A conversation with German violinist, Anne-Sophie Mutter, who is spending the year performing Beethoven's 10 Sonatas for Violin and Piano around the world.
PHIL PONCE: German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter has been called one of her generation's most influential musicians. She first came to international attention as a child prodigy under the tutelage of famed conductor Herbert von Karajan. Since then, she's been in demand in concert halls and recording studios around the world.
Now, at age 34, she's taking on what she says is her most important music projects so far--spending the year performing Beethoven's 10 Sonatas for Violin and Piano around the globe. Here's a brief excerpt from a rehearsal with pianist Lambert Orkis.
(ANNE-SOPHIE MUTTER PLAYING VIOLIN)
PHIL PONCE: And now we're joined by Anne-Sophie Mutter, who's in the midst of the American leg of her year-long tribute to Beethoven. Welcome.
ANNE-SOPHIE MUTTER, Violinist: Thank you.
PHIL PONCE: First question: Why are you doing this?
ANNE-SOPHIE MUTTER: It's such an exciting project because I can finally live Beethoven's life for a span of 15 years. As a soloist, I never have the chance to really encounter such a long spread of development. There is one concerto by Beethoven and one triple concerto--that's it. And he started composing these ten sonatas when he was only 27.
So I got to meet a very young, very witty, very charming and playful man, which you would not necessarily think Beethoven was because we all know the Beethoven of the eruptive middle period of his life, a man who could be very brutal also in his musical language. But there are many, many faces to Beethoven.
PHIL PONCE: So when you say 15 years, these 10 sonatas were written over the course of 15 years of life. And in that way, you're sort of getting to know Beethoven.
ANNE-SOPHIE MUTTER: Yes, that's right. And I get to know him as a pupil of Haydn evolving into his own style, and then we close the cycle with Sonata No. 10, we are already hitting Opus 96, which is rather late. And we chose a Beethoven which is very mature and for all the struggle he has to go through, for all the struggle of getting deaf, and various other problems in his life. You can feel how he finally not gives in but he accepts the way life treated him. And he still finds beauty in it. And that's very touching.
PHIL PONCE: Let's back up and just throw out some very basic terms, maybe too basic for some, but a sonata is a type of chamber music, and it's usually written for one or two solo instrumentalists.
ANNE-SOPHIE MUTTER: Yes, that's right.
PHIL PONCE: So in this case it's piano and violin.
ANNE-SOPHIE MUTTER: Yes.
PHIL PONCE: And Beethoven just wrote ten.
ANNE-SOPHIE MUTTER: Yes.
PHIL PONCE: And the way you're doing it, the ten sonatas, how do you split them up over the course of the concerts in each city?
ANNE-SOPHIE MUTTER: We split them up over the course of three evenings. They belong together in a certain array of grouping. For example, the Opus 12, there are two--there are three sonatas which belong together, which you cannot separate, because one actually initiates the upcoming one.
And then in the first program we as well, as in the second half Opus Twenty-three and -four are once published under the same Opus, which shows very much that they belong together. And the next program consists of three pieces he has written for Alexander, the Russian Czar. And the last set of sonatas consist of two pieces which are of enormous size, "size" meaning the musical ideas are so broad and substantial that he needs four movements, for example, in the "Kreutzer" to express that we have various variation movements in the "Kreutzer" as well.
That was written for a wonderful violinist, "Bridgetower," which also did the world premiere. And there's a great story going with that because when they, both of them did the premiere, Beethoven on the piano, Bridgetower broke into a cadenza in the middle of the piece, and Beethoven jumped out of stool and, you know, congratulated Beethoven--Bridgetower, and said, wow, that's great, do it again.
That, for me, knowing that story now shows very much that he was a passionate performer, that he was not at all this kind of classical, maybe remote and very controlled composer.
PHIL PONCE: Ms. Mutter, how many hours total do the three concerts comprise, roughly?
ANNE-SOPHIE MUTTER: About five and a half.
PHIL PONCE: Five and a half hours of playing over three nights. Isn't--do you get tired?
ANNE-SOPHIE MUTTER: Mentally, never, but physically, of course, you can count your bones after these programs.
PHIL PONCE: So, is the exhaustion in the--in what--in the arm? Is it in your neck? Is it just throughout?
ANNE-SOPHIE MUTTER: Primarily, the exhaustion comes from the constant dialogue between the piano and the violin. Let's not forget that they are titled Piano and Violin Sonatas, and actually in the first ones the piano is really the leading instrument in the sonatas.
Later on, Beethoven challenges that by putting the violin side to side with the piano. And that's one of the great moments for me as a violin player and a soloist, to see how the violin evolves from the mere role of accompanying the piano in Opus 23, which is the fourth sonata, already being the equal partner and the singing voice finally of Beethoven's composing.
PHIL PONCE: Do you feel a personal bond with Beethoven?
ANNE-SOPHIE MUTTER: Very much, yes, very, very much. Not only because he has put the writing for violin in a new perspective, that he has given an equal right for the violin to be as important as the piano, but also because he had such wonderful human goals and dreams.
He was always dreaming. Think of Fidelio, where he describes the ideal partnership between two people--the eternal love and that you would sacrifice your life for your beloved, or the 9th Symphony, where he dreams of brotherhood, eternal brotherhood. I mean, these are, of course, illusions, but something, nevertheless, to try to achieve on a small scale.
PHIL PONCE: I'm also told that even between performances rehearsal is very important to you.
ANNE-SOPHIE MUTTER: Yes. Well, it is crucial for some--
PHIL PONCE: Are you a perfectionist?
ANNE-SOPHIE MUTTER: Yes. But, do you know, for some non-musicians it's hard to understand why Lambert and I are constantly rehearsing. It's not that we don't know the pieces by now, but it's--first of all, every evening you have to prove it to yourself, to the audience, that you--that the spirit is really flying there, that the sparks are flying, and you have to climb this mountain every evening. If you have conquered it the evening before, that doesn't mean anything. The moment you go on stage, you have to do it again.
PHIL PONCE: What motivates you to climb that mountain night after night? Why do you do it?
ANNE-SOPHIE MUTTER: Well, there are wonderful moments happening in music. There is a bond happening between the musician and the audience because the audience is the third very important partner in the concert. They are the ones who want to hear it. They are the ones who, you know, the silence they can produce, that's really the soil on which music can grow or not.
PHIL PONCE: What do you experience? What are you thinking, what are you feeling as you're making music on stage?
ANNE-SOPHIE MUTTER: It depends if it's an easygoing evening, if everything is just right, the piano is great, and the acoustic is wonderful, and the audience is attentive, and then, of course, you're flying. There are other evenings where you have to work very hard and struggle very much because of many, many reasons, but it's wonderful to feel a sort of development, a sort of change every evening. You know, this constant dialogue between piano and violin can be so refined and very changeable.
PHIL PONCE: Your parents were not musical, I've read, but when you were age five, you demanded to have violin lessons. I mean, what was the impulse there?
ANNE-SOPHIE MUTTER: Some recordings I heard. I remember that we listened to a lot of music at home, and I vividly remember a recording of Mendelssohn with Menouin. And that probably was the initial trigger, you know, that put me into passion.
PHIL PONCE: Now, aside from the fact that you're highly thought of as a musician, the image that you project off camera with the image of glamour and the image of the beautiful gowns, have you sort of raised the bar for other performers where now they not only have to sound good but look good too?
ANNE-SOPHIE MUTTER: You know, for me most of the problem is that I do more in music than only brush up my violin. For me, very and most important is that I try to leave a small mark. I'm very much reminded of what Mother Teresa once said. She said on earth you can do only very little things, but you can do little things with a lot of love. And when I'm able to give a benefit with Lambert together as we do it for the Esther Boyer College in Philadelphia, Temple University--
PHIL PONCE: That's a music college in Philadelphia.
ANNE-SOPHIE MUTTER: Yes. Then that leaves a wonderful mark because it's inspiration not only for the teachers there that they are acknowledged that we tried to help them in order to get new instruments but also for the students, who see that they are taken serious; that somebody from overseas, you know, is putting them in the limelight.
PHIL PONCE: Well, you didn't exactly answer my question, but I'll take that answer. Last question: How do you feel when you've finished one of these--when you finish the third night of this ten sonata cycle? Are you exhausted? Are you exhilarated?
ANNE-SOPHIE MUTTER: It depends on how well the concert went. If it was a good concert, then I'm very grateful because these pieces are so wonderful, and not only that it hopefully gives something to the audience, but it also gives much to the ones who play, who are connected with Beethoven at that moment. Great stuff.
PHIL PONCE: Ms. Mutter, thank you very much for being here, and good luck with your year's endeavor.
ANNE-SOPHIE MUTTER: Thank you, Phil.