Books: Flying Visits: Postcard from Salzburg |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Postcard from Salzburg

At the Heathrow Terminal 2 check-in counter I was behind a 6 foot 6 inch male Ethiopian lacrosse goalie who had turned up three days early for a flight to Stockholm. It gradually became apparent that either he lacked the concept conveyed by the English word ‘early’ or else he thought that the girl behind the counter was threatening him with circumcision. An Australian on the way to Salzburg, I shared his unease.

Salzburg is a part of Austria which could not be more mountainous without hitting the aeroplane. There are Alps everywhere. Dropping from the sky by courtesy of an Austrian Airlines Boeing 727, I surveyed a landscape straight out of The Sound of Music, that epic musical in which Julie Andrews and a small choir of yodelling siblings sing madrigals at the Gestapo, thereby rendering them helpless. Much of the film was in fact shot in this very area. Many a time in the next few days I was to see lush green slopes set at the precise angle for Julie Andrews to sprint up them and achieve lift-off.

The Salzkammergut winds through this precipitous area like a hidden valley, or rather a network of hidden valleys. The road from the airport tunnels through solid rock. Salzkammergut means salt chamber possession, an indication of what the valley’s chief export used to be in ancient times. The glaciers carved steep walls. When they melted they left a string of lakes and fast-flowing rivers which cut the salt chamber still deeper. The strange wealth that made meat last longer was easy to get at. On the other hand the valley itself was not.

Under the old Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire that came later and the Austro-Hungarian Empire that came later still, the salt chamber always seemed to be by-passed by the hungry armies. Even the Thirty Years War hardly touched it. True, 20,000 Protestants were slung out after the mandatory tortures, but no armies came in. Napoleon went around instead of through. Hitler was born just over the hill, near Linz. Berchtesgaden, although high up, is so close by that Julie Andrews could reach it on foot in a matter of minutes. Yet Hitler’s chief creation, the Second World War, left the district almost unharmed.

Salzburg’s river is called the Salzach and still flows so fast over its rocky bed that it looks like a crowd of whirlpools running downstairs in a panic. Defined by the walls of the gorge and some eminently fortifiable outcrops, only one good place offered itself in which to build a town, and there they built Salzburg. It didn’t, of course, happen all at once. For a long while after the Romans went away hardly anything happened at all. Then, during the long haul of the Middle Ages, the outcrops were found to be ideal places to build a fortress, a monastery and a convent. Snug in their separate walled residences, monks and nuns ignored the world and each other. Below the outcrops, churches and ancillary buildings accumulated on the flat stone shelves of the riverbanks. The town became a little religious kingdom, ruled by whoever could get himself elected to the plush appointment of Erzbischof (Archbishop).

Supposedly these heavily ordained big-wigs wielded power on the Pope’s behalf, but increasingly they were in business for themselves. Handing on the tall hat from one to the other, they tirelessly effected improvements, until the town graduated from a hole-in-the-wall hideout for monkish culture to a Gothic capital city which somehow contrived to stay intact while the wars of the Reformation raged behind the next mountain but one.

Reformation and Counter-Reformation slowed down the Renaissance but could not stop it. Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, commonly known as Paracelsus, worked and died in Salzburg. The Salzburgers should give him more publicity than they do. Though a drunk with abominable manners, he marked the transition from alchemy to chemistry. He never discovered the philosopher’s stone, but he did manage to come up with zinc. If he could have hung on for a few years more he might have been patronised by the first true Renaissance Erzbischof, Wolf Dietrich, who came to power in 1587 and initiated the stylistic upheaval which eventually transformed Salzburg into the glittering showcase of baroque architecture that it remains today.

Like the princely rulers of the Italian city states, Wolf Dietrich knew how to pick talent. Indeed several of the architects he hired were Italians, a tradition continued under his successors, Markus Sittikus and Paris Lodron. Under Erzbischof Johann Ernst Graf Thun, who ruled from 1687-1709, the process was brought to its Höhepunkt, or apex. Fischer von Erlach, who shares with Lukas von Hildebrandt the honour of giving half of Austria the unfailingly ebullient look of the Catholic baroque, moved into town and started rapidly assembling masterpieces. The Dom and the Kollegienkirche are only two of his contributions. Hildebrandt barely got a look in. When the dust of construction settled, Salzburg stood revealed as a dream made actual — a miniature capital as beautiful as Cambridge, or as Dresden must have been before the fire-storm.

Erzbischof Firmian was the plug-ugly who organised the forced emigration (gezwungene Emigration) of the aforementioned 20,000 Protestants. Homogeneous once more, the Salzburgers gracefully stagnated. The rococo passed them by. The only thing that happened was the birth of a prodigiously gifted son to Erzbischof Schrattenbach’s assistant Kapellmeister. As well as changing the entire world for the better, the advent of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart came as close as anything in recent times to modifying the static perfection of Salzburg’s architecture. Every second building now sports an elaborate plaque identifying it as the site of his birth, or of his wife’s sister’s death, or of his mother’s brother’s nephew’s friend’s dachshund’s first litter.

Mozart’s departure, which occurred not long after his arrival, was the last event for a long time. During the nineteenth century, Salzburg’s main achievement was to become, at long last, part of Austria. Meanwhile, boredom thinned the population by 75 per cent. Salzburg was becoming an empty theatre. In the late teens of our century, Richard Strauss, Hugo von Hofmannstahl and Max Reinhardt found a way of filling it. With only the occasional interruption, the Festival has been growing ever since, until today it is almost big enough to contain the ego of its current prime mover, das Wunder Herbert von Karajan.

Der Chef kommt!’ (‘Here comes the chief!’) Blasting out of the sky in his private jet, arriving at the Grosse Festspielhaus in a succession of fast cars, von Karajan sets the tone of the Salzburg Festival. It’s serious, it’s highly organised, and above all it’s expensive. Tickets for this year’s new production of Aida, conducted by der Chef personally, had a face value of £100 plus and changed hands at up to $1,000 each on the night. For that price, if I had the money, Aida would have to sing like an angel, wear the Star of Africa in her navel and look like Catherine Deneuve dipped in truffle sauce. Is even von Karajan worth it?

Kiri Te Kanawa says yes. Coached and conducted by das Wunder, she has had a triumph this year as the Countess in Figaro. Accompanied only by her husband and three attendant Austrian aristocrats, she managed to give her posse of adoring fans the slip and keep a lunchtime tryst with me at a secret restaurant in a lakeside village which must remain namenlos (nameless). Nervous lest an insanely jealous Bernard Levin should appear suddenly out of the cuckoo clock, I tried to crack her on the subject of von Karajan. The girl whose voice had just been described by the Salzburger Nachrichten as flowing in an undisturbed stream like pure oil (‘im ungestörten Strom wie reines Öl’) told me to forget it: the man was all artist, humble under the flash, and singing for him had been the greatest experience of her career.

I consoled myself with the reflection that la Kanawa is notoriously nice. She won’t, for example, say a word against that small army of fanatical admirers who follow her to every opening night anywhere in the world, so that every time the curtain goes up on a new production she sees the same faces. Two of them belong to a pair of rich American consultant anaesthetists — I dimly remember being told that one of them is called Gassman — who have been known to fight each other for the last seat on a plane to wherever she is appearing next. Whether these activities impede their performance as anaesthetists there is no way of knowing, especially if you are the patient.

Tickets for Der Rosenkavalier were available, but only on the black market. The trail led from a man who knew a man to another man who knew a hotel room in which yet another man, whom I shall call Herr Taut, crouched over a small pile of tickets. For only double the face value he was prepared to let me have one of these. I had the choice of paying him off in a large wad of Austrian shillings or a small gold ingot. I won’t tell you which course I chose, except to say that when he opened the wall-safe to stash my contribution it looked like Fort Knox in there.

Alas, the performance was only so-so. The Grosse Festspielhaus, a modern creation, has a Cinemascope-shaped proscenium that no good designer could relish trying to fill. Substituting for Gundula Janowitz, who had gone sick, Gwyneth Jones sang a reasonably tuneful but far too unpoised Feldmarschallin. Yvonne Minton looked sensational as Octavian but was oddly immobile; Baron Ochs was a boor, which he is supposed to be, but a bore too, which he is not. Only Lucia Popp, the finest Sophie of our day, was up to the standard I had expected.

The production was poorly detailed. At the opening of Act I the absence of Octavian’s boots, and the presence on the Feldmarschallin’s head of a large blond switch, gave the impression that one of the lovers had undressed in the toilet and the other had been making whoopee while wearing a hairpiece. Though pleased to be there, I was not thrilled. Nor was the noise coming out of the orchestra pit anything to write home about. After all, my musical standards for this magic work had been set by the old EMI album, on which Schwarzkopf heads the cast and the baton is brandished by von Youknowwho.

Still, the audience was a show on its own. We all looked very pleased with ourselves. The men wore the black ties of forty-seven different countries while the women appeared to have cornered the world’s supply of Givenchy originals. With a face as beautiful as a blank cheque, Gunther Sachs floated by, his haunted eyes focused on the eternal challenge of trying to spend his income faster than it accumulates.

After the performance the thing to do is to dine at the Goldener Hirsch, Salzburg’s most expensive hotel. Salzburgers always dine after the opera. They also dine before it. In fact they dine throughout the day. There is a meal in the middle of the morning to help ease the pangs of the long hiatus between breakfast and lunch. There are comparatively few meals in the afternoon but things pick up towards evening. A few decades of eating out on that scale leaves the average Salzburg citizen with legs like Roscoe Tanner’s — four beer barrels arranged in stacks of two. The men look even tougher.

The Hirsch, though an ideal spot for watching café society in action, is a hellishly expensive place to eat. The manager, Count Johannes Walderdorff, is careful to include a pauper’s dish in every course, but you would need to be a fairly well-heeled pauper. Just out of town, at the Seegasthof Leopoldskron (‘ein architektonisches Juwel’), his delightful mother courts bankruptcy by running a restaurant where the food is even better than at the Hirsch and costs almost nothing. You can eat in the open air while contemplating the baroque perfection of Schloss Leopoldskron across the lake. Max Reinhardt used to throw parties there. The building is almost as well-preserved as Gunther Sachs and costs a lot less to look at.

Salzburg can fall within the bounds of financial possibility if you pick, choose and plan ahead. There is no point raging against the price of festival tickets. They would cost three times as much again if the city and the State were not subsidising them. Unfortunately none of these reflections helps much when there is a performance of La Clemenza did Tito coming up and the house is sold out.

The lovely English mezzo Anne Howells was one of the principal singers in La Clemenza and slipped me a complimentary ticket. How, you might ask, did this come about? When I was a graduate student at Cambridge, Miss Howells appeared as a guest star to sing Béatrice in the Opera Society’s production of Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict. I myself appeared in the non-singing but crucial role of a comic waiter who dropped plates. My performance was greeted with roars of indifference. Even today people who were in the audience still don’t talk about it. For some reason my operatic career failed to take off. Miss Howells has gone on to greater things but she is not the sort of girl to forget a fellow artiste fallen by the wayside.

La Clemenza, or Titus as it is known locally, proved to be an excellent production — the kind of thing that gives a music festival its reason for existence. Mozart would have been pleased at the way James Levine’s conducting gave his opera seria the appropriate gravity without sacrificing its tingling lilt. Queuing up either to murder Titus or else to implore his forgiveness, or both, the ladies, even when dressed as men, sang with unfaltering lyricism and dramatic bite. A subtle evocation of what ancient Rome must have looked like through the eyes of King Leopold II of Bohemia, the production, surprisingly enough, was by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, who once perpetrated a television version of Madame Butterfly which left me undecided whether he should be fed to a small school of large sharks or a large school of small ones. But this time he had got it right.

Above all he was in the right theatre. The Felsenreitschule, as its name implies, is built into the cliffs. The back of the stage is a set of arcades carved long ago into the living rock. Hence the whole stage spectacle reflects the look of the city, in which streets like cliffs are punctured by alleys like caves. Titus is among Mozart’s last works and this production fittingly matched the height of his career to the city of his birth. Even the audience caught the mood. During the interval people talked about Mozart instead of eyeing one another’s clothes. Everybody liked everybody else. The Austrians even smiled at the Germans, which is saying a lot, because on the whole the Austrians would rather that the Germans just stayed home and sent the money by post.

Year after year Mozart comes home to Salzburg in triumph. You would think that he had flourished there. In fact he suffocated. Schrattenbach’s successor as Erzbischof was a hard case called Colloredo, who gave the Mozarts a thin time. Wolfgang dreamed of getting out. Finally he had to beg permission. There is a letter from Mozart to Colloredo dated August 1, 1777 that is so full of honorific forms of address it reads like a German translation of a Japanese court circular. (‘Gnädigster Landes Fürst und Herr Herr!’) Under the marmalade, Mozart’s drift is that he yearns for Vienna. Despotism was too narrow a context for what the great musicians now had to offer. Mozart continued the small but significant political movement which began with Haydn and was to culminate in the symbolic moment when Beethoven crossed Napoleon’s name off the Eroica, having realised that the truly free man was not the Emperor but he himself.

And even if Colloredo’s despotism had been benevolent, Mozart would probably still have left Salzburg. Looking at the place, you wonder how any artist could want more. But Mozart had no need of perfect surroundings: he took such things in at a glance. For him, the only inexhaustible source of interest was the human spirit. Goethe was impressed with the King of Naples’ dignity. Mozart noticed the way the King stood on a box to be taller than his Queen. Mozart could never falsify the variety of life, not even to the extent of exalting art above the mundane.

Salzburg is not Aldeburgh or even Edinburgh. Nothing much gets created here. Instead, it is an art-shrine. Karajan is the last Erzbischof of Salzburg. A Teutonic pall of Kunstbegeisterung (art devotion) would hang over the whole city if it were not for the Austrians’ cheery dedication to the promptings of the flesh, especially those generated by a partly empty stomach. In Salzburg the portraits of the artists stare from every shop window. Countless von Karajans profile dramatically. Even Mozart, who had a sharp sense of his own worth and no fondness for being placed below the salt, would gag at so much worship. But the Austrians don’t just put his portrait in the window. They wrap it around a globular blob of chocolate called a Mozartkugel. They make sugar busts of him. They eat him.

Yet even when awash with Festival kitsch Salzburg remains an enchanting part of the historical accident which has left post-war Austria free, democratic and prosperous. Salzburg’s idea of political unrest is a neo-Nazi demonstration with eight participants, seven of them from out of town. The police went into action. (Trat die Polizei in Aktion.) Count Octavian Rofrano has married Sophie. The aristocracy and the bourgeoisie have made a truce and the common people flourish in the service of both. High on the valley walls, mist curls like liquid oxygen off the pines. The sails of the wind-surfers make triangular spectrums on the Mondsee at sunset. Small baroque clouds soak the green slopes with fine rain. Who is that dirndl-clad figure sprinting heavenward?

There was more to see but I had run out of time and cash. Going home to London I had to change planes in Zurich because Kiri Te Kanawa was booked on the only direct flight and the anaesthetists had bagged the last two seats.

— October 21, 1979