A tale of two festivals

Image of Harry Eyres

At the end of summer I visited two very different festivals in quick succession. One has been a cultural beacon (intermittently dimmed) for nearly a century; having arisen from the wreckage of one war and the collapse of an empire, it was resurrected, phoenix-like, from the ashes of another. Held in a setting whose matchless beauty even The Sound of Music could not make twee, it is Europe’s, perhaps the world’s, grandest festival. The other was being held for the first time, in the Cotswold hills near Oxford – but, as it is nomadic, it could take place pretty much anywhere. One is attended by serious-looking people in dark suits, dinner jackets and Dior dresses, the other by people costumed as harlequins or sheep or in some cases wearing not very much at all.

If I say that I found the Wilderness Festival in some respects more lively and more hopeful than the Salzburg Festival, I don’t speak frivolously. The Salzburg Festival was founded in 1920, by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Richard Strauss, Max Reinhardt, Franz Schalk and Alfred Roller, with a magnificent, practical idealism. The idea behind it, that culture and art can bring peace and can be fundamental in shaping a person’s, a country’s, and a continent’s identity and destiny, still seems noble.

This idea, turned into the double-headed question “can culture and arts create identity and peace or is economic prosperity more decisive?”, was the subject of a discussion I attended which stirred something close to insurrection in the audience. The fundamental problem, I reflected afterwards, was that hardly anyone in the ironic, decadent west really believes any more in the moral and spiritual power of art to change lives. That was the belief that inspired Hofmannstahl, Strauss and Reinhardt, conductors who graced Salzburg in the 1930s such as Bruno Walter and Arturo Toscanini, and even Wilhelm Furtwängler, who continued to conduct under the Nazis because he believed he must not desert the temple of high art. It also inspired José Antonio Abreu when he came to found El Sistema in Venezuela, and still seems to be alive and well among the young musicians who perform in Venezuela’s youth orchestras, but that is perhaps another story.

Nowadays we expect art to be playful, amusing, provocative, sensationalist – but rarely to challenge us at the deepest intellectual and spiritual levels: the levels at which, say, Goethe’s Faust challenges us; or, as the violinist Christian Tetzlaff reminded us in a magnificent performance at this year’s BBC Proms, Brahms’s Faustian violin concerto, with its all-encompassing view of the human condition, can challenge us.

This is no one’s fault – certainly not that of the Salzburg Festival’s engaging president, Helga Rabl-Stadler, or of the outgoing artistic director Markus Hinterhäuser, who has done so much to bring contemporary music to Salzburg and indeed to restore Hofmannsthal’s intention of “reviving ancient living traditions in a new way”.

As Nietzsche prophesied in the 1880s, we have been visited by “this uncanniest of all guests”: by what he called nihilism, the situation in which “the higher values devalue themselves”. We might prefer to call this guest postmodern irony, and to look kindly on it, but it means that art cannot be taken as seriously, or made to bear as much weight, as it used to. This is something on which the captains of industry – Peter Brabeck-Letmathe of Nestlé and Franz Humer of Roche – were in agreement with the curators and artistic directors.

But does that not leave a vacuum? If Hofmannsthal, Strauss and Reinhardt looked to high art to heal the identity crisis and the crisis of values precipitated by the first world war, where are we to look to to heal our own crises of identity and values? I waded into the debate and pointed out to the captains of industry and the artistic bigwigs that I had just come from a city where the streets were burning, where we were confronted quite starkly with Matthew Arnold’s no longer fuddy-duddy choice of culture or anarchy.

The Wilderness Festival takes a lighter view of these things. The music from the stage doesn’t come from the western high art tradition. It is based on folk idioms, on blues, on reggae. This is music that more directly stirs the senses and the limbs. Whether it can reach into the soul, or fuse emotional and intellectual complexity, as deeply as Beethoven and Brahms, is another matter.

Reinhardt hoped the Salzburg Festival would rediscover the carnival spirit of art, its “festive, holiday-like ... features”. There’s no denying that Wilderness feels more festive and holiday-like than Salzburg. And it achieves its carnivalesque spirit not without thoughtfulness; there are talks and debates – I was appearing in one curated by Intelligence Squared on the dangers of new technologies. I think it could do with even more, plus a concert or two by some young Venezuelans, to show that high art and youthful high spirits are not incompatible.


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