The Salzburg Effect

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SALZBURG, Austria—You know of the Mozart Effect, the questionable notion that playing the music of Salzburg's favorite son for babies can promote better brain development. You might have heard of the Doppler Effect, named for Salzburg-born Christian Doppler (1803-1853), whose theories—about how sound waves leave a source and arrive to those who perceive them—changed not only how we think of sound perception but have found application in the study of light, of astrophysics, and so much more.

Then there is what I call The Salzburg Effect, in which a particular combination of factors in this city conspire to foster abundant and profound creative thinking in those who open themselves to the possibility. This can happen in Salzburg, despite its having the customary blandishments—trinkets, fast food, hop on/hop off buses—that are a scourge of most major tourist destinations. Yet, they can recede from view more quickly here than in other places.

You don’t have to look too hard in Salzburg to discover what makes it stimulating. The city has an innate respect for Kunst und Kultur, or Art and Culture, that inevitably must be spelled with capital letters. There is the amazing Salzburg Festival, which I will discuss in a forthcoming article. But you can find your way to creative thinking simply by being receptive to the conditions the city imposes.

I have been visiting Salzburg for more than three decades, sometimes for work and sometimes for decompression and inspiration, on average every second year. I find these visits essential to the reconsideration of the things I think about and the improvement of the work I do. This might sound pretentious or posh, but I would point out that most people I know who are serious about their work spend time and money each year on professional development, training, workshops and conferences. My equivalent of this is a concentrated immersion in Salzburg, but with the added benefit that the coffee and cake here are so much better than what is served at “breakout sessions” of most conferences and conventions.

The key to Salzburg is the possibility for quiet reflectiveness. This can be noted in many ways. The city’s excellent Obus transportation is the quietest public conveyance one can imagine. There are none of the constant shrill beeps, endless rumbling and vehicular exhalations that are part and parcel of riding a bus in New York City. Rather than a loud bell being sounded every time a stop is requested, there is a soft murmur that is audible to the driver because there is no other ambient noise. No one seems to use cellphones on Salzburg buses, so there is no shouting above surrounding din because there is no surrounding din. People sit quietly and converse at normal decibels.

Garbage containers, divided into many kinds of recycling, are lined with plastic bags which are then removed, so there is no banging or grinding of garbage when it is collected. Trash removal vehicles are as quiet as the buses so that they will not cause noise. In the hotel I am staying at, and in many Salzburg hotels, the television volume is capped at a moderate level so that it will not disturb guests in adjoining rooms.

This overall de-escalation of noise is not a denial of freedom, as certain Americans might define it (“we should have the right to do whatever we want”) but, rather, it opens the possibility to another, more meaningful kind of freedom—to think, to reflect, to create. This absence of irritating stimuli that make the heart race for all the wrong reasons permits the mind to focus on things of consequence. I dream more actively, and more creatively, in Salzburg than anywhere else. I believe that all the good music one hears in the city has a way of ordering the mind, unlocking synapses and steadying the pulse.

When I lived and worked in Italy for many years, Austria was something of a refuge for me. It is not that I needed to take refuge from the wonderful country and civilization that is Italy, but Austria offered a contrast that was, in its way, emotionally and spiritually enriching. Not everything here is perfect—no place is perfect—but Austria has a very unusual blend of Latin, Slavic and Germanic heritage and, as you move from town to town, different factors predominate.

Salzburg is much less Slavic than Vienna and has a pronounced blend of Bavarian rigor and precision combined with the somewhat anarchic but thrilling Italian flair for spontaneous creativity. There is a respectful but, at times, uneasy melding of Italian and Austrian cultures. Because much of my time in Italy was lived in places (Milan, Venice, Friuli-Venezia Giulia) which were under Austrian domination in the 19th century and that Verdi led the fight to end, one finds some overlap and jealousy about provenance of everything good. For example, is the succulent veal cutlet that is breaded and then fried in butter the Italian cotoletta alla milanese or the Austrian Wienerschnitzel?

Mozart thrived in Italy, where he learned advanced musical theory and composition in Bologna and had a success in Milan with Mitridate, Re di Ponto as a 14-year-old opera composer. His best librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, came from the Veneto but thrived in Austria. 

Italians are always a notable presence in Salisburgo and to hear them animatedly speak in the streets brings the realization that Mozart likely learned the language of most of his great operas in his home town. Every year at the Salzburg Festival, Italians figure prominently among the artists doing outstanding work. This year’s conductors include Paolo Carignani, Riccardo Chailly, Daniele Gatti and Riccardo Muti. Top Italian singers include Cecilia Bartoli, Luca Pisaroni and Desiree Rancatore. 

If you live in North America, you might not know Rancatore. She is a coloratura soprano from Sicily who, this week, sang the daunting role of Kostanze in Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail in the unusual venue of an airplane hangar at the city’s Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart airport, a performance transmitted live on Austrian television (watch the full archived broadcast). I did not see it but it was a topic of animated discussion the next day in cafes. One woman, referring to a scene that included a real helicopter, said to me, “It was like James Bond meets Mozart."

Salzburg has many appealing things to see, and not just landmarks and performances. There is the not uncommon sight of a young woman in a black dress cruising by on a bicycle with a cello case strapped to her back. This is how many musicians commute to work here. There is the visual satisfaction of seeing the domes of churches that Mozart knew, including the cathedral where he was baptized on a very cold winter day in 1756. Here is a link to the sound of the bells of Salzburg I did as part of a live report for WNYC’s Soundcheck on January 27, 1756, Mozart’s 250th birthday.

Around town are literary quotations in windows that make you pause, literally and figuratively, to think.  They are a result of the Salzburg Literary Festival. One by Salzburg author Gerhard Amanshauser (1928-2006) certainly made me pause: “Sterben ist Abschied von der Sonne” or, “To die is to take leave from the sun.”

One does not come to Salzburg for sunshine. Rain is part of the scene and brings with it a softening of ambient sound, a freshening of air, and a concentration of thought. A little book I carry around when I am here called Salzburg, Regen, which has an ingenious waterproof cover, is full of ideas about how to enjoy the city in the rain. It reports that Salzburg has 189.2 mm of rain per year compared to 116.6 mm in New York.

But the rain has shaped the city and given it character. Of great architectural interest in the old town are all the passages, little alleyways carved between buildings so that the experienced walker can get quite far without getting wet. The footsteps that echo in the passages are, for me, an unmistakable Salzburg sound. 

The rain also makes Salzburg incredibly verdant, much like other places—Ireland, Galicia, Panama—that have a lot of precipitation. The other morning, I had to get up to the Mönschsberg, the mountain in the middle of town that has museums and restaurants at the top. The rain was torrential, rather than the customary gentle drops. There is an elevator to reach it and I asked a local woman for directions. She indicated the way but then said, “it’s much nicer to walk!" When I got to the top (by elevator) and went for a stroll in the gorgeous park that occupies most of the mountain, I spoke to another woman. She told me she only comes here on rainy days because the air is fresh, the vegetation more fragrant, and there are fewer people to distract her from her thoughts.

When the sun returns to Salzburg, its impermanence fosters an intensification of focus, a sense of carpe diem. The Salzburg Effect is all about juxtapositions and contradictions, the experiencing of the familiar in new ways. This nourishment of the creative mind gladdens the heart and makes one feel more fully human.