The legendary German violinist discusses her approach to performance and shares her hopes and fears for the future of classical music
I recently interviewed Anne-Sophie Mutter for BBC Music Magazine, marking her 60th birthday in June. She was full of humour and honesty, including the bombshell opinion that violin playing and teaching is in crisis today. You’ll have to buy the issue to read about that and the rest of the interview, including her memories of Henryk Szeryng and Mstislav Rostropovich, but there was so much great material I didn’t have space for, so I’m publishing the quotes I couldn’t fit here.
On being in the moment ‘Making music is like meditation. If you’re lucky enough, you find the flow like a great athlete, which is nothing but losing yourself in the moment – time, the room and the audience becoming one. Then you are truly present in the now. Every musician has that in a lucky moment on stage. It’s nice to cultivate it in everyday life if you can. When you have children, particularly when they are small, you do all these things together and playing like a child is being in the moment. That’s refreshes your memory about how great it can be as a grown up to play like a child and be in the moment.
‘What is your ultimate goal? Is it fame and fortune? Is it always playing the right notes? Is it to please everyone? Forget all of the above’
‘It has to do with your philosophy of life in general. What do you want to live by as an artist? What is your ultimate goal? Is it fame and fortune? Is it always playing the right notes? Is it to please everyone? Forget all of the above. Art is not about looking for comfort. It has to do with self-doubt, renewing yourself, being open to every possibility of perceiving music, pursuing music, having great joy on stage, sharing music. That should be above anything the goal: communicating, being there in the moment, giving it your all.’
On her first teacher, Erna Honigberger ‘I was so fortunate that in the Black Forest, where I grew up in the 60s, we had this fabulous ex-solo violinist who came from Berlin to this remote area of Germany because her son-in-law had a job there, and she followed him and her daughter. So there was this fantastic pupil of Carl Flesch teaching in the Black Forest, in the woods, literally. What a coincidence! I bonded with her right away. She was not very young any more when I met her, but she became a kind of supermum for me. It was all extremely playful – really playing the violin and not studying. She was fabulous at finding the right repertoire – Kreisler and Sarasate – and she had trillions of animals: I kid you not – turtles in the living room.
‘We would have lunch together. I already loved to eat back then, so she pushed all my right buttons. I was nine when she died, sadly, but by that age I was fully immersed and wanting to be – and thinking I already was – a violinist.’
‘I’m not spelling out a word or a sentence. Each sentence has a purpose, an ending and a musical climax which has to do with harmonic progression’
On phrasing ‘I feel like a sculptor when I’m playing because every note comes from somewhere and goes somewhere. I’m not spelling out a word or a sentence. Each sentence has a purpose, an ending and a musical climax which has to do with harmonic progression. While I play it, I’m in the moment, but I’m sculpting what is coming in the future.
‘The funniest thing that ever happened to me was once when I played The Four Seasons and someone came backstage and was furious and said, ‘It was totally different from your recording.’ I was thinking, ‘Gee, that’s a great compliment,’ but he was not kidding. He literally wanted his money back. I suddenly realised there might be listeners out there who will be dissatisfied because I’m definitively not going to replicate what I thought about an interpretation some years ago or even a week ago.’
On developing as a musician ‘The crucial points in my early years, once I was fortunate enough to be part of Aida’s class, were repertoire development, finding the right instrument and pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I did that with chamber music at a relatively early stage with Mstislav Rostropovich and Bruno Giuranna, which was difficult for me. I had no idea you know how to go about that kind of chamber music. Then I pushed myself out of my comfort zone with contemporary music.
‘Having children was very important for my development as a human being. Then, of course, there was the horrible period when I became a widow, which was a crucial chapter in my life. Shortly after that, I decided to start my foundation to help young string players. I probably wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t become a widow so early. In the 1990s I started to push my pro bono work. That came out of a feeling that I needed to invest myself into society more, to look more closely where music was needed, where my tiny little efforts were needed. Much of that was fostered by Aida and grew out of my passion for music.’
‘I find it astounding how much reality and our perception of it as a performer sometimes differ. That is one of the most important subjects to address with a young musician’
On hearing ourselves ‘We all think we play a certain way or go about an interpretation in a certain way, but what actually arrives at the listener’s ear is something totally different. I find it astounding how much reality and our perception of it as a performer sometimes differ. That is one of the most important subjects to address with a young musician. What you perceive as your output is not necessarily is what arrives at the listener’s ear. That’s why a kind of out-of-body control is necessary while you play. In my opinion, it’s important to record yourself – not excessively, but you have to get to know yourself on tape and learn to close the gap between wish and reality.
‘It has always been like that. I’m turning 60 and still, although not as often as when I was young, I’m sometimes surprised to hear a recording of myself and think, ‘Oh, gee, that sounds very different from when I was on stage,’ particularly the perception of tempo. I have learnt through experience to close that gap, but I know from experience that it takes a while. It’s important to understand that it’s totally normal that your personal, subjective perception is different from the objective outcome, or what arrives at the ears.
On dealing with pressure ‘I saw a fantastic documentary on Netflix about sports coaches and there was one who said something that helped me a lot: ‘Pressure is privilege.’ What a wonderful way to turn it around. He explained that if there’s pressure, it’s a privilege, because people expect you to do something wonderful, and that is a privilege. In order to bring the best you have psychologically, emotionally and physically to the stage, you need to get your things together. You might need people to help you with that – definitely with physical exercises and if needed, also with a coach who helps you to tackle whatever stands in your way of blooming on stage. Maybe you will be able to unleash more of your potential.’
‘Stay authentic to who you are. Otherwise it gets very stressful keeping something up that doesn’t illuminate who you are in your most inner self’
On social media ‘I have been told various times in my life that there are certain times in the day and in the week one should post because there are more people on then and I’m like, ‘Okay, fabulous to know, but forget it!’ I post when I want to share something with my friends. I’m definitely not professional about it. I do what I want. I cannot give any advice. I grew up in the wilderness and I’m a little bit wild and not really a great advisor when it comes to what one should do. I’m so fixed on what I want to do as an artist and as a human being in society that posting is the end of my rope. The only advice I could give if I ever dared to give advice to anyone is to stay authentic to who you are. Otherwise it gets very stressful keeping something up that doesn’t illuminate who you are in your most inner self. Don’t push yourself to something because your assistant tells you you have to post in the evening at six o’clock in order to be successful.’
On the pandemic ‘It affected freelance artists, and not just musicians, very badly. It was very depressing to see that over and over again. We were dismissed. It felt like in the 1800s, when the King of France or Austria would just dismiss the composer. I was surprised this happened. I was in very close contact with the cultural minister, fighting as much as I could, particularly for musicians, and also, pointing out that on a given day, a concert gives jobs to so many different fields of professions. It’s not only one violinist standing on stage or an orchestra; it’s many people whose lives depend on that particular concert happening.
‘With us not being able to perform, it also sadly affected many other professions and made them miserable. Together with other musicians I went to court, because in our Bavarian rights there is a chapter which states that our right to have access to art is unchangeable. It’s one of the basic rights. Sadly, we were not successful, but we fought in every avenue we could. At least we were able to go to old people’s homes and orphanages and we played in churches during church services, just to be there for people, and to communicate musically with our friends.
‘We need more musicians in politics. We have a generation of politicians now who have no emotional connection to music and I’m very fearful of that’
‘What did we learn from it? Don’t trust politics. Maybe we need more musicians in politics. We have a generation of politicians now who have no emotional connection to music and I’m very fearful of that – not because I think the world needs more professional musicians, but because I think that music touches something in all of us, in the listener as much as the child who plays, no matter how perfect or imperfect it is. It touches something in us which needs to be touched, which needs to be taken seriously. If I could wish for anything it is that every child has access to an instrument and to music, making music together as much as having sports lessons.’
On music in Germany ‘It’s true that we have 80 opera houses and that these and also the radio orchestras are still heavily subsidised by the state, but I’m old enough to know how it used to be 40 or 50 years ago and how it has diminished, particularly school education, but suddenly presenters wonder about the future of classical music. It will always exist, but with musicians having such a small niche, where only people who have had musical training will be interested in going to a concert. It’s sad.’
‘In order to attract an audience, you also need musicians who have to say something and can say it with great confidence’
On excitement in music ‘It goes both ways, though. Let’s face it, in the past as well as in the present, there have been very boring classical concerts. There is no doubt about that. We have to get rid of that and bring excitement back on stage. I’m confident we can do that because there are musicians out there who play their hearts out and play with such passion and joy and are totally crazy, and that’s wonderful. In order to attract an audience, you also need musicians who have to say something and can say it with great confidence. There is a young generation out there who has to say something very loudly and very clearly.’
‘Very often, my non-musician friends would come back after the performance and say, “You know, I was asleep during the Haydn and Beethoven, but the Widmann, wow, that was exciting.”’
On new music ‘I’m always astounded but also relieved and inspired to hear comments about contemporary music from audience members, very often non-musicians. Recently we did a few quartet evenings with Haydn, Beethoven and Jörg Widmann – his Sixth Quartet, based on Beethoven, which I commissioned. It’s terribly difficult, incredibly complex, and exhilaratingly fantastic at the end, but Jesus, it takes everything out of you. Very often, my non-musician friends would come back after the performance and say, ‘You know, I was asleep during the Haydn and Beethoven, but the Widmann, wow, that was exciting.’ That gives me great hope in contemporary writing. You find a certain part of the audience being touched by it, invigorated by it.
‘Thomas Adès is a phenomenal musician, pianist and conductor, and an incredible composer. I was present at the premiere of his Exterminating Angel, a few years ago, and the Violin Concerto is sublime. I’m blown away by his Air. There’s a mixture of excitement, gratitude and a lot of fear. It’s definitely not easy for me, but I have found great joy in knowing that there’s a lot out there I don’t know and that I’m not good at. I want to learn and I think it’s perfectly fine to accept the fact that life is about learning. It’s okay not to be good in everything but to try. I just love overcoming obstacles.’