Anne-Sophie Mutter, why do we hear only a few of Mozart’s violin sonatas? Are they really so unattractive to a violinist?
To say ‘only a few’ is something of an exaggeration. The ones that I’ve chosen are the great violin sonatas. The early works have never interested me, as the violin merely accompanies the right hand—as it does with Haydn. Then there are several keyboard sonatas that were later turned into violin sonatas. I think that with our selection of 16 sonatas we have covered three important creative periods in the life of an already mature composer: the Mannheim period and the two phases of his time in Vienna. I’m not out to prove that I’ve recorded all that Mozart ever wrote for the violin and piano. This survey contains the works that are important to me personally and that are central to Mozart’s output as a composer.
What criteria did you use in deciding which sonatas to programme as part of your three concerts?
I chose the most important works from all three creative periods—the Mannheim period and the middle and later periods in Vienna. And I tried to order them in such a way that they make musical sense but are also manageable from a technical point of view. One would never start a programme with K. 378, for example: that would be utter suicide. And it also goes without saying that the works that one chooses to open a programme should begin with a fanfare or a similar theme and be very straightforward and extrovert. More introverted works tend to be found in the middle of a programme. It is a question of ensuring that each recital represents a self-contained survey and that a constant development is discernible, culminating in the compositional high point of the programme’s final sonata.
Mozart speaks of the sonatas that he started in Mannheim in 1778 and completed in Paris as ‘keyboard duets with violin’. How does one interpret this phrase today?
That was simply a formula that people used at that time. It really doesn’t matter if they’re called ‘sonatas for violin and piano’ or the other way round. Neither the violin nor the piano has priority. Without this interaction, chamber music in general is impossible. It’s not a question of who has more notes to play or whose part is more important. Ultimately, the themes are divided equally between the two instruments even in the middle group of works from the Viennese period. I think it’s tremendous that in the late sonatas the violin, together with the piano, already takes over a theme in the middle of the phrase and then hands it back to the piano. Mozart achieves this to magisterial effect in the Sonata K. 454. We shouldn’t direct our gaze at superficialities such as who comes in first or who has more notes to play. It’s simply great chamber music, which demands of both musicians a supreme willingness to listen and a supreme readiness to be honest.
How do you assess the technical demands of these Mozart sonatas?
In a number of them there are some very tricky bits, something that violinists know very well. In the E flat major Sonata K. 380 there are a number of passages that are decidedly awkward. The sonatas are demanding from first to last. For me, the difficulty of Mozart’s music lies not in the passage-work but in such things as the rondos. Take the rondo of the E flat major Sonata. To what extent should you delay the upbeat, or should you not delay it at all? The phrasing is the big problem, but it is also the key to Mozart’s music. For me, these sonatas are little operatic scenes. If you look at his letters, his handwriting—it very often goes round in a circle. These letters are really miniature works of visual art. Equally striking are the theatrical descriptions that his letters contain. For me, these sonatas are like narratives. Mozart never left the operatic stage, not even in his chamber music. This brings us back to the question of phrasing and to such tiny details as the upbeat or a phrase ending. The upbeats of the dance movements are incredibly important in this respect. Here there are whole worlds for me to explore: the musical structure that has to be brought out.
How shall I convey the shadow and light of our last evening in Amsterdam? The shadow was within me, the light came from you. In the salon, Klaas, Lia, Joost and I watched you and Ingrid playing Mozart’s Violin Sonata in B-flat major, K. 454. As I listened to you render Mozart’s humanity through your capacity to listen to each other, I thought of Lia’s evolutionary tree—the birds from the reptiles—and wondered: What am I? Marietta, when your gaze met mine on that patio in Princeton, I felt the crack of the egg; I felt my serpent’s tooth making me an opening: I slithered out, I learned to crawl, but I still haven’t learned to fly. When will I? Listen! Your violin effortlessly takes over a theme in the middle of a phrase and then hands it back to Ingrid’s piano, leaving a thrill to run through me. Once again I am blown away by your virtuosity; once again I am moved by your virile femininity: In your flats, T-shirt and jeans, in your black and white and gold and green, you send me as you soar. Listen! You and Ingrid are so entwined that I can’t tell when she takes the cantabile out of your bow and when she puts it back: I simply let the ravishing lyricism of the Andante course through my veins.
And now once again I am overcome with love, once again I give thanks for the light: And then the shadow falls. I can’t forget the abortive search, the darkness of asylum; I can’t forget the silent screams, the air grabbed in gasps. Yes, I remember the dread of impending madness, the head-banger banging at my door; I remember the days when I couldn’t be still, fearing I’d lose myself, forget to think about myself, slip out of reality. I’d watch the clock, keep busy, for if I didn’t I’d no longer know who I am. I tried to read, but reading had become a game of infinite regression, an exercise in stealth: Persecuted by my own lucidity, obliged to be constantly aware of myself, I couldn’t accept the coin of signifiers lest it depredate my soul. No girl’s touch came to remind me that the most immediate, the most trustworthy, the most integral source of knowledge is the body.
Then again, I didn’t have a body. I was weightless, a wisp of smoke escaping from the citadel of myself, a faint signal of a murdered soul: I was an idiot. Look! Walking across a field of white, a boy feels a tremor running up his spine: He’s just realized the bare feet trudging through the snow are commanded by his mind. Look! The girl in the school bus, the terror in her eyes as the boy stares into them: ‘Know me. I want you to know me’. Look! The creeping rootstalks, the tender grass—look at the boy watching them grow; the mangy dog, the stray cat—see them licking his face. I can’t forget, I can’t forget, I can’t forget! And then once again I am overcome with love, once again I give thanks for the light: You’re tirelessly improvising, creating music in the moment: In the reprise the theme is never the same. Marrying inventive brilliance with intimacy and simplicity, virtuosity and gallantry with purity of soul, you honour the artist whose impeccable taste compelled the chaos at the heart of man to become a cosmos. And I, what am I? Crawling on the ground yet aspiring to fly, what am I?
From Jean Starobinski, The Invention of Liberty (Geneva: Editions Skira, 1964 | New York: Rizzoli International, 1987) pp. 9-11
The eighteenth century must be distinguished from its legend. In the early nineteenth century, Europe began to conjure up a nostalgic picture of the preceding century as an age of elegance and frivolity, of sharp wit and uninhibited manners, solely intent on the culpable and delightful pursuit of unrestrained enjoyment. The century of iron, of industry, of democratic revolutions saw another age fading into the past, complete with its masks and gay ribbons, a golden age of mellow, comfortable living, in which even death and war, with their flourish of fine lace, were supposedly neither real death nor real war. Especially after the mid-century the nostalgia and desire for self-justification of the well-to-do led them to construct a philosophy of history—consisting of a mythology of the ancien régime. This philosophy combined a longing for the eighteenth century’s unrestricted gaiety with an indictment of its fatal irresponsibility. For though the bourgeois classes would have liked to retain certain aspects of this vanished age, they were forced to admit that like an attractive fruit hiding and nourishing a worm the eighteenth century contained a sense of nihilism which was to facilitate the development of the ‘subversive spirit.’ The middle classes owed everything to the Revolution, yet they regarded the Revolution as the breach through which evil had entered the world.
We must try to show the eighteenth century as it really was, in all its complexity and gravity, with its taste for the original reassessments of great principles; for it is still present behind all our contemporary undertakings and problems. We are historians: it produced or at least imposed the modern notion of history. We contemplate the arts: it saw the rise of independent aesthetic reflection. If in the actual practice of the fine arts it was not a century of decisive revolution it was at least open to experimentation, exaggerations and conflicts. Critics and philosophers began to voice their opinions about the arts (sometimes untowardly). For they did not merely argue about the means chosen by the artist, they examined its ends and the possibility of making enlightened judgments which might reveal the essential characteristics of the beautiful and the sublime. The men of the eighteenth century were not content simply to experience the pleasure afforded by works of art: they wanted to assess the particular characteristics of these works and situate them in the perspective of some universal plan of the development of humanity. These anxious critical questions about the function of art did eventually have some effect on the artists themselves, though the aesthetic theories did not necessarily influence them immediately. Diderot’s Salons and his Essai sur la Peinture, Burke’s Enquiry, Lessing’s Laocoon not only commented on works of art already completed, they evoked a still unrealized art and outlined a potential creative mind which the next generation of artists were to emulate in their works and in their lives.
This is a far cry from the image of a frivolous eighteenth century. At the same time, however, the picture of licentiousness to which it has tended to be reduced is not altogether unjustified. It represents one of many experiments possible with liberty: libertinism is an aspect of precisely that liberty without which little progress would have been possible in philosophical reflection. The most representative men of the century desired their freedom in order to seek alike immediate pleasure and fundamental truths; they sought enjoyment, but also critical understanding.
At the beginning of the century the philosopher John Locke formulated, in theory, this attitude towards life. Opposing Descartes, who maintained that the ‘soul’ thinks continuously, possesses innate ideas and is therefore always assured of its own existence, Locke affirmed that the soul has ideas only after sensations and that thought depends entirely on material supplied by sensory experience: far from being able to depend on innate ideas the soul is only conscious of its existence at the instant of sensation, or when reflection actively compares the traces left by sensations. So nothing is more variable than our consciousness of existing, and nothing is more necessary than to try to vary our sensations and thereby to multiply our ideas. An unoccupied mind is in a sense annihilated. Fortunately, natural human impatience and uneasiness never leave us in peace : we are forever urged to escape from the anxiety of emptiness and to seek, through outside sensations and fleeting thoughts, a fullness and intensity that must be continually renewed. This particular style of living characterizes the aimlessness of the eighteenth century: all its activities are fugitive and ephemeral, from the pursuit of pleasure to the expansion of trading or the exploration of nature, for they belong entirely to the present moment, and that moment is instantly past.
From the outset, the theoretical reasoning of this ‘rationalist’ century recognized the absolute domination of passion in poetry and the fine arts. It is true that the images of the passions evoked in 1718 are not so vehement as those of the Romantics, but from the very beginning the work of art was given the psychological function of exciting the emotions through surprise and intensity. The work could be defined in terms of its subjective effect: it was to jolt the mind out of sluggishness and idleness, and by means of vivid images evoke an instant of high emotion and excitement, of mental or physical stimulation. Following the tradition of profane humanism, art was directed towards the individual—amateur or specialist. With the invention of perspective, as Panofsky has shown, a picture is presented to an individual consciousness which is in the privileged position of controlling the ‘point of view’ around which the pictorial space is organized.
If, as a result, this isolated human consciousness comes to experience its own ‘duration’ as a succession of intermittent instants, divided by long periods of negation, this will not deprive it of its central, privileged position; in the event, however, we find that aesthetic emotion was merely one of the resources which men used excessively in order to intensify and stimulate the momentary joy of sensing their own vital existence. Consequently art itself was to become more expressive, impetuous, delicate; by an ever more vivid representation of anguish, pleasure or uncertainty art could the better induce these emotions in the observer. Images were therefore to be used for their inherent ‘eloquence,’ for the moral value of their narrative content; pictures were to represent a moment of pathos, or a witty, piquant scene, so that the observer’s sympathetic reaction might produce in him an analogous emotion, a compassionate or a terrified response. A fleeting moment of time, caught and immobilized in the painting, was to combine immediate impact with discursive statement.
But the ‘enlightened’ man who constantly claimed the right to contradict all previously accepted authorities acquired thereby a sense of oppositions which enabled him also to contradict himself. For all its temptations and cherished formulas, the eighteenth century fostered a lively spirit of criticism and sometimes a resolute and viable self-criticism, with a desire to experiment with opposites. Thus, during the Neoclassical period, a taste for depicting eternal beauty was to replace the immediate fleeting enjoyments of the Rococo: mobility of expression wished to be forgotten in immobility of form.