Tri-City Herald, Sunday, December 1, 2002

The Sound of Salzburg

©2002 Valerie Kreutzer

Austria's most beautiful city is the birthplace of Mozart and "The Sound of Music."Salzburg, Austria

During a “Long Night of Music,” Mozart’s hometown filled every plaza, niche and arcade with sounds of music. 

Next to Mozart’s monument, high school students performed scenes from an Italian opera.  In a courtyard, youngsters played merrily on folk instruments.  And through the open window of a concert hall wafted strains of a Baroque theme rendered by a saxophone.

Welcome to a lighter-hearted Salzburg, the one that gave birth to the musical “The Sound of Music,” so beloved by North Americans and mostly ignored by the locals.
If you’ve seen the Hollywood movie—and who hasn’t?—you are familiar with Salzburg’s charms: Ringed by Alpine mountains, split by the Salzach River, the city’s silhouette is dominated by the Hohensalzburg Fortress and dozens of church steeples.

Salzburg owes its beauty to a succession of archbishops who hated wars and loved the arts.  Their passions were palaces, beautiful gardens, fountains, cathedrals and Italian architecture.  Their wealth came from the nearby mines that provided salt, valued like gold, because it was essential for nutrition and the preservation of food.

Beauty and Baroque extravagance characterize Salzburg.  When you walk at night over the expansive plazas, you feel easily transported into the 15th or 16th century.  There’s hardly a house younger than 350 years.

In one of them, on Getreidegasse, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in 1756.  His family’s apartment on the second floor still displays instruments on which Mozart, his sister Nannerl, and Father Leopold performed.  At the store downstairs, Frau Mozart used to shop.  Today it peddles souvenirs, among them the delicious Mozartkugeln, marzipan balls covered with chocolate and wrapped with the musician’s image.

Mozart spent his childhood and youth in Salzburg when his father didn’t present him at Europe’s courts in search of support.  A child prodigy, Mozart played the piano at three, composed at five, and became conductor of Salzburg’s court orchestra at 16.  But he found court-life there dull and after calling the archbishop an “arch-oaf” was sent packing to Vienna, where he married his sweetheart Constanze and wrote divine music until his untimely death at 35.

It is one of Salzburg’s historic ironies that the city has thrived on the legacy of the man who couldn’t wait to leave it behind. A Mozart Week at the end of January focuses exclusively on the musician’s work and the Salzburg Festival (end July/August) features at its core performances of Mozart’s music.

First staged in 1920, the Festival brings together the world’s most accomplished musicians and performers and offers the best of classical tradition as well as groundbreaking innovations.  Among the festival’s highlights is “Everyman,” the medieval morality play about a rich man who loses his fortunes and almost his soul.

As a young college grad I once spent two weeks at the Salzburg Festival.  My friends and I slept in dormitories, ate cafeteria food, and made music at a seminar for teachers.  We had neither the wardrobe nor funds to go to the opera, but found plenty of excellent music at smaller events and standing-room tickets for an unforgettable “Everyman” performance, staged at night in front of the illuminated Cathedral.  When death entered the stage for Everyman’s final reckoning, we felt goose bumps in the hush of the moment.

The Festival is admittedly a cultural class act with a capital C. “The Sound of Music” that put Salzburg for North Americans on the map, isn’t.  In fact, most Austrians don’t know the Oscar-winning 1965 film, and Austrian television broadcast it for the first time only a year ago.  While the musical’s catchy tunes inspire Americans at popular sing-alongs, they’ve fallen on deaf ears in Salzburg.

Part of this disconnect may be due to Salzburg’s resistance to acknowledge its Nazi past.  The city was a willing participant in Third Reich policy after Hitler’s annexation of Austria.  In the true story of the von Trapp family, Captain von Trapp was about to be drafted into Hitler’s navy when he escaped over the Alps with his wife Maria, an ex-novice, and their seven children.  In 1938, the von Trapps were already a famous singing family who had even been invited to sing on Hitler’s birthday.  After fleeing to Italy, they sang their way to America and settled in Stowe, Vermont.  They set up a music camp and built a ski lodge that continues to this day.

Last June, my Austrian hosts took me to visit the von Trapp villa in Salzburg.  Surrounded by a lovely park, the yellow mansion with green shutters now houses a Catholic seminary.  There were no other visitors and after my hostess talked to a guide, we learned why.  Hollywood had used the area’s lovelier castles as backdrops for the story’s scenes, and bus tours make their rounds to show these sights.  “Just for the Americans, you know,” the guide confided.

But most of us come for much more.  My friend Harry, a connoisseur of Salzburg, once took me on his special tour.  Before noon we had to rush up the hill to Stiegl Braeu, a brewery and restaurant, where we sat at wooden tables under chestnut trees, ready for the noon-time ringing from church bells at our feet.  At twelve o’clock exactly the concert started.  From some 20 steeples, fluted or domed, bells started ringing, each with its distinctive sound.  They blessed our dumplings and hearty fare that ended with Salzburger Nockerln, an iceberg-shaped soufflé of sugar and egg white, large enough to feed a crowd.

For our cup of coffee we took the funicular to the majestic 11th century Hohensalzburg Fortress.  The terrace café offered a sweeping view of the city, the river and the surrounding mountains.  We climbed towers, roamed through passageways, and shuddered before a display of torture instruments.
These ruling archbishops did much more than pray!  Archbishop Leonhard von Keutschach, for example, expelled the city’s Jewish population in 1498, and later stripped the mayor and members of the city council of their rights and threw them into prison.   

In the sixteenth century, on the other hand, Archbishop Wolf Dietrich indulged his love for Italian Baroque and remodeled the city in that style.  He also built Mirabell Castle for his mistress Salome, the daughter of a local tradesman.  She bore him twelve children.  Today, the castle and adjacent gardens are a favorite backdrop for June weddings.  On the Saturday of my recent visit, several parties posed in the manicured gardens against the backdrop of the mighty Fortress.

On my last Sunday, my hosts thought it fitting that we attend services at the magnificent Cathedral.  Two choirs from a small town in Ohio were performing a Haydn mass.  The choirs took turns for different segments of the liturgy, while their organists slid along the benches of the Cathedral’s five (!) organs.  While listening, I wondered how many bake sales and Bingo nights had paved the way for this journey of a lifetime.  For years to come, singers will no doubt tell friends and offspring that they had once performed in the Cathedral where Mozart had been baptized.

Their joyous “Gloria in excelsis deo (Glory to God on high)” blasted through cultural and language barriers.  For an hour we breathed in perfect harmony.  In Salzburg there are times when you believe that music can accomplish that.