Lucerne, 25 August 1938. In the gardens facing Richard Wagner's villa in Tribschen, the legendary Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini lifts his baton to conduct an élite orchestra specially assembled for the occasion. Among the musicians he has gathered together are renowned soloists and virtuoso chamber musicians, above all the Busch Quartet at the first desks of the strings, while the main body of the orchestra is filled from the ranks of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. The opportunity to play or hear musical masterpieces against the idyllic backdrop of Lake Lucerne seems to many people like a ray of hope in an age of darkness. First Germany and now Austria have fallen into the clutches of Nazi dictatorship; artists of the stature of Toscanini and his colleagues Bruno Walter and Fritz Busch have refused to perform at the Bayreuth or Salzburg Festivals, if only for ethical reasons. But Switzerland is independent and free, and Lucerne, with its picturesque historic Old Town, seems preordained for a music festival. So it is no coincidence that this 25 August should witness the birth of today’s LUCERNE FESTIVAL, which has attracted the musical crême de la crême every summer down to the present day: orchestras and conductors, vocal and instrumental soloists, and ensembles from every corner of the globe.
Click here for a detailed account of the birth of LUCERNE FESTIVAL and Toscanini's "Concert de Gala."
Much has changed, of course, in the nearly 75 years of the Festival's existence. Its first season in 1938 included only ten concerts. Since then it has grown by leaps and bounds – some 120,000 music lovers visit the Festival every year – and it has become more diverse. Since 1988 music buffs from countries everywhere come to Lucerne at Easter, and since 1998 LUCERNE FESTIVAL at the Piano, devoted entirely to the art of pianism, has taken place in late autumn. The annual parade of the world's foremost orchestras began in the latter half of the 1950s with guest performances by the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics. The 1970 Festival was the first to be given a special theme – an idea that has remained alive ever since. The same year witnessed the invitation of a contemporary composer whose music was made the focal point of the Festival’s program. At that time the new series was called "Perspectives"; today it is known as "composer-in-residence." The Début Recitals, initially advertised as "Young Soloists," was launched in summer 1973. An annual array of artistes étoiles has graced the Festival's program since 1999. An excellent new concert hall, designed by French star architect Jean Nouvel, has been at the Festival's disposal since 1998. But Arturo Toscanini's vision of presenting stellar performances far removed from duty rosters and workaday routine has remained alive. It was revitalized and reached a new flowering with foundation of the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ORCHESTRA under Claudio Abbado, which has opened the summer season since 2003. And since 2004 the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY, headed by Pierre Boulez, has provided the Festival with its own educational institution, introducing highly gifted young musicians to the art of performing modern music.
A year-by-year overview can be found in the right-hand column of this page.