Festspielhaus Concert Hall in Salzburg for the Festspiele Festival

The Salzburg Festival: What it is and Why It Matters

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The Salzburg Festival is the biggest, most iconic Festival for classical music globally. Therefore, it is also not only the most important cultural event in Salzburg but also the main event in Salzburg overall. The Festival consists of theatre and concerts, but the most important events are operas. However, the highlight of the Salzburg Festival is a piece of theater performed in front of the cathedral. The Jedermann (everyman) is the only performance that takes place every year since its foundation.

Are you visiting Salzburg during the festival season in July and August and wonder whether or not you should attend a concert? Or are you confused and wanting to find out what the Festival is about? Don’t you worry! This article will tell you everything I know about the Salzburg Festival, including insider tips from years of buying tickets.

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The History of the Salzburg Festival

Salzburg forgot about Mozart for a while after his death. The city only remembered his heritage in 1842 when the Mozart statue was erected for the 50th year of Mozart’s death. That’s when the idea of a classical music festival in honor of Mozart came up.

Mozartstatue on Mozartplatz Square in the old town of Salzburg

Because the 19th century was troubling times, it took a while to develop that idea. When the first Festival happened just after the first world war, times were even more problematic. People were dirt poor. But the Festival was not only an idea that has grown for a long time but also a chance to escape this poverty in the long run by boosting tourism.

Due to the lack of material and a suitable venue, the first performance took place outside on an improvised wooden stage in 1920 with the cathedral’s baroque architecture as a backdrop. While the other shows change every year, the Jedermann, the theater they performed the first year, is still performed in front of the cathedral every year.

The first festival hall was built in 1925 on the site of the archiepiscopal riding school. Later, the archbishop’s summer riding school was adopted. Finally, after the Second World War, at the request of Herbert von Karajan, the big concert hall, grosses Festspielhaus, was built.

After the second world war, Karajan became the driving force behind the Festival. A person in dispute for his involvement with the Nazi Regime, Karajan was one of the most excellent conductors of all time. He didn’t only demand a new concert hall but also initiated the Whitsun and the Easter Festivals and was the Festival’s figurehead until he died in the 1980s.

Herbert von Karajan by Anna Chromy

Today the Salzburg festival is the biggest classical music festival in the world. 250.000 tickets are sold for shows that happen in the festival season in summer for six weeks. The 100th anniversary of the Festival in 2020 turned out differently than expected, as you can imagine. The Festival took place but only with a third of the tickets and government funding since it would otherwise not have been possible.

Where is the Salzburg Festival held?

The Festival’s main venue is the Festspielhaus (concert hall) in the festival district in the Old Town of Salzburg. Three concert halls are part of the Festspielhaus.

The small Concert Hall, or House for Mozart

The initial venue was the small concert hall. The small concert hall got its name after the big concert hall was built, but it was renamed to House for Mozart for Mozart’s 250th birthday in 2006. We still have to see if the locals will eventually get used to it. For me, the venue remains the small concert hall.

Concert Hall Haus für Mozart Felsenreitschule Salzburg

Felsenreitschule – the Rock Riding School

The small concert hall was the first designated opera house in Salzburg in 1925, but the oldest part of the concert hall is the rock riding school. The rock riding school was the archbishop’s summer horse riding school from the 17th century. It’s open-air, and the seats for the spectators of the horse shows were built into the mountain. Nowadays, the rocks are only a backdrop. While the historical appearance is preserved, the rock riding school is equipped with modern technology like a mobile roof.

The Sound of Music - Edelweiss (Reprise)

If you saw the Sound of Music, you have already seen the rock riding school. It’s where the Trapp family performed before they escaped Austria. In the movie, the rock riding school didn’t have a roof yet.

Grosses Festspielhaus – The Large Concert Hall

As mentioned before, the large concert hall was requested by Herbert von Karajan, who, despite having gotten into trouble for his involvement in the War regime, emerged as the most important figure for the Salzburg Festival. He threatened to leave if he doesn’t get a larger concert hall. The large Concert hall was, therefore, built-in 1956.

Pferdeschwemme and Festspielhaus Salzburg Austria

With a stage of 100 meters wide, the large concert hall has one of the widest stages in the world. While the access for the small concert hall and the rock riding school is the same, the large concert hall in the same building but has a separate entrance from the street through five bronze doors, above which is inscribed a Latin sentence that translates to: The Muse’s holy house is open to those moved by divine power bears us up who are inspired.

Domplatz the Cathedrals Square

As previously mentioned, the first Festival was held on Salzburg’s cathedral square. That’s where the only show in 1920, the Jedermann theater, was performed and still is performed nowadays every year as a part of the Festspiele. Therefore, every year during the festival season, the square in front of the cathedral and the otherwise amazing view is blocked by a stage that provides seats to almost 3000 people. The only purpose of that stage is the performances of the Jedermann.

The stage for the Jedermann theater at the Cathedrals square

The University Church Kollegienkirche

While the first show of the Festival took place in front of the cathedral in 1920 and the first designated opera house was the small concert hall in 1925, concerts were held even before the Festspielhaus was built. The university church was used as a concert hall. While the University church, unlike the cathedral square, is not one of the main venues anymore, it is still used for concerts during the festival season.

University Churchs Salzburg Baroque Church by Fischer von Erlach

More Salzburg Festival Venues

Today, more and more locations all around the city, such as the state theater, the Mozarteum, the Marionette Theater, the Ice Rink, the former city cinema, and even places like Hallein in Salzburg Province are used for theater and concerts.

When is the Salzburg Festival?

The Salzburg Festival occurs from the last two weeks of July until the end of August for six weeks every year. During the Festival, Salzburg is different. The city makes sure everything is perfect, constructions disappear, cafes stay open longer, and before and after the concerts, the streets are flooded with dressed-up people.

How to purchase Salzburg Festival tickets?

To purchase tickets for the Salzburg Festival, you place your orders in January. At least if you want to maximize your chance to get them. Because there is a lot more demand for certain tickets than there is availability, the distribution of tickets is a lottery system. First in line are the patrons of the Festival. They are the only ones with guaranteed tickets.

Everyone else gets notified in March or April whether or not they get the tickets. You, of course, only pay for the tickets you get, and you could also still refuse them. Therefore, from the moment the tickets are first distributed, you can officially buy the rest online or at the ticket office and get them right away. You could also do that while the Festival is already going on, but the popular shows are then sold out.

For last-minute tickets, you could also try to show up at the venue without a ticket and hope that someone is selling his ticket. It’s not allowed but tolerated. There are no names on the tickets. Most of the time, more people are searching than buying, and often the tickets are in more expensive categories. Often, however, that’s your only chance to buy at the last minute.

UPDATE 2021: Because of the Coronavirus, tickets in 2021 will have names on them, and reselling will, therefore, be impossible. But as 2020 showed, it’s now easier than before to get tickets since there is less demand.

Are there free concerts at the Salzburg Festival?

In the beginning, the designated goal of the Salzburg Festival organizers was to turn the city into a stage. To make the experience inclusive instead of exclusive. Unfortunately, that goal has moved into the background during the century the Festival was taking place. 

In the foreground today is world-class performance and the need to raise the money to maintain that reputation. There is a high demand for tickets, and most of them are expensive.

Siemens Festspielleinwand Helga Rabl Stadler

The only free concerts at the Salzburg Festival are during the opening weekend and the public viewing at Kapitelplatz. For the shows at the opening, you need to get free tickets from the ticket office at the concert hall. The screen on Kapitelplatz is sponsored by Siemens. While the recordings and the live streams are not the same as a live performance, the vibe at Kapitelplatz is usually fantastic. All of the screenings are free to watch.

How to get inexpensive tickets for the Festival?

To get inexpensive tickets for the Salzburg Festival, you need to plan. Moreover, it would help if you had a bit of luck. Ticket sales open in January, but that’s not when you get the tickets. You place your orders, and in April, you get notified whether or not you get them. That’s because demand is higher than the availability.

The ticket sales are a lottery system. The only ones that are guaranteed to get tickets are the sponsors of the Festival. The Festival needs them to survive.

The inexpensive tickets you want to order are the standing and the pillar seats. They range from €10,- to €30,-. The price correlates with the production value of the performance. I love those tickets. You get a standing seat for thirty euros that would cost five times as much if you would sit one row in front. In the case of the column seats, the column covers a tiny bit of your view of the huge stage. Not a big deal. Such a tiny bit that it never bothered me. In the case of the standing seats, you have a standing aid which, especially when you are slim and small (which I am not), serves as an okay seat.

Hofstallgasse mit Festspielhaus Concert Hall

There is one more chance for cheap tickets. It’s popular with the locals because it’s for the Jedermann theater and that’s in German. The Jedermann is played between fifteen and twenty times each season, and each time there is a chance for standing tickets. In fact, these tickets are only available at the box office. They are available an hour before the show, but they only cost five euros. That’s why you will have to be there two to three hours ahead of time and line up. Other than for the opera, there are no subtitles at the Jedermann, so you ideally speak German, but even without understanding anything, the performance can be an experience and still worth the five euros.

Is there a Dress Code at the Salzburg Festival?

Although there is a dress code at the Salzburg Festival, to be dressed appropriately, there are two options. Option one is simply a suit or a dress and matching shoes. Most visitors choose this option. The second option would be traditional clothes like Lederhosen trousers and Dirndl dress. That’s appropriate even if the Salzburg Festival is not a traditional Austrian folk festival but a festival about classical music.

Dirndl and Lederhosen

You had to dress up and would have been refused without dressing up in the past, but nowadays, you will not be denied entry if you are not properly dressed.

Here is a personal anecdote. I attend a few shows every year, but I am not afraid of being dressed inappropriately. So the elevator boy once refused to let me ride along when I was wearing a hoodie and jeans. He thought I was a stagehand. When he noticed that I was a guest, he let me join the ride after all. That’s how it is. If you don’t feel like dressing up, you don’t have to, but be aware that you will be an exception and could be mistaken for a stagehand.

Would I recommend you attend the Salzburger Festspiele?

There are 250.000 tickets sold for the Festival every year. Yet, for 99% of the tourists visiting Salzburg during festival season, the Festspiele remains irrelevant for several reasons. Most people who attend the Festival come to Salzburg specifically for that purpose. They, of course, get their tickets beforehand and are generally into classical music. Most travelers remain unaware of the Festival until they get to Salzburg. Even when they get here and hear about the Festival, they remain confused. The Salzburg Festival is no what most people imagine when hearing the term festival. Now would I recommend attending the shows when you have the chance?

The Salzburg Festival in 2020 | The History of the Salzburger Festspiele and how to purchase Tickets

I absolutely would. When I was younger, tickets were less scarce than they are today. My mum worked in a government position and frequently received free tickets for rehearsals. She offered these tickets to me every time. I refused, telling her that I am not interested without ever having attended a show. When I was 25 years old, in 2012 and just started in tourism, I participated at the Jedermann theater for the first time and was blown away by the performance.

That’s when I wanted to know more and took every chance to see more shows. Nowadays it’s not as easy anymore to get free or cheap tickets. Still, nowadays, I happily spend my money on these experiences. While you had the opportunity to see opera in many places when traveling, you don’t often get the chance to see performances as high in quality as during the Salzburg Festival.

Additional Resources

Visit the website of the Salzburg Festival for more Information and to look for tickets.

In case you visit Salzburg outside of the Festival Season, read this article to find out about concerts in Salzburg.

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