A Musical Shangrila in Austria – the Schubertiade

Online references on Schubert

A miracle to be found in the mid-range of the Austrian Alps is the “Schubertiade,” a festival dedicated to Schubert’s music that has been called the most famous unknown music festival in the world. Yet another miracle is the wealth of recreational possibilities the region offers to those members of the family who prefer vacations with something more than classical music.In the Bregenzerwald, a fine discovery awaits the traveler who likes to go to places off the beaten track.

In a lush and fertile high valley, where people have lived for centuries in harmony with the natural world, a rare balance between nature, tradition and high culture has been preserved. The Bregenzerwald, in its secret north-west corner, where Austria, Germany and Switzerland meet, protected by snow-covered mountains, is unknown even to most Austrians. The region is made up of green, rolling hills, radiant blue skies, mountains lit by thunder and mysterious rays of sunlight filtered through ever-changing patterns of clouds. There are pastures in every shape and color dotted by old fruit trees; traditional wood-shingled houses placed in meadows as if by a landscape painter’s sensibility; villages connected to one another by roads that rise and wind across wooden bridges, through dense forests, following mountain streams. Concert visitors are likely to find their aesthetic receptivity and sensibility heightened by the two-fold compositional beauty of landscape and music.

After a morning, afternoon or evening concert, or during intermissions, one is drawn outside to catch the landscape in one of its arresting light transformations. Once back inside Schubert’s Die Schone Mullerin is heard in a new way, its obsessive concentration on the color green mirrored by the finely differentiated shades of green in the landscape surrounding the concert hall.

Governments of German-speaking countries are notorious for spending vast sums to subsidize cultural events. Berlin has its four opera houses and every small town proudly hosts its own theater and yearly cultural festival. The Schubertiade is the one festival that manages without any subsidies.

The festival is located in Schwarzenberg, the oldest and most beautiful village in the area. The 1,700 citizens of the village contributed substantially to the building of the Angelika Kaufmann Saal, one of Austria’s three best concert halls. (The other two, according to the German press, are the Mozarteum in Salzburg and the Mozart-Saal of the Wiener Konzerthaus.) Directed by the commanding aesthetic sensibility of Gert Nachbauer, who has been inspiring and running the festival since its inception twenty-eight years ago, a small team of dedicated workers brings the creme de la creme of of the world’s chamber musicians and lieder-singers together in the festival’s resonant hall.

In 2004, star performers such as Cecilia Bartoli, Thomas Hampson, Anne Sofie von Otter, Waltraut Meier, the Tokyo Quartet, the Alban Berg Quartet, and the Camarata Salzburg were on the programs. In 2005, Alfred Brendel, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Simon Keelyside, Edita Gruberova, Brigitte Fassbaender and the Emerson String Quartet are among the planned participants.

Although Schubert is the prime attraction, music by his precursors, by composers who influenced him, by his contemporaries and by later composers who were in turn influenced by him, is included in the programming. As part of the festival, you can visit art exhibits and museums, and browse through a remarkable collection of historical books about Schubert and his music (most of which are for sale).

Festival seasons are spread across the year from late spring to early fall. Because of its unique financial independence, the Schubertiade can afford an unusual degree of originality. Here and only here can music lovers draw informed comparisons within a few days between all the greatest living interpreters of Schubert, discover exciting new talents, and hear, along with the famous song cycles, some of Schubert’s less frequently performed music. You might experience Ian Bostridge, who used to be today’smost inward, meditative singer, experimenting with unprecedented dramatic intensity, bringing the concert experience much closer to opera and to other forms of German expressionism. A few hours later, you might cherish old masters of the Fischer-Dieskau tradition, like Robert Holl and Peter Schreier, who use minimal effort for optimal effect.

Schubert wrote and regularly performed his music for his friends and musical acquaintances, one of whom named the informal soiree “Schubertiade.” The intimacy of those evenings is still alive today at the festival. The audience has clearly come for Schubert, not for fashion. The dress code is liberal. There are a few evening gowns, some women in their local costume or Tracht, with most people in casual summer dress. The concert hall, with its exquisite acoustics, holds only 600 people, a daring preservation of intimacy at the expense of huge ticket sales, which the sold-out festival could easily accomplish. The understated high quality is also apparent in the simplicity of the festival’s tent-restaurant and in the serviceable espresso bar.

Within a few steps of the concert the hall is the center of the most charming village of the entire region. Several of its stately old houses with shingled walls, sculpted beams and cascading flowers have been preserved as National Monuments. Hotel gardens and cafes invite you to sit quietly under their shady canopy of old chestnuts and linden trees, while you enjoy local cheese dishes, regional specialties or a gourmet dinner. Across the square, the fine baroque church was decorated by Angelika Kaufmann, one of the few women painters of the baroque, and her father, who lived in the village.

An arresting high-rural aesthetic characterizes the entire region, with its well-preserved traditional houses, its numerous churches and chapels, its exquisite covered wooden bridges (one of them built by Alois Negrelli, who designed the Suez canal). The Bregenzerwald has a history of baroque master builders, who left their mark on the region as well as in the lands to which they traveled when times were tough, to exercise their craft. But even most of the new houses are built in traditional style with shingled walls and intricate details of wood-working. The modern is discreetly placed just outside a village where, from a distance, it settles down unobtrusively into the landscape. The Bregenzerwald is in the center of Europe but at none of the crossroads, keeping the region in splendid isolation. Its inhabitants, who cleared the wild forests to create meadows and open grazing-lands, seem unthreatened by the presence of outsiders. Their hard-won identity offers a unique situation: the Bregenzerwald doesn’t need to bring back its traditions for today’s tourists– they are still fully alive.

Driving or even walking out a few miles along the country roads that connect the villages, might lead to the famous “Kasestrasse,” literally the road the cheese takes from the alpine meadows to the consumer. The “cheese road” is a unique cooperative the local farmers, restaurateurs and cheese makers have developed to keep small-scale farming alive and in the hands of families who tend to own small farms with an average of twelve cows. The Bregenzerwald has managed to keep cheese-making artisanal. There are twenty-five alpine dairy farms and 200 family-owned businesses on the Cheese Road which produce 4,500 tons of cheese a year from cows that graze exclusively in open pastures. It is said that local connoisseurs can distinguish, from the taste of the cheese, the particular meadows in which the cows have grazed. Over thirty cheeses from cow, sheep, goat and even ewe milk are produced.

Another of the region’s food specialties is Sennsuppe, a soup made from the whey and curds left from cheese-making. Farmers welcoming wanderers to their homes will serve them their fresh cheese and drinks like their famous home-made Holundersaft, an alpine elixir of elder-blossoms, water, lemon, sugar and sunlight.

The area offers hotels in the highest five-star category, including spa and wellness hotels, as well as simple rural inns and private bed-and-breakfasts. The organization “Ferien auf dem Bauernhof” (“Holidays on a Farm”) arranges for families to vacation on a working farm, offering children contact with animals and the experience of baking bread and making cheese. 2000 kilometers of marked and graded hiking paths guide the hiker up the Alpine slopes. There are “theme hikes,” focused on local myths and legends, on herb or berry gathering; there are sunrise and sunset walks, hikes to dairy farms and for the sports folks, the fashionable nordic walk, a mix between jogging, walking and cross-country skiing. From river-rafting through bungee jumping to golf, any sport enthusiast will be well entertained. There are also special classes for children to teach them rock-climbing, horseback riding and fishing.