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In Salzburg, music wafts through a very Catholic city

NCR Staff
Salzburg, Austria

For many Americans of a certain age, enduring images of Salzburg came to them via “The Sound of Music,” Hollywood’s version of the von Trapp family, set in this picturesque Austrian city. While the movie that made Julie Andrews a star was actually a flop in Austria -- cut a bit too close to ambivalence over the war years, many say -- music remains a defining characteristic of life here.

Located on the banks of the Salzach River, the city was founded by the Romans in A.D. 15 as a trading center for the region’s rich salt deposits (Salzburg means “Salt City”). But Salzburg today depends on tourists, not “white gold.”

It is as the birthplace of Mozart and home to a world-renowned summer music festival that this city of 140,000 draws millions of visitors each year.

What the tourist agencies do not emphasize, what reveals itself only after spending a bit of time here, is how deeply and profoundly Catholic Salzburg is, perhaps as much as any place in Europe.

This is the oldest archdiocese in the German-speaking world and among the oldest anywhere. Catholicism is deeply in the marrow -- even the best beer garden in town is run by Augustinian monks.

The Catholic legacy stretches all the way back to the Roman era. There are catacombs in Salzburg, the only place north of the Alps that has them. They were built under St. Maximus in the 300s as a place to hide during the waves of Germanic invasions.

Standing in the catacombs today, one can look out a small window and gaze upon the glittering baroque Salzburg Cathedral, built by a string of immensely rich and powerful prince-archbishops -- and reflect on how much change in Christianity is reflected in just the few hundred yards separating the two sites.

St. Rupert re-founded Salzburg in 696, with the goal of bringing Christianity back to the population. He created a monastery for men, St. Peter’s, and an abbey for women, called Nonnberg. Run by the Benedictines since the 900s, Nonnberg is the oldest continually operating religious community for women in the world. Nonnberg is the answer to a trivia question: It was actresses playing these nuns who warbled “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” in “The Sound of Music.”

Salzburg was for most of its history an independent city-state, governed with absolute authority by its prince-archbishop; only in 1803 did it lose that status. It was not made part of Austria until 1816. It is probably no surprise, therefore, that the archbishop’s residence is one of the most magnificent buildings in the city. Its glittering state rooms are the most magnificent anywhere outside Versailles, France, people say, and are still used for official Austrian functions.

The archbishop himself moved across the street to a more modest facility in the 1800s.

Speaking of archbishops, it’s easy to see why people in a place like Salzburg have a hard time taking members of the hierarchy seriously when they get too full of themselves. Like anyone who’s been around long enough, Salzburgers know which skeletons are in whose closet.

The Mirabell Garden is a case in point. One of the loveliest spots in the city, it was designed by the famed Austrian architect Fischer von Erlach. It contains beautiful terraces, a theater and a magnificent collection of statues depicting figures from Greek mythology. Salzburgers also know the story behind the garden: It was built by Archbishop Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau (1587-1611) for his mistress/wife, Salome Alt.

The archbishop wanted the 10 children Alt bore him to have a place to play. Raitenau was apparently so madly in love with Alt that he ordered one of his priests to marry them secretly, claiming to have a dispensation from the pope.

Given memories like that, it is no doubt especially difficult for people here to tolerate talk of how clerical celibacy is essential for the life of the church.

The signature structure of Salzburg is the Hohensalzburg Fortress, which looms over the skyline. It was built in 1077 by Archbishop Gebhard and boasts the distinction of having been besieged but never breached.

What the guidebooks don’t say, of course, is that most of those sieges involved the archbishop being attacked by his own people demanding more food, lower taxes and greater freedom. They never really had the munitions to do any serious damage, one reason why Hohensalzburg is the best-preserved medieval fortress in Europe.

Austria was on the front lines of the Counter Reformation; at one point three-quarters of the population was Lutheran. Through a combination of Jesuit evangelization and imperial force-of-arms, the country again became largely Catholic. But Salzburg, under the iron hand of its archbishop, always stayed firmly in the Catholic camp, and it is here that the self-confidence and expressiveness produced by the Counter Reformation exploded in stone.

The Salzburg Cathedral, known here simply as “The Dome,” is perhaps the most remarkable baroque edifice outside St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. The Salzburg cathedral can hold 10,000 people. Its altar work and side chapels are considered by art experts some of the finest anywhere. The cupola dates from 1959 and replaces one damaged by Allied bombs in 1944.

The cathedral is just one example of Salzburg’s stunning church architecture. There’s the Franciscan Church, and the University Church, and St. Peter’s, and Dreifaltigkeitskirche (the Church of the Holy Trinity), and on and on -- a gaggle of spires and flying arches, all within easy walking distance of one another, and each breathtaking. Salzburg is, quite literally, an “inspiring” city. It’s an astonishing expression of Catholicity, a reminder of the time when there was one priest here for every 16 people.

While it’s easy to see why Austrians might feel stifled under the weight of all that tradition, it also has an undeniable power and appeal, especially for American Catholics -- for whom any structure that predates Vatican II can be considered august.

Salzburg is thus a microcosm of the Catholic past, evidence certainly of the very human qualities of the people entrusted with guarding the faith, but also of the beauty and sacrifice that faith can call forth. Even a good bit of the hauntingly beautiful music that today keeps Salzburg going -- such as the “Requiem Mass” by the city’s favorite son, Mozart -- was inspired by Catholicism. In that sense, spending some time in Salzburg, soaking in the past that hangs in the air almost like a fog, is a good exercise for reformers.

One is reminded here that in the urgent task of embracing tomorrow, there is much from yesterday that should not be forgotten.

National Catholic Reporter, November 6, 1998