BBC Music Magazine
Freya Parr treats herself to a festival in Augsburg
Say the name Mozart, and Wolfgang will nearly always be the first person we think of. But in the Bavarian city of Augsburg – just an hour outside of Munich – there’s another Mozart taking centre stage this year. Wolfgang’s father Leopold was born and raised here, leaving at the age of 17 to study in Salzburg. Augsburg is Germany’s third-oldest city, once home to some of the greatest artists and musicians of its day, but Leopold remains its biggest export. The city celebrates its cultural heritage with the annual German Mozart Festival, with the latest instalment extended from its usual two-week run to a year-long celebration of Leopold’s 300th anniversary.
Augsburg may sound familiar to those with an interest in history. The Peace of Augsburg ended conflict between Protestants and Catholics in 1555 and guaranteed people of both faiths the right to practise here. ‘It became a liberal city quite early in its history, which was rare for the south,’ the German Mozart Festival’s artistic director Simon Pickel tells me. ‘It’s now known as the city of peace.’ A boom in the banking and metal businesses helped bring wealth to the area, which, combined with Augsburg’s liberal attitudes, created a rich cultural scene. This nurtured the talents of artists and musicians – not least a young Leopold Mozart.
Restricted to the borders of history, Leopold is often remembered only as the tyrannical father who pushed his gifted son to achieve musical greatness. The history books may not have been kind to Leopold, but his birth city of Augsburg is keen to reassess his story. ‘When you watch films like Amadeus, Leopold is often portrayed as a caricature and a villain, which wasn’t
wholly true,’ says Pickel. ‘Reading the letters between them, it’s clear they [father and son] really loved each other.’
Leopold’s profound influence on Wolfgang is undeniable. He was a marketing man, sacrificing his own career as a court musician and composer to give Wolfgang a platform for success. He continually wrote letters home while they were on the road; these were shared around the community and acted as a public newsletter, advertising Wolfgang’s musical ventures. Many are now displayed as part of a special anniversary exhibition at Augsburg’s textile museum, a building previously used as a spinning mill and the focal point for the city’s once-thriving textile industry. The letters are displayed alongside garments worn at the time, jewellery believed to have been owned and worn by the Mozart family and an original copy of Leopold’s textbook, A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing. Published in 1756, it remains an influential book on performance practice, having been republished in various languages and multiple editions.
Although the anniversary year in Augsburg is a great opportunity to hear Leopold’s rarely performed or recorded choral and chamber works, his music is by no means at the centre of every concert. In fact, Pickel admits that composition may not have been Leopold’s strongest asset. ‘Leopold composed for the day, simply for entertainment,’ he says. ‘It was often just written and thrown away. When you have anniversaries of lesser-known composers, you always focus on the music, and it’s then forgotten. We wanted to shine a light on Leopold’s other achievements.’
That’s why you’ll see works such as Schubert’s Death and the Maiden on the programme. ‘All chamber music links back to Leopold’s influence,’ adds Pickel, who is determined to present Leopold as more than just a composer and overbearing father, emphasising his role as a great communicator who shaped music for years to come through his teaching .
But music is, of course, at the heart of the celebrations this year. One of the concerts I attend is violinist Isabelle Faust’s solo Bach recital in the majestic Augsburg Golden Hall. It’s a simple town hall building: historic and inviting, but nonetheless modest. Inside, however, is an impressive stage, complete with Rococo frescos and an elaborate gold ceiling.
The concerts in Leopold’s anniversary year make the most of the city’s unusual venues, from the magnificent Baroque Schaezlerpalais to the somewhat unimaginatively named ‘Small Golden Hall’, part of the Jesuit college where Leopold was educated from the age of five, which is a perfect space for intimate chamber concerts.
The anniversary celebrations will draw to an end in November with a finale concert on Leopold’s birthday: Christian Tetzlaff will join the Augsburg Philharmonic Orchestra to perform a programme of Leopold Mozart, alongside the premiere of a specially commissioned work by Moritz Eggert and music by violinist and composer Joseph Joachim. ‘Leopold has never had the spotlight,’ says Pickel. ‘So this year is a chance to bring him out of the shadows.’ Perhaps he’s right. It’s time to reassess the role of Leopold, and a trip to Augsburg seems like a good place to start.
Details of Augsburg’s German Mozart Festival can be found at mozartstadt.de
‘Leopold is portrayed as a caricature and a villain – which isn’t wholly true’