Before the War, Hitzacker had been a little town on the Elbe River with a population of about 2,000. In 1945 its population was doubled by the stream of refugees from the East. Among them were a number of musicians who put on concerts in private homes and churches. In the summer of 1946 they organized the first Hitzacker Summer Music Festival. With the dramatic tone of patriotic German dedication to art, its founders aimed at erecting “a stronghold of Germany’s most noble culture, here on free Germany’s border”.
The first five festivals took place under the auspices of the City of Hitzacker. Hans Döscher, a cellist from Berlin, was the Artistic Director (up until his death in 1971). He sharpened the festival’s unique profile, presenting a broad range of ancient and modern chamber music. Over the years, this has remained the festival’s basic principle. In 1947, a work by Paul Hindemith was performed for the first time, and a year later new compositions were premiered. In the same year, an historic instrument, the viola da gamba, was heard for the first time in Hitzacker.
The City of Hitzacker declared that, for financial reasons, it would no longer be able to present the festival. Döscher pushed for the foundation of a “Society of Friends of the Hitzacker Summer Music Festival”, to give the festival a solid organizational foundation. On February 24th, 1951, 18 of the town’s citizens founded the society. The meeting was held in the ballroom of the Waldfrieden Hotel, where many of the festival’s concerts took place and the first radio broadcasts were made in 1952. – The Society, which is a volunteer organization, has been responsible for presenting the festival ever since.
Monteverdi’s early opera “Orpheus” (presented in 1955) was one of the high points of the Döscher era in Hitzacker. The Deutsche Grammaphon recorded the production, making a considerable contribution to Hitzacker’s national and international notoriety.
Hans Döscher’s death and the appointment of Guenther Weissenborn as Artistic Director marked the beginning of a new era in Hitzacker. More room was made in the program for music of the 20th century. The festival’s first commission for a composition was made in 1973, to Guenter Bialas. A decade later, it was the 21-year-old Wolfgang Rihm’s turn. Many were to follow and with the international composition competition in 1974 contemporary composition became a hallmark of the Hitzacker festival.
This year saw the Hitzacker Summer Music Festival move to the town’s newly-opened “resort center” (today, it bears the name of VERDO).
During his last festival year, Weissenborn invited Rudolf Kelterborn to be composer in residence, starting a tradition that has been carried on ever since. In the following years, such international stars as Isang Yun, Krzysztof Penderecki, Jörg Widmann and Daniel Ott have composed in and for Hitzacker. The encouragement of young music, but also of young musicians has been high on the festival’s agenda ever since. Among those whose international careers have profited from performances in Hitzacker were Evgeni Koroliov, Sabine Meyer, the Trio Fontenay, the Amadeus and Auryn Quartets, Baiba Skrida and Sol Gabetta.
After one year with Eduard Brunner, the festival appointed Wolfgang Boettcher as Artistic Director, a position he served in for six years. His aim was the implementation of a broader concept of what chamber music is, including works from the present and the past as far back as the Middle Ages. The music of Jewish composers and others who were subject to Nazi persecution was brought back to life during this time. “Moonlight Concerts” provided relaxing entertainment.
By the time Claus Kanngiesser became Artistic Director the Hitzacker Summer Music Festival had quite a tradition to be nurtured and developed. “Neighboring arts” such as dance, jazz, literature and visual arts were stressed, as was a dedication to bringing artists and audiences closer together, something that the setting in Hitzacker had made a specific aspect of the festival from the very beginning.
The young musicologist and cultural scientist Dr. Markus Fein was the first Artistic Director who was not a performing musician. And he lost no time in implementing new highlights. The Audience Academy, a program that combines the experience of music with an understanding of what one is listening to, has become a trademark of the Hitzacker Summer Music Festival. The same is true of various programs aimed a new audiences. And as more and more large and small festivals came onto the market, Hitzacker was compelled to sharpen its musical profile as well. This process led to programming which made every concert part of a larger thematic composition. Dr. Fein served as Artistic Director until 2011; today, he is Director of the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Festival.
The internationally renowned violinist Carolin Widmann was named Artistic Director. Her very first festival program, “Exile”, was a strong statement of her programmatic creativity. With Carolin Widmann’s expansion of the festival scope to include such highlights as a “Late Night Lounge” series, a Festival Academy for young music students, pre-concert and post-concert audience sessions and a sustainability concept she has remained true to the festival’s motto: “Tradition and Today – Up to Date since 1946.” Or as the critic for the North German Broadcasting Corporation put in in August 2013:
“The bottom line: Hitzacker is and remains to be a place for discovery, experiment, intensive debate. Fantastic!”
The violinist Oliver Wille, member of the Kuss Quartet, Professor of String Chamber Music at the Hannover University of Music, Drama and Media, Director of the String Quartet Academy at the Birmingham Conservatoire (England) and a renowned chamber music program director was appointed artistic director of the festival.