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Art & Culture

Herbert von Karajan and the Salzburg Easter Festival

The Salzburg Easter Festival is one of the most exclusive music festivals in the world. It was founded in 1967 by one of Salzburg’s most famous sons: In doing so, iconic conductor Herbert von Karajan gave himself and his native city a truly luxurious gift, a gift whose radiance and brilliance has spanned the decades ever since.

“Music is the embodiment of beauty.”

Herbert von Karajan appreciated the aesthetic qualities of our world perhaps more than anybody else on the planet at the time. And yet, despite the luxury he was quite willing to surround himself with, he was also inclined to understatement. When today – more than a half-century after the Salzburg Easter Festival was founded – music and opera lovers from around the globe gather in Salzburg during these central weeks on the Christian calendar, now as then, the festival is dedicated to the enjoyment of music performed at the very highest level. And though audiences are generally filled with regular guests and familiar faces, in recent years especially, a young public with its own unique appreciation for music has gradually discovered this festival for itself.

Traditionalist and visionary with great goals

In the year the Salzburg Easter Festival was founded, all signs were pointing towards renewal: The war had been over for more than 2 decades, baby boomers were succumbing to the call for free love. Student activists were turning against the establishment and Mary Quant walked into Buckingham Palace sporting a miniskirt. And what was happening in Salzburg? With a premiere of Wagner’s Valkyrie, Herbert von Karajan was in the midst of founding the Salzburg Easter Festival on March 19, 1967. Together with “his” Berlin Philharmonic. Actually, that was a declared goal of his, too: to position the Easter Festival in Salzburg as the one venue in the world where the Berlin Philharmonic would actually perform in the orchestra pit for an operatic stage production. The almost 60-year-old had a wife at his side – a Frenchwoman and ex-model – who was just 28 years old, while their 2 daughters were ages 6 and 3. Even though he was very much a traditionalist, absolutely dedicated to perfectionism and discipline in his music-making, he also loved everything that was new, was a big technology fan and once said of himself, having been born in the 19th century, he had come into this world far too early. A visionary, who saw his foremost goal as embracing his career, not as a profession, but as a calling. Herbert von Karajan never really needed a musical score in front of him, since he had practically every note in his head.

The gift of this Salzburg native to his home city

Herbert von Karajan was fully aware of his status, his ability and the respect he enjoyed: Even after aristocratic titles had been abolished in Austria, he continued to use the “von” as his stage name. He took over as artistic director of the Salzburg Festival in his hometown in 1956, and by 1964 he had been installed on the board of directors. In 1959, he became head conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, a position he would hold for the next 30 years. Through the Salzburg Easter Festival, he was able to fulfill a dream as well as create a monument to himself. In the official program for the Easter Festival, he once wrote: “In this city, which is also my birthplace, I wanted to create a celebration of theater and music that would draw a knowledgeable, appreciative public wishing to experience the great works of music. Seen from this perspective, my motives are similar to those which led to the founding of the Summer Festival in Salzburg.”

The Salzburg Easter Festival in the 21st century

Herbert von Karajan remained as director of the Salzburg Easter Festival until his death in 1989; followed by the likes of Sir Georg Solti, Claudio Abbado and Sir Simon Rattle as conductors and artistic directors. Since 2003, Christian Thielemann has served as Artistic Director, while Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden has been the Easter Festival’s orchestra in residence. During his tenure, the Salzburg Easter Festival has introduced numerous innovations, including the Children’s Concert and the “Concert for Salzburg”: The latter is featured as an additional concert performed by Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden outside the framework of the regular program, intended primarily for the enjoyment of locals who actually live in and around Salzburg.

Following in the footsteps of Herbert von Karajan through the city of Salzburg:

  • A “Herbert von Karajan” monument is located in the garden of the house at No. 1 Josef-Friedrich-Hummel-Strasse. Though this is often presumed to be the house where he was born, Heribert Ritter von Karajan was actually born at a sanatorium in the Franz-Josef-Strasse which is no longer standing.
  • “Herbert-von-Karajan-Platz” is located at the corner of Hofstallgasse and the Sigmundstor. This square was renamed after the conductor in 1991. Here, we also discover the baroque Horse Pond, which was once used to water and wash the horses of the prince-archbishops.
  • Herbert von Karajan was laid to rest in Anif, the small town where he had lived on the southern outskirts of Salzburg. His grave continues to be a pilgrimage destination for fans from around the world.
  • The “Eliette and Herbert von Karajan Institute” and the “Herbert von Karajan®- Archive” based in Salzburg are invaluable resources for fans: On the website, you will find a wide selection of photos, press commentaries, critiques and audio documentations. In addition, the Institute continually creates films, articles and books about Herbert von Karajan, as well as hosting the CLASSICAL MUSIC HACK DAYS and the KARAJAN MUSIC TECH CONFERENCE. Matthias Röder, director of the Institute, has his own personal recommendations for Karajan fans in Salzburg: “Be sure to attend concerts at the Festspielhaus and also browse the Music Lounge on Universitätsplatz."