Considered by many to be the greatest composer of all time, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) composed hundreds of pieces of music. Among his most famous works are Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music, 1787) and the operas Don Giovanni (1787) and Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute, 1791). He died of a mysterious fever at age 35.
One of the greatest violin virtuosos of our time, German-born Anne-Sophie Mutter has performed concerts in all the major music centers of Europe, the USA, and Asia. She celebrated her 30th stage anniversary in 2006 – which coincided with Mozart’s 250th anniversary—with a series of new recordings of all his major works for violin. About Mozart, she said: “He has always been present in my life. I’ve never stopped thinking about him, and I’ve always been trying out new ways to get closer to him. He’s the composer I have grown up with, who was always there waiting for me at every juncture of my career.”
Simply Charly: You said that you first fell in love with Mozart at the age of six. What was it about his music that enchanted such a young child?
Anne-Sophie Mutter: I was attracted to his life in general. I remember reading a biography of his early “wunderkind” years. We both started early to play the piano and the violin, and, of course, he then became a genius composer. But I felt a close bond just in the fact that we were both in love with these two instruments. And Mozart was the composer with whom I made my orchestra debut at the age of nine. Back then, when I played his second violin concerto, his music felt so simple, pure, and straightforward. Years later, I also began to understand how complex his music is. The most difficult part of playing Mozart is keeping the complexity transparent.
SC: You also said, “We hear differently from the way Mozart’s contemporaries did. And we can’t pretend to be able to go back to hearing as they did 250 years ago.” Can you explain just how we hear differently, and why?
ASM. The violins back then were strung differently; they had gut strings tuned lower, and they were not held on the shoulder but placed on the breastbone. The total dynamic sound production was way different, much more limited in terms of the largeness of sound because music was something you would entertain yourself and your friends within intimate surroundings. The Kings and Queens entertained themselves in their castles with the chamber music, with small orchestras. The violin itself had a much shorter neck, later the neck was elongated, and that contributed to a higher tension of the strings, so the strings were able to hold higher pressure and, therefore, produce larger and more focused sound. In the last 250 years, we had to adjust our way of playing to the size of modern halls. But I find it utterly fascinating to still be able to bring the intimacy of a small room to a large stage, which we can do with wonderful instruments like a Stradivarius, that has this mystical ability to be heard even in the last row of a large room and that has this body of sound which is present even in a whisper. Not just the string instruments have undergone changes, but also the body of a piano has dramatically changed from the 18th century to the 19th century. We had virtuosos like Paganini; he had a revolutionary view on how to compose for the violin. But Mozart was one of the first and great virtuosos on the fiddle, and he also was the one who brought the virtuoso style from Italy back to Germany and Austria. What is a pity is that we tend to neglect his father’s contribution to music history, but he also spoke on violin studies. He was analyzing vibrato, for example, that is another tool that we use differently today than in the 18th century; they used the so-called Italian tremolo in a way where they actually counted the number of hand movements per note, depending on how much expressivity they wanted to show. These days, we are a little more liberal with the use of vibrato.
SC: As a follow-up to the previous question, does the fact that we hear differently today mean that contemporary performers have to “update” the original compositions for the modern audiences or are these compositions performed exactly the same way they were in Mozart’s time?
ASM: There are many ways to look at a score, and music can only stay alive if we can change focus and viewpoints. It’s a little like Cezanne’s life—he was a wonderful French painter, who was fascinated by apples. And you can say that the apples are all the same, but Cezanne was able to view them with fresh eyes, with a different perspective, and that it is also what keeps me motivated in my music: to see it with fresh eyes and try to be careful, with all due respect to the composer.
SC: In 1816, another Austrian composer, Franz Schubert, attended a Mozart concert, and afterward wrote in his diary that the “Zaubertone”—magic sounds—of Mozart’s music kept echoing in him, impressions “that no time and no circumstances extinguish.” Is this assessment something you can relate to?
ASM: Yes. There are many other composers such as Tchaikovsky, for example, who said once about Mozart’s music that it is of such pureness, and it moves him so deeply that he feels the nearness to God stronger than with any other composer. Great art has a key to our hearts, which makes us tremble, and which gives us goosebumps and shelters us, and makes us more sensitive and vulnerable. That is true of Mozart’s music and I must say that one of the great times in my life was actually the period in which I was mostly dedicating concertos to his large sonatas – sixteen of them—and all the violin concerti, a time when I got to know this young composer. I mean, he only lived to the age of thirty-five, so we can’t really speak of an old master. But his development as a musician, the depth of his soul, and the beauty of his music are so overwhelming that every time I went on stage with Lambert Orkis or the LSO chamber players, we were enchanted and driven to tears. There is something in his music that is inexplicably heavenly, not only beautiful but almost tragic—tragedy is always around the corner in Mozart’s music. He very often wrote modulations from minor to major, and it just takes you by surprise. But, if you look at his life story, you’ll see that this man was driven by the need to be successful as a composer to survive. He has written so much that he must have worked day and night. Whatever he wrote was just perfect, and he never revised anything. That is truly amazing.
SC: Several years ago, The New York Times wrote that Mozart’s compositions, which are so familiar to us today, were, in their time, quite audacious. Was Mozart’s music considered innovative when he first composed and performed it?
ASM: I think that some of his operas were not understood, and some of them were not liked by society and especially by the Royals, because Mozart’s works were critical of the prevailing social morals of the time. I can only speak as a violinist about the way he treated the instrument. Look at the Concertante; He started to write it at a time when it became more and more fashionable to write in that style. Look at what development the piano and violin sonatas took because of him. He started out having the violin, as it was customary in the 18th century, to be like an enhancement of the melody hand, the right hand, and the piano. And it led the way for Beethoven to establish the violin as an independent equal to the piano. For that alone, you could say that he created a revolution, at least in the violin repertoire. He certainly has pushed the violin further than many other composers before him. It was such a luxury that he was such a virtuoso on the instrument, and therefore we have an enormous volume of pieces that many other composers, who were not like Beethoven or Brahms, were not able to produce.
SC: Many musicians say that one of their hardest challenges is bringing a sense of “newness” and adventure to a performance. How do you, who has performed Mozart’s compositions countless times, reinvent this sense of freshness and fun each time you play?
ASM: In my life, it’s quite the opposite because I am learning new things every day. Keeping it fresh is really not the problem. I think what is much more of a challenge, at least for me, is finding all the subtle details and interactions between the musical voices in a concerto, or even in a piano trio. He was such a great improviser, and that is something you have to bring back to his music, the sense of invention in the instant. There is a wonderful story about him. In the 18th century, people used to applaud in the middle of a performance, when they liked a virtuoso passage. Mozart wrote to his father that when the reprise came at that particular moment in one of his piano concertos, he tried to play it even more virtuoso, even more enchantingly, so that the audience would be even more appreciative. And some of that fresh dialogue with the audience you always have to try to bring into an evening.
SC: The Mozart Effect is a theory that listening to his music can stimulate or enhance intellect. This theory has been debated and debunked many times. What is your view?
ASM: I am not a neurologist, so I can’t really give you a very profound answer. Fact is that early music studies do help to develop the brain, and the more children are exposed to music, the faster the neurons in their brains are developed. Music-making does have a positive effect on the intellectual development altogether. And there are other benefits too: music teaches social skills, listening to others, learning to concentrate and building team spirit. I think that’s the bigger picture of the Mozart effect.
SC: Which of Mozart’s works are your personal favorites, and why?
ASM: There are so many, it’s very hard to pick just one. It could be the Sinfonia Concertante because of this heavenly second movement, it could be the G minor symphony, it could be any of his piano concertos. It could be almost anything. I must say that during the period in which I nearly exclusively played Mozart’s works for violin if you had asked me that question, I couldn’t answer it either. It is impossible. Because even the first minuet he wrote at a very early age is perfect in form and musical expression. So, I love them all.
SC: In 2006, to celebrate your 30th stage anniversary, as well as Mozart’s 250th anniversary, you launched the Mozart Project, a series of new recordings of all his major works for violin. Have your performances or interpretations of individual pieces changed over the past three decades?
ASM: I had up until then never played all his major sonatas; I have played some of his late ones, but not all sixteen. So I can’t say how my approach to these 16 sonatas has changed because I have only relatively recently started to study them. I can tell you that the violin concerto which has been part of my almost daily life as a violinist from the moment of my orchestra debut at the age of nine, has changed quite a bit also because in the year 2000 I started to lead orchestras to play these concerti without a conductor, just as Mozart used to do it. Leading means learning many other details about the score of all the different keys of the transposed winds, you have to be prepared for every possible question. Goethe once said: “what you don’t see you don’t see”. And it is true, what you don’t know about music you are not missing, but once you have learned it and once you see the miracle of details, the interaction between the second violin and the solo is just breathtaking. So was my rediscovery of Mozart, and during that period I also looked into the newest editions, which have only recently been published with phrasings and dynamics as close to Mozart’s original score as possible. That also gave me a number of new insights toward every section of the orchestra with a more chamber music-like approach with a smaller orchestra that Mozart had, and the primus inter pares has made my playing more subtle, more varied, more spontaneous, more like a debate, or a conversation with friends. We should not assume that Mozart really was dreaming of having his music performed only with small ensembles, but he just had to make do with the number of musicians he had. And there was a time when he—I think it was in Paris—mentioned that to his father in a letter: “Oh my God, today I had eight first violins and it just sounded gorgeous.” But the reason why I downsized the orchestra to a smaller group was just the fact that a smaller group can be more spontaneous and still feel comfortable without a conductor because each player has to take quite a responsibility. You can’t blame the conductor if something goes wrong, but you can’t blame the soloist either because he’s busy too. But that approach really helped me to come as close to Mozart’s style of performance as possible.