Salzburg at night. Photo by Toshi Chatelin
Salzburg at night. Photo by Toshi Chatelin
Salzburg, Austria was the birthplace of Wolfgang Mozart, one of the world’s greatest composers. Photo by Toshi Chatelin

The problem is that everything most of us know about Mozart, the man, is second-hand. But if music reflects both a person and a time, then it stands to reason you first have to come to grips with Salzburg. For once you’ve walked in the man’s footsteps, you understand more about him and the times that influenced his music.

Austria is probably the world’s most user-friendly country. If you can’t like Austria you might as well stay home, because you won’t like being anywhere. For like Mozart’s music, it encompasses human dimensions.

Everything is manageable, even the mountains that seem to have houses on every slope. There’s an endless abundance of cows and barns with small cozy houses attached to the front, tiny little mountain roads that run very close to then edge of eternity, and plenty of towns and villages with wooden churches that have tall spires.

It’s this sense of place and of size that was instilled in Mozart at an early age – a view of the world that he couldn’t have rejected in his own music even had he chosen to.

To understand why Mozart produced music that was so unpretentious you have to know his two cities – Salzburg, where he was born, and Vienna where he produced his most important works. For the defining character of the two places have remained essentially the same as during his own time.

Once the centre of Europe’s greatest power, Vienna is now the world’s largest and most charming museum. In Vienna, where there’s a never ending supply of the past, people go to see where Beethoven, Schubert, the Strausses, Bruckner, and Brahms worked; where Mahler conducted, and where the great artists at the turn of the 20th Century changed forever the way we looked at art and life. Mozart is one of many great, important figures.

Salzburg is a fairytale city of only 145,000 with a large castle looking down on the old town that, except for some neon signs and power lines, is essentially the same as it was in Mozart’s time.

Back then it was a commercial centre, named for its extensive salt mines, and had little in the way of cultural activity. In the beginning, it was a monastic settlement and once a walled city impregnable to attack. All of these factors are still evident and all combine to make Salzburg a city for planned excursions and for simply getting lost.

Considering that Mozart hated Salzburg and after he left for Vienna returned as few times as possible, the city fathers have been downright forgiving.

Mozart's Birthhouse in Salzburg. Photo by Austrian Tourist Board
Mozart’s Birthhouse in Salzburg. Photo by Austrian Tourist Board

Mozart’s Geburtshaus (birthhouse) dominates the inner city and it’s here, at the third floor apartment at No. 9 Getreidegasse, that the Mozart saga begins. Then, like now, the street was a narrow lane of shops in the town centre. The apartment is a museum, of course, and undoubtedly the busiest place in town.

For the finest view of the inner city, to get an overall feel of the place, take the elevator at the head of Griesgasse to the Cafe Winkler at the top of the Monchsberg. The hill, the site of the first settlement 1300 years ago, towers above the city and from the restaurant you can get the finest view in town or you can walk along the Monchsberg pathways that eventually lead to the Hohensalzburg Fortress, built in 1077, that dominates the skyline.

If you decide to eat in the Winkler restaurant, try the Venison in November or the Salmon during the summer.

Both Wolfgang (christened Johannes Chrysotomus Wolfgangus Theophilus) and his sister Maria Anna, nicknamed Nannerl, were born at the Getreidegasse apartment, though the family later moved across the River Salzach to a bigger place at No. 8 Markartplatz.

Among the collection of pictures, autographs, documents, and various relics in the Geburtshaus are Mozart’s Hammerflugel and his clavichord – the two most precious items in the museum. The clavichord was given to the Museum by Constanze in her will.

Pasted in it, in her own hand, is a note that says: “On this instrument my husband Mozart composed within five months the Magic Flute, La Clemenza de Tito, the Requeim, and a new freemasons cantata. I, Mozart’s widow and present wife of Councillor Nissen, confirm this”. After Mozart’s death, Constanze married a wealthy Swedish diplomat. She’s buried in the St. Sebastian’s Cemetery in the Mozart family plot as Constanza Nissen Mozart. She so changed the family plot monuments that Nannerl refused to be buried there.

During the summer, traffic in the birth house gets congested (the city hosts 650,000 tourists) and tour times are sometimes restricted. Smart travellers don’t try it on their own, but book a tour that has preference over singles.

In Salzburg Mozart stalks every corridor, every alleyway, and every intimate concert site. The Salzburg Festival, of course, is held every summer in the festival theatre complex near St. Peters Abbey whose cemetery holds the remains of Mozart’s sister, Nannerl, and of Johann Michael Haydn. Mozart conducted many of his early choral pieces here.

Every year, on Dec. 4, the church is the site for a performance of the C minor Mass. The old Court Stables, built in 1607, is now the Small Festival Theatre Hall. The Large Festival Hall, built in 1956-60 is where operas are held.

But the Festival – held in July and August and with opera tickets in the $200 US range – isn’t the only concert in town. In fact, for a taste of the way Mozart might have heard his own music you head for the Mirabell Palace where chamber concerts are held throughout the year in the ornate, intimate surroundings of the concert hall.

In this hall Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl gave concerts. The Mirabell Palace is called the Taj Mahal of Salzburg because it was built by Wolf Dietrich for his love, Salome Alt. Being Archbishop of Salzburg didn’t stop Dietrich from being a hopeless romantic. Today, while the concert hall is still used the rest of the palace is the seat of the Mayor of Salzburg and the municipal offices.

View of Salzburg at dusk. Photo by Austrian Tourist Board

You can easily spend a month in Salzburg and not have any reason to leave – except for a severe cash drain. For every house, every building and street has a colorful history.

On the right bank is the house where Joseph Mohr was born to a whore. That would have been the last the world ever heard of Mohr, except for the fact he later wrote the six verses for a song called Silent Night, Holy Night, in Oberndorf at the parish church of St. Nicola not far from Salzburg. A small plaque notes the birth. There are no celebrations for either his birth or his death in Salzburg.

And if you want a break from the history lesson on the left bank, stop off at one of Wolfgang’s watering holes, the Sternbrau at 34 Greisgasse, which was a regular stopping off spot when he was old enough. And the Peterskeller, near St. Peters, is one of Salzburg’s best locally known eating and wine spots – a direct descendant from when the Monks at St. Peters Monastery had their own huge wine cellar and started selling both food and wine in the 17th Century. It’s assumed that both Wolgang and Michael Haydn tipped a few here.

Author Bio: Ray Chatelin has won awards for travel journalism and classical music criticism. He has authored or co-authored 14 travel guides and his work has appeared in major magazines, newspapers, and websites. He likes golfing the world’s great courses, attending classical music and opera festivals, and cruising to regions he normally would never visit.



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