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Playing Mozart — On Mozart's Violin

Violinist Amandine Beyer holds Mozart's own violin backstage at Boston's Jordan Hall on Monday.
Kathy Wittman
Courtesy of the Boston Early Music Festival
Violinist Amandine Beyer holds Mozart's own violin backstage at Boston's Jordan Hall on Monday.

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 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 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: June 13, 2013 at 11:00 PM CDT
In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we erroneously report that the instruments were made in the 17th century. In fact, they were both made around the year 1700 — at the beginning of the 18th century.
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.
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