Anne-Sophie Mutter, 52, is regarded as the best violinist in the world. She owns two Stradivarius violins, an Emiliani from 1703 and a Lord Dunn-Raven Stradivarius from 1710, and believes that an instrument can take several hundred years to attain its peak performance. With her foundation she nurtures young talent. For her latest CD, “Live From the Yellow Lounge,” she ventured into the RAW-Gelände, a complex of derelict railway workshop buildings, now a counter-culture hub in the east Berlin neighborhood of Friedrichshain. This month, the mother of two will be performing at the Berlin Philharmonic.
Tagesspiegel: Ms. Mutter, you were a child prodigy, at 13 years old you performed with the star conductor Herbert von Karajan. Then came the launch of your international career. Do you have any tips for parents who want to get their children enthusiastic about learning an instrument?
Ms. Mutter: The best way is to start when the child is around five, without too much explanation. Just put a little fiddle, or a recorder, or a drum into the child’s hands. These instruments can also be borrowed. The most important thing is, though, that music plays a role in the everyday. The child has to feel that Mama and Papa think it’s cool. If classical music plays on the radio at breakfast time, it’s not going to be the end of the world. One does not always have to sit quietly in the corner, with the hands clasped.
For me it’s an obvious thing to take small children to the opera. Some don’t dare do that because they’re afraid the child will cause a disturbance. You don’t find these concerns in Eastern Europe or in the Far East. There are two possibilities: Either the child falls asleep or is enraptured. Opera can be as natural as going for a walk, or doing handicrafts.
Good, the child snatches up the recorder and blows into it. After an hour, the parents feel like their skulls will explode. What happens then?
Oropax. I can highly recommend the wax version. Look for a music school and let the child try out different instruments. It worked for my children.
There are many wonderful, enthusiastic music teachers. It's just that they have no standing in our society.
Tell me more about that.
Today my son plays piano, and tennis. My daughter got stuck on the recorder. Her relation to the instrument is not as intimate as I had hoped, but it led to an incredibly trained ear. Recently she was there when I played a concert in Salzburg, in memory of Herbert von Karajan, and told me she had been deeply moved. Why did it move her so, was it because her mother was up there, playing? No, it was because she had been given access to music from a very young age and so had been sensitized to it.
So, that means that parents need to actively introduce a child to music?
We can’t leave everything up to the politicians and the schools. And there are also many wonderful, enthusiastic music teachers. It’s just that they have no standing in our society. It’s not just that they’re paid miserably, but they’re not taken seriously either, because music is not regarded as a career skill.
There are also parents who don’t listen to classical music themselves, but still want their children to learn an instrument, as a status symbol. Can that work?
It will never be authentic. Music is something that you share. You don’t make it for someone else, rather with someone else. That’s why it’s also such a great vehicle for empathy. I’ve just read this book from the Dalai Lama, “Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World.” By his understanding, we are all born without religion, but not without the basic need for empathy. That reminds me of my love for music and my strong belief that music, starting as early as in kindergarten, can be a great bridge-builder; 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 the instrument which he or she wants 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 was like that. Not everyone has that kind of luck. Then it requires the complete withdrawal of the parents and a very patient music teacher who quite casually imparts the love of music to an adolescent. We don’t want to bring up a nation of professional musicians. Maybe sometime it will just “click”. Maybe the child will form a band at 13 or 14 years old. The main thing is that the seed is planted and nurtured. As it grows, it’s also OK 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.
And when there’s just no progress in lessons?
Then it’s the teacher’s fault. You know, your own child can’t possibly be that stupid. That can only be because of the teacher!
You’d have to laugh at that! In 1997 you started a foundation for the development of highly gifted young musicians. What do you aim to teach them?
My first scholarship student was Wei Lu, who is now concertmaster at the German Symphony Orchestra. I met him when he was 17 and brought him from Beijing to Europe. He was already technically very good at that time, he practiced like he was possessed. But he was completely foreign to our culture. So I went rowing with him and mountain climbing, I dragged him along to meet painter friends. For years he must have thought “This lady isn’t all there. I just want her to teach me the violin!” But I didn’t give him any violin lessons. Instead, I gave him books and the advice of Johannes Brahms, to do less practice and more reading. He’s become a wonderful musician, and hasn’t just remained a violin specialist. A great stroke of luck, because he’s grown as a person during his scholarship.
You also give concerts with your protégés. On your current CD you play with some of your students, “Mutter’s Virtuosi” in the now defunct “Neue Heimat” club on the RAW Grounds.
I’d played before in “Asphalt Club” on Gendarmenmarkt in central Berlin. That was an eye and ear-opener for me! That it worked and was also harmonious! The acoustics there were bad, too dry, because of the low roof. In “Neuen Heimat” in Friedrichshain we had much better conditions. What I like about those sorts of performances is how close you are to the audience. The people sit so close to the stage that you can feel them bodily, their silence, when they hold their breath, for example during the theme to “Schindler’s List.” It really got under my skin. It inspires, in a way that I really can’t explain.
I think it's a good thing for people to applaud between phrases. Audiences always behave themselves so darn decently.
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 did you feel that for the first time?
I can remember a Karajan concert, it must have been in 1977. He was conducting Anton Bruckner’s 7th Symphony. There, during the slow movement, I began to cry uncontrollably and I had to run out of the hall. It was extremely embarrassing. The music was so beautiful, of such an inner excitement and of such portent. I couldn’t bear it. That’s the moment where… it all becomes too much! Of course, such moments are especially beautiful, because you don’t experience them every day. That’s what art is for! In Amsterdam when I saw van Gogh’s picture of the field of wheat and the crows for the first time, I think I was 15, I was really shaken. This is what art should do to us: it should shake us out of our comfort zone, give us intense feelings. Then there is also the shared experience. With music that’s something different to a football match, where two teams play against each other. In music there is no competition, there we all give our best and we all meet on an island of souls. And it’s all made by human hands.
How does a classical concert work in the far-removed atmosphere of a club?
That’s partly what I found so energizing about the club audience, like what one reads about performances back in Mozart’s time: There, people clapped between phrases, there was improvization, there was real atmosphere in the place. That’s something that suits the music. I think it’s a good thing for people to applaud between phrases. Audiences always behave themselves so darn decently.
At these recitals you use the informal “Du” to address the audience. Why?
Well they’re about the age of my children and their friends, so it just feels natural.
This was new territory for you. Were you excited?
Oh yes. These two evenings were like a moon-landing for me. I love the repertoire that I’ve lived with for such a long time, but sometimes I like to show that the violin has a groovy soul within. It’s not so easy to show that in a concert hall, it needs a more intimate setting.
At the club concert it was really hot. Could that damage your Stradivarius?
The worst is rapid temperature change. When it slowly warms up, the wood reacts better and the risk of splitting isn’t as great. When it gets really hot, the handkerchief has to come out, so that the lacquer doesn’t get damaged by too much perspiration. The handkerchief has to go on the shoulder to protect the instrument.
You always wear off-the-shoulder dresses when you perform (this is because Anne-Sophie Mutter doesn’t use a shoulder rest when playing, and the violin needs the natural friction from the skin to stay in place)…
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. Just like you wouldn’t play piano wearing gloves.
And how does it feel against the skin?
Good! Of course one feels the vibrations, because the violin also rests on the collarbone, and you also get the vibrations through the jaw, so that you’re right in the midst of the sound.
As if one were singing?
You’re not just known for off-the-shoulder dresses, but for extravagant robes that almost make you look mermaid-like. Do these fashions also influence your playing?
If a dress like this forces one to stand up straight? I mean, really!
Now you’re laughing. Asked another way, could you play equally well in, for example, a tracksuit?
Ha ha, in an off-the-shoulder tracksuit? Seriously, it’s like a garment worn by a priest during ritual acts. It’s inseparable from the moment of the performance. I’ve found 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 on the day, the heat, maybe a hair that hangs in my eyes…
What do you do against these things?
Blink. Wait for the next orchestral 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 bow over it. And so she had to continue to play to the end with a completely limp bow. Vanity is all well and good, but on stage one has to watch that nothing happens that detracts from the work at hand. At the end of the day we are devoted and highly serious musicians – not models.
And when you have to board a plane with your violin?
Then I try to get to the front of the queue, so that I can stow it in the luggage compartment directly above my head. The violin case is longer than allowed under official norms for carry-on baggage, but I can’t make it any shorter.
And what about the security check? Do you let it go through the X-ray scanner?
I’ve spoken to violin makers and they’re of the opinion that it’s safer to let it pass through the X-ray than to be handled by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. The alternative is that I have to unpack it from its case. A customs official in Italy once tapped against 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, but they could not touch my violin. They went completely crazy. Their supervisor was much more understanding.
What exactly is the mystery behind an old instrument?
As esoteric as it sounds, violin players are convinced that an instrument takes on a completely individual sound from its player. Recently I played the violin of the legendary virtuoso Fritz Kreisler, who died in 1962. I’m telling you, it was freaky. Suddenly I sounded like Fritz Kreisler! A crazy experience. We all leave behind our genetic artistic imprint on an instrument, when we’ve played it for long enough. But that is something that only the artist feels. To an outsider, it all seems like black magic. My students, who were there, have confirmed all this to me.
So you’re saying that being a luthier must be a frustrating job, just producing blanks that can only reveal their magic after hundreds of years of use.
What I as a musician can leave behind is nothing. But the masterpiece of a violin maker can change the music world. I think that’s mad!
This article originally appeared in Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: email@example.com