Deceptive Cadence
12:45 pm
Fri June 14, 2013

Playing Mozart — On Mozart's Violin

Originally published on Mon June 24, 2013 10:21 am

The violin and viola that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart played himself are in the United States for the first time ever. The instruments come out of storage only about once a year at the Salzburg Mozarteum in Austria. The rest of the time, they're kept under serious lockup. I talked to the musicians who got to play them at the Boston Early Music Festival earlier this week before the violin's New York premiere at the Austrian Cultural Forum New York tonight.

I could feel my heart stop. My fingers were trembling. And I'm pretty sure I had a huge smile on my face as I tucked the violin under my chin. The instrument that Mozart used to perform his own concerts! And professional musicians got the same thrill at the Boston Early Music Festival.

For safety's sake, the violin and viola were flown here on separate airplanes. But the six-person team from the Salzburg Mozarteum who are safeguarding them don't make for a very flashy entourage. There are no huge, beefy guys in shades with crossed arms. No SUVs with blacked-out windows. Instead, there's just a small huddle of frankly not very intimidating-looking Middle Europeans.

"Our main thing is to travel so unspectacular as possible, that nobody should know what is inside the cases," says Gabriele Ramsauer, the director of the Mozart Museums. She and the rest of the team refer to the violin and the viola simply as "The Luggage," and the instruments are being held in an undisclosed location during the tour.

They were made in the early 17th 18th century as workhorse fiddles — sturdy and plain, and meant as tools. They're not as splendid or highly ornamented as the instruments you would find at a royal court during this time, or the instrument a full-time virtuoso would use. But they still are the vessels of Mozart's legacy.

The violin, made in Bavaria by a member of the Klotz family, was the one he most likely used to perform his own violin concertos on tour in Mannheim, Germany; and Paris. The viola is an Italian instrument of about the same period, but its maker is unknown. They're quieter than modern instruments and produce less brilliantly colored tones. They force the audience to lean in to appreciate them.

Backstage after the Boston concert, Miloš Valent said it was hard to describe the feeling he had playing the viola Mozart used in Vienna to jam with friends like Franz Joseph Haydn. "For a musician," Valent says, "who is living with music his whole life and Mozart is someone who is somebody who is really, really important in life, to touch his instrument is something extremely personal."

For her part, violinist Amandine Beyer says she couldn't help but wonder if she was channeling some special spirit when using Mozart's fiddle in Boston. "I had all the time this question! But I tried to call this spirit, no? And to say, 'Are you there?'" Beyer says, laughing. "But I think you can do it with every instrument when you play the music of Mozart."

That's exactly the kind of reaction the Mozarteum is hoping for, says its head of research, Ulrich Leisinger. "We listen to the concert and if we close the eyes, we perhaps even think of Mozart playing the violin," he says. "There are typically two methods to deal with historic instruments. One would be to say that we lock it in a shrine and never let anybody touch it again. But we are entirely convinced that you need to play the instruments because these are the messengers of Mozart's music."

And when the musicians in Boston finished playing, not only did they take their bows — but they also thrust the violin and viola forward for their own well-deserved round of applause.

With special thanks to our friends at Classical New England for providing the recordings of the Jordan Hall concert heard in this piece. Next week, we'll have a complete concert video featuring more performances on Mozart's violin and viola, recently recorded live at WGBH's Fraser Performance Studio.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. The violin and viola that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart played more than 200 years ago are kept in careful storage in Salzburg, Austria. They're only taken out once a year and this year, for the first time ever, those instruments have been brought to the U.S. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas got an introduction.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: I could feel my heart stop, my fingers were trembling, and I'm pretty sure I had huge smile on my face as I tucked this violin under my chin - the instrument that Mozart used to perform his own concerts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRA MUSIC)

TSIOULCAS: Professional musicians got the same thrill at the Boston Early Music Festival.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRA MUSIC)

TSIOULCAS: For safety's sake, the violin and viola were flown here on separate airplanes. But the six-person team from the Salzburg Mozarteum who are safeguarding them, don't make for a very flashy entourage. There are no huge, beefy guys in shades with crossed arms, no SUVs with blacked-out windows. Instead, there's just a small huddle of frankly, not very intimidating-looking Middle Europeans.

GABRIELE RAMSAUER: A main thing is to travel so unspectacular as possible, that nobody should know what is inside these cases.

TSIOULCAS: Gabriele Ramsauer, the director of the Mozart Museums, and the rest of the team refer to the violin and the viola simply as "the luggage." The instruments are being held in an undisclosed location during the tour. They were made in the early 17th century as workhorse fiddles. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Mozart's violin and viola were made around the year 1700 - at the beginning of the 18th century.] They're quieter than modern instruments, and they produce less brilliantly colored tones. They force the audience to lean in, to appreciate them.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRING MUSIC)

TSIOULCAS: Backstage after the Boston concert, Milos Valent said it was hard to describe the feeling he had, playing the viola Mozart used in Vienna to jam with friends like Franz Joseph Haydn.

MILOS VALENT: For musician who is living with music his whole life, Mozart is somebody who is really, really important. To touch his instrument is something extremely personal.

TSIOULCAS: For her part, violinist Amandine Beyer says she couldn't help but wonder if she was channeling some ancient spirit when using Mozart's fiddle in Boston.

AMANDINE BEYER: I had all the time this question. But I tried to call this spirit, no? And to say, are you there? (Laughing) But I think you can do it with every instrument, when you play the music of Mozart.

TSIOULCAS: That's exactly the kind of reaction the Mozarteum is hoping for, says its head of research, Ulrich Leisinger.

ULRICH LEISINGER: If we close the eyes, we perhaps even think about Mozart playing the violin. But there are typically two methods to deal with historic instruments. One would be to say, we lock it in a shrine and never let anybody touch it again. But we are entirely convinced that you need to play the instruments because these are the messengers of Mozart's music.

TSIOULCAS: And when the musicians in Boston finished playing, not only did they take their bows, they thrust the violin and viola forward for their own, well-deserved round of applause.

Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News.

BLOCK: And tonight, Mozart's violin is in New York, where it's being played in a concert at the Austrian Cultural Forum. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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