Norman Lebrecht

Swanky, stale and sullen, the summer music festival has had its day

The traditions of the Salzburg, Lucerne and Verbier festivals were built on fear, vanity and Nazi gold. Why would anyone miss them?

Verbier wanted to be the antidote to the corruption and ostentation of other festivals but it wasn’t long before vanity trumped verity. [Photo: Nicolas Brodard, Verbier Festival]

‘Festival?’ said Nathan Milstein. ‘What is festival?’ I had naively asked the most immaculate of violinists where he used to play in the summer and he looked at me as if I had proposed an unnatural act.

‘Before the war,’ said Nathan, offering a glimpse of paradise lost, ‘Volodya and I would stay at Senar for six weeks with Rachmaninov.’ Volodya was Horowitz, his best friend.

‘In those days,’ he continued, ‘we liked to spend time with composers. A composer was someone you could talk to. He knew philosophy, literature, lepidoptery. Rachmaninov could name all the butterflies around Lake Lucerne. He liked me better than Volodya, maybe because I was not pianist.’

Milstein was a one-off, a cavalier who played 30 recitals a year at most. His contempt for festivals and routine concerts was uniquely refreshing. Now, ahead of a music-free summer, it feels acutely relevant. Do we really need festivals?

Salzburg stank of cheap Sekt and fear; Lucerne waxed fat on Nazi gold and the highest ticket prices on the planet

The model of the modern music festival was shaped 100 years ago this summer by Richard Strauss, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Max Reinhardt with the notion that artists could play for fun and each other at Salzburg, far off the beaten career track. In the post-war Austrian rump, the idea seemed at once noble, useful and lucrative.

The only summer competition was Bayreuth, which was never so much a festival as an orgy of Wagner worship, woefully reduced by the 1920s to penury and fringe politics. While Salzburg built a concert hall, Wagner’s son Siegfried and daughter-in-law Winifred embraced Adolf Hitler. Fat Ruhr cats soon followed.

A man who owned much of East Sussex built a summer festival in 1934 for his small-voiced soprano wife, Audrey Mildmay.

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