Salzburg: The Sounds of Music

By Mullen, Richard | Contemporary Review, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Salzburg: The Sounds of Music

Mullen, Richard, Contemporary Review

RISING majestically in a splendour which challenges even the surrounding Alpine peaks, the domes, spires and battlements of Salzburg herald one of Europe's richest treasure houses of architecture, history and music. Its abbeys, castles, palaces, fountains and cathedral are the boasts of a city which has contributed more to Europe's cultural heritage than any other place of its size.

Salzburg's very name reminds us of its earliest days under the Romans when it was a centre of salt mining and trading when salt, far from being an unhealthy condiment, was a valuable form of international currency. It was, after all, almost the only way of preserving food through the long winters. The taxes levied on the boat loads of salt brought great wealth to Salzburg's rulers: wealth which was used to enrich both the city and the world. The churches, abbeys, and palaces of Salzburg celebrate the long reign of the Prince-Archbishops who ruled the city as a northern Rome for centuries.

It is these mighty prelates who gave Salzburg its stately buildings and living legacy of some of the grandest music ever written. The Archbishops were not just powerful churchmen. The Archbishop of Salzburg was the Prince and civil ruler not only of the city but of the surrounding countryside. His position was more like the Pope than that of an ordinary bishop. For centuries, Salzburg was an independent principality and only became part of Austria in the early nineteenth century. The Prince-Archbishop, who was usually chosen from members of various noble Austrian families, was one of the most important rulers in Central Europe.

Salzburg has always stood at one of the crossroads of Europe. Its geographic position has determined its culture. from the days of the mule trains loaded with salt to our own age of the Orient Express, it has been a place to stop as one goes from Germany south to Italy or west from Vienna towards western Europe. Throughout the centuries, musicians and artists have travelled these routes in search of work or inspiration. When they reached Salzburg they found a wealthy court ruled over by a Prince who bestowed much favour on music. Because the Prince was also a priest, he always paid great attention to Church music. This meant that Salzburg's churches employed large numbers of musicians and singers. This in itself acted as a magnet to draw other talented people to the city and Salzburg became a place which united the musical traditions of Italy and Austria.

Today however millions make their way to this picturesque city not to mine salt or seek favour with mighty prelates. They come to see the city that is a sacred shrine of music. For it was in this city that the greatest composer of all time was born in 1756. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was the son of a talented composer, Leopold Mozart who had come to Salzburg because he knew of the Archbishops' tradition of employing musicians.

It is remarkable that almost two and a half centuries after Mozart's birth -- years that have seen the disruption of empires and the horrors of war sweep over Salzburg -- it is still possible to see many of the buildings that he knew. Foremost among these is Mozart's birthplace. It stands in the fascinating street called Getreidegasse with its numerous iron signs hanging from almost every house. Mozart's Birthplace (Geburtshaus) built round a narrow courtyard is stucco covered and painted in that pleasing yellow one sees throughout Austria. Underneath the stucco is a medieval building that has been adapted over many centuries to provide flats and shops for several families. Make sure you stop as you climb the stairs and peer down into the courtyard at the view the young Wolfgang would have seen in his early years.

In the house there is an amazing collection of Mozart relics and documents, so many that only the most dedicated Mozartian could find time to see them all. The visitor is well advised to pass through the museum downstairs and hurry on up to the actual apartment in which the Mozart family lived in the middle of the eighteenth century.

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