Art and Reality, Theatre and Life, are Inseparable


“Oh, how I had been looking forward to this year! The artistic success stories of the past years, the record income from ticket sales – all that promised an ideal tailwind for the centenary. Our only problems seemed to be the annoyance of some regular customers because their ticket orders could not be filled, and, in general, the massive amount of tourists threatening to suffocate Salzburg. But alas, now in March, as I write these words and this publication goes to print, everything has changed. “Overtourism” is not our problem, but a ghost town. And yet, as an inveterate optimist, I hope that the government’s rightfully draconian measures will work, and that we, as Emmanuel Macron said at his most martial, “will win the war against the anonymous enemy, the virus”.

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Helga Rabl-Stadler

There is no space for self-pity or pettiness – least of all at the Festspielhaus! At a time of great misery, the Salzburg Festival was founded as a daring project against the crisis. Between 1914 and 1918 all of Europe had sunk into rubble: monarchies disappeared, empires fell into ruin, millions of people died. One of the most moving descriptions of the apocalypse of these years of destitution can be found in Stefan Zweig’s Die Welt von gestern (The World of Yesterday): “The very fact that what once represented the greatest stability – money – was dwindling in value daily caused people to assess the true values of life – work, love, friendships, art and nature – the more highly, and the whole nation lived more intensively and more buoyantly than ever, despite the catastrophe. […] Never have I experienced in a people and in myself so powerful a surge of life as at that period when our very existence and survival were at stake.”
Max Reinhardt was convinced that only the arts could reconcile the people, and peoples, who had been torn apart and become mortal enemies in the war. “I believe that because of its wonderful central location, the beauty of its landscape and architecture, its historical idiosyncrasies and memories and not least because of its unspoiled virginity, Salzburg is called to become a place of pilgrimage for innumerable people longing for the salvation of art amidst the bloody horrors of our times. More than any other, this war has proven that theatre is not merely a luxury for the rich and sated, but food for the needy.” – Art not as decoration, but as the food and meaning of life.
During the past 100 years, our audience had the good fortune to witness many absolute highlights of artistic creativity. However, the microcosm that is the Salzburg Festival also reflected the existential crises of world history. “Art and reality, theatre and life: everywhere else these are separate spheres. Here they form an inseparable entity,” Erich Kästner had the protagonist of his novel Der kleine Grenzverkehr remark about Salzburg and its Festival.
The hyperinflation of the early 1920s not only ate up the donations that had been collected with great effort for the building of a festival theatre, it also brought the Festival to the brink of bankruptcy several times during those early years. Only Max Reinhardt’s own initiative saved the festival idea. In 1923 he staged Le Malade imaginaire at Leopoldskron Palace for his guests, repeating this production several times at the municipal theatre. In the summer of 1924, the Festival was cancelled entirely, for lack of funding. Only when Landeshauptmann Franz Rehrl took on the patronage of the Festival together with Archbishop Ignaz Rieder and Salzburg’s mayor, Josef Preis, in 1924, was its future secured, despite the worldwide economic crisis. Over the next 14 years, Rehrl became the driving force behind the Salzburg Festival. He was one of the first to recognize its artistic, reconciliatory and economic importance for the city and the state of Salzburg, and for the self-confidence and survival of the young Republic.
Only a few years later, the Festival was again staring into the abyss. After the NSDAP had been banned in Austria in 1933, the National Socialists turned the border town of Salzburg into the frontline of psychological warfare. On 27. May 1933, the government of the German Reich instituted the 1000-mark rule with regard to Austria. For tourism, one of Austria’s few profitable industries, this almost had ruinous consequences. Every German citizen who wanted to travel to Austria had to pay a “departure fee” of 1,000 Reichsmark. Hitler’s sanction policy led to a sudden loss of visitors in the Festival summer of 1933: instead of 15,000 German guests in 1932, now there were only 800. The atmosphere at the beginning of the Festival was anything but festive. Many artists had cancelled. From the mountains beyond the border, near Berchtesgaden, fireworks lit up the night sky with enormous swastikas. This was topped by sudden air raids, which did not cost human lives, but increased the tension further. Bruno Walter reported on Nazi propaganda and terror: “The Nazis especially hated the Salzburg Festival: airplanes distributed propaganda flyers over Salzburg, bombs went off in phone booths, and I remember a rehearsal for Don Giovanni to which the Italians Pinza, Lazzari and Borgioli, always models of punctuality, arrived half an hour late because a bomb had destroyed part of the Hotel Bristol, as they told me with pale, terrified faces.”
For the National Socialists, the thousand-mark-limit backfired. The German audience, which had still constituted 40 percent of the Festival’s visitors in 1932, stayed away for the most part. But this was all the more reason for people from all over the world to flock to little Salzburg (today we have visitors from 80 countries, 35 of them non-European). Conductors such as Arturo Toscanini and Bruno Walter strove to internationalize the Salzburg Festival, which thereby became a symbol of Austria’s national and cultural independence. “All at once,” Stefan Zweig wrote, “the Salzburg Festival became a world attraction, a modern Olympic of art at which all nations contended to exhibit their best, as it were. […] Thus I found myself in my own town in the centre of Europe.”
The annexation of Austria by Hitler’s Germany in 1938 and National Socialist cultural policy changed the Festival: some composers and works were now banned; artists stayed away or were brutally driven out. Max Reinhardt died, ill and impoverished, in his American exile in 1943. After the failed assassination attempt on Hitler on 20. July 1944 and the subsequent decree on a “total war effort”, Propaganda Minister Goebbels ordered all festivals in the German Reich closed; in Salzburg, all that could take place was one orchestral concert and the dress rehearsal for Richard Strauss’ latest opera Die Liebe der Danae, whose world premiere had long been scheduled. After the dress rehearsal on 16. August 1944, the ancient composer bade the Vienna Philharmonic farewell with the words: “Gentlemen, I hope to see you again in a better world”. This wish was not to be granted: the world premiere took place after the composer’s death, at the 1952 Salzburg Festival.
After World War II, the Festival once again fulfilled its founding mission, acting as a beacon against the crisis. Only three months after the war in Europe had ended, in the summer of 1945, the American occupying forces actively supported the Festival’s new beginning.
Although the city was severely damaged by bombing, although it was overflowing with soldiers and refugees and despite the lack of the most essential nutrition, once again the Festival’s political mission came to the fore, as it had after World War I as well. General Mark Clark, the commander of the occupying American forces which governed Salzburg until the Treaty of 1955, chose the opening of the festival for his first public appearance in Austria, because he considered it 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.
Coronavirus is the greatest challenge to our society since the end of World War II. Never before has cultural life been curtailed so drastically in peacetime and in democratic nations. The fact that opera houses, theatres, concert halls and museums have been closed, that the Easter Festival had to be cancelled, has come as a blow to all of us. Had we needed further proof that the arts are not mere decoration, but our daily bread (Max Reinhardt), we have now received that proof, a thousand times over.
Let me add a word of consolation by another artist with an anniversary this year, Friedrich Hölderlin: “Where peril grows, there also grows what saves.”

Helga Rabl-Stadler


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