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The first Salzburg Festival was opened on 22 August 1920 with Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Jedermann / Everyman directed by Max Reinhardt. It was actually a stopgap solution; the commissioned work originally intended for the première wasn’t completed – nor could enough timber be found to make the stands in the Felsenreitschule / Summer Riding School because of shortage after the war. Hence, Max Reinhardt requested the Salzburg Archbishop Ignatius Rieder if he could produce the ‘Play of the Rich Man’s Death’ in front of the cathedral.

There had already been numerous initiatives previously to establish a festival in Salzburg. They were based on the wish after the upheavals of the First World War to present exceptional artistic achievements as a counter-model to the crisis-ridden time, and this in close association with the cultural tradition of the State of Salzburg, with the genius loci Mozart, and with the unique scenery of the Baroque city. Ultimately, the proponents surrounding the stage director Max Reinhardt and with him the author Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the composer Richard Strauss, the conductor Franz Schalk and the set designer Alfred Roller managed to get their way.

In 1921, concerts were performed for the first time at the Salzburg Festival; in 1922, they were joined by opera: works by Mozart – productions of the Vienna State ­Opera – were taken over into the programme. In the same year, the permanent residence of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra as Festival orchestra began, and the foundation stone for a festival theatre was laid in Hellbrunn after plans by the architect Hans ­Poelzig, which, however, could not be realized because of money devaluation. Another temporary venue, the Kollegienkirche / Collegiate Church, was activated in 1922 with the world première of Hofmannsthal’s Das Salzburger grosse Welttheater / The Salzburg Great World Theatre directed by Max Reinhardt.

The tense financial situation and the many other commitments of those in charge of the Festival threatened to stop the Salzburg Festival in 1923; finally, in 1924, it had to be cancelled. But already one year later the young institution succeeded in making a new start. The adaptation of the former princely archiepiscopal riding school complex as a festival theatre (1925–1927) established professional production conditions, but almost led to the bankruptcy of the Festival Theatre Association; the latter had been founded in 1917 and was entrusted with the Festival’s organization. A further milestone was the first radio broadcast from the Salzburg Festival in 1925, Mozart’s Don Giovanni. By the late 1920s, the additional option of the open-air riding school (Felsenreitschule / Summer Riding School) as a venue and an extension of the seasonal programme increasingly enhanced the Salzburg Festival’s profile. Because of doubtful financing and the Great Depression looming up in 1929, however, the financial situation of the Festival Theatre Association remained precarious.