugeln sales than opera.  There’s an illuminating story about Mortier staging Magic Flute on the “wrong side of the tracks” and the disquiet that attracting the “wrong sort of audience” caused.  The politicians vary from the cautiously cultured to the downright Philistine!


The narrative is well illustrated with documentary and performance footage.  It’s interesting to see how performance style has changed over the years (basically not all from the 1920s to the 1980s and then poof!).  All in all it’s well worth watching and really quite thought provoking.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s