Passing On the Magic
Star violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter talks about finding the soul of a Stradivarius, how to awaken a child’s passion for music, and why concertgoers shouldn’t be so well-behaved.
Anne-Sophie Mutter, 52, is widely considered to be the world’s greatest living violinist. She owns two Stradivarius violins made in the early 1700s and believes an instrument can take centuries to reach peak performance. For her latest CD,“Live From the Yellow Lounge,” she ventured into a warehouse-turned-nightclub to play for Berlin’s night crawlers.
Handelsblatt: You were a child prodigy, performing with the legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan when you were 13. How can parents instill enthusiasm in their child for learning an instrument? Mutter: The best way is to start when the child is about five, without too much explanation. Just put a little violin, recorder or drum into the child’s hands. You can even borrow the instruments. The most important thing is for music to play an everyday role. The child has to feel that mama and papa think it’s cool. You could do worse than play some classical music on the radio at breakfast time.
Take small children to the opera. Some parents don’t dare because they’re afraid the child will cause a disturbance. Two things can happen: Either the child falls asleep or is enraptured. Opera can be as natural as doing handicrafts.
So the child picks up a recorder and starts blowing. After an hour, the parents’ skulls are about to explode. What do you do?
Earplugs. I highly recommend the wax version. Look for a music school and let the child try out various instruments. It worked for my children.
Tell me more.
Today my son plays piano and tennis. My daughter got stuck on the recorder. Her connection with the instrument isn’t as intimate as I’d hoped, but it led to an incredibly trained ear. Recently she was at a concert I played in Salzburg and told me she’d been deeply moved.
Was it just because her mother was playing?
No, it was because she’d been given access to music from a very young age and had developed that sensibility.
So parents need to actively introduce a child to music?
We can’t leave everything to the schools. There are also many wonderful, enthusiastic
Classical cool: Mutter performs for the club-crawling crowd at Berlin venue Neue Heimat.
music teachers. They have no standing in our society. They’re paid miserably and not taken seriously, because music is not seen as a career skill.
People sit so close to the stage you can feel them physically, their silence, when they hold their breath. It really got under my skin.
There are parents who have no interest in classical music but want their children to learn an instrument as a status symbol. Does that work?
It will never be authentic. Music is something that you share. You don’t make music for someone, you make it with someone. It’s also such a great vehicle for empathy. Music can be a great bridge-builder as early as kindergarten, because it teaches patience and respect for other cultural roots. We need that urgently.
How does one nurture a child’s enthusiasm without overwhelming it?
In the ideal case, a child finds an instrument they want to be friends with. Then things happen pretty much naturally. The child doesn’t want to stop. I was lucky that my first violin teacher made learning like a game. Naturally we wish that all learning could be like that.
But not everyone is that lucky.
Then the parents should withdraw completely, and let a very patient music teacher quite casually impart the love of music. We don’t want to bring up a nation of professional musicians. Maybe sometimes it will just “click.” Maybe the child will form a band at 13 or 14 years old. The main thing is to plant and nurture the seed. It’s okay if they don’t develop the will to perfect an instrument. But even simply listening is very different if one has already honed the senses for it. Is there ever a moment when one should say,“Child, there’s no point. Best just drop it.” I would never say that.
But what if there’s just no progress with the lessons?
Then it’s the teacher’s fault. Naturally your own child can’t possibly be that stupid. It must be because of the teacher! (Laughs.)
In 1997 you started a foundation to support gifted young musicians. What do you do for them as a teacher?
My first scholarship student, Wei Lu, is now concertmaster at the German Symphony Orchestra [in Berlin]. I met him when he was 17 and brought him from Beijing to Europe. His technique was already very good, and he practiced like he was possessed. But our culture was completely foreign to him. So I went rowing with him and mountain hiking, dragged him along to meet artist friends. For years he probably thought “This lady is nuts, all I want her to do is teach me violin!” But I didn’t give him any violin lessons. Instead, I gave him books along with Johannes Brahms’ advice to practice a little less and read a little more. He’s now a wonderful musician, and hasn’t just remained a violin specialist. He grew as a person during the scholarship.
You also give concerts with your protégés. For your latest CD, you played with some of your students in a Berlin nightclub, not the first time you played in club.
I’d played before at the Asphalt Club in central Berlin. That was an eye and ear-opener for me not only did it work, but it was harmonious. What I like is how close you are to the audience. People sit so close to the stage you can feel them physically, their silence, when they hold their breath. It really got under my skin. It inspires in a way that I really can’t explain.
We’re not just sending out sound. In an ideal scenario we’re also receiving stimuli from the audience. We’re listening to you.
When was the first time music got under your skin that way?
A Karajan concert, it must have been 1977. He was conducting Anton Bruckner’s 7th Symphony. During the slow movement, I started to cry uncontrollably and had to run out of the hall. The music was so beautiful, I couldn’t bear it. That’s the moment when it all becomes too much. This is what art should do to us: it should shake us out of our comfort zone, give us intense feelings.
How does a classical concert work in a nightclub?
What I found so exciting about the club audience was that it reminded me of what we know about performances back in Mozart’s time: People clapped between movements, the musicians improvized, there was so much energy in the place. It’s a good thing to applaud between movements. Audiences always behave so darn respectably.
The air in the club was really hot. Doesn’t that damage your Stradivarius?
If the wood warms up slowly, the risk of splitting isn’t so great. When it gets really hot, I have to have a handkerchief on my shoulder, so the lacquer doesn’t get damaged by too much perspiration.
You always wear off-the-shoulder dresses when you perform.
I would die if I had to wear sleeves. It can’t be done. The most important thing is skin contact. It feels simply wonderful when you can lay the violin against your skin. It’s about intimacy. You wouldn’t play piano wearing gloves.
Could you play equally well in, for example, a tracksuit?
Ha ha, you mean an off-the-shoulder tracksuit? [Always wearing the same type of dress is] a way to make sure there’s one less thing bothering me. I already have enough problems to deal with when I perform. The repertoire, how I feel that day, the heat, maybe a loose hair dangling into my eyes...
What do you do then?
Blink. Wait for the next orchestra passage when I can wipe the stupid thing away. One of my students, a Korean girl with beautiful long hair, failed in a competition because, during a particularly wild passage, her hair, wet from sweat, fell across the bridge and she pulled the violin’s bow over it. Vanity is all well and good, but on stage one has to watch that nothing detracts from the work at hand. At the end of the day we’re very serious musicians – not models.
How do you board a plane with your violin?
I try to get to the front of the line, so I can stow it in the overhead. The case is longer than carry-on regulations allow, but I can’t make it any shorter.
What about the security check?
Violin makers tell me it’s safer to let it pass through the X-ray than let someone handle it who doesn’t know what they’re doing. A customs officer in Italy once tapped the wood with his fingernail. I almost killed him! The mark he made on the instrument is still visible. In America I even missed a plane once because I refused to hand over the instrument. I said I would do anything they wanted except let them touch my violin. They went completely crazy. Their supervisor was more understanding.
Take small children to the opera. Either they fall asleep or are enraptured. Opera can be as natural as doing handicrafts.
What exactly is the mystery behind an old instrument?
As esoteric as it sounds, violinists are convinced a violin takes on a completely individual sound from its player. Recently I played the violin that belonged to the legendary virtuoso Fritz Kreisler, who died in 1962. It was freaky. Suddenly I sounded like Fritz Kreisler! To an outsider, it seems like black magic.
It must be frustrating for violin makers to essentially produce a blank slate that only reveals its magic after hundreds of years of use.
What I leave behind as a musician is nothing. But a violin maker’s masterpiece can change the music world. I think that’s mad!
Mutter‘s nightclub concert in Berlin included pieces by Aaron Copland and Claude Debussy. Frederik Hanssen and Esther Kogelboom write for Handelsblatt’s sister publication, the Berlin daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, where this interview first appeared.