“I played as though I were the finest fiddler in Europe,” Mozart once proudly confided to his father, Leopold, describing a concert that took place in fall 1777.
Improbably enough, as I type these words, the violin he may have used at that very concert, regarded as an Austrian national treasure, is being prepared for a journey from its Salzburg home to the Boston Early Music Festival. Its traveling companion, but on a separate plane, will be Mozart’s own viola, coaxed into song at untold numbers of chamber music gatherings in Vienna, where he played his own music in ensembles that on occasion included Haydn. Once they arrive, both instruments will be tucked away in an undisclosed location.
That is, until Monday night, when they make their American debut, to be played by two period specialists in an all-Mozart program at Jordan Hall. Even in Salzburg, where the instruments are often on display at Mozart’s birthplace, they are rarely played, making this one of the most keenly anticipated events of BEMF’s weeklong early music marathon.
We tend to picture him at the keyboard, but Mozart’s early years were no doubt filled with the sound of the violin. His father was a violinist and teacher who authored a landmark book on violin technique, and Mozart began his own performing career as a violinist, switching to fortepiano as his main instrument only in his mid-20s. This Salzburg concert violin is probably the instrument on which he performed his own violin concertos on tour in Mannheim and Paris. After the composer moved to Vienna, the viola became his string instrument of choice.
Interestingly, in an age when violins by the famous Italian makers fetch great sums at auction, Mozart’s instruments — purely as instruments — are rather more humble. Researchers speculate the violin was built around 1700 in Mittenwald, Germany, by a member of the Klotz family of luthiers. The viola’s maker, probably from northern Italy, is still unidentified, and the instrument’s generously proportioned body was in fact cut back at some point in the 19th century, and its scroll replaced. According to the Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation, owner of the instruments, the viola retains a very warm tone, albeit with less volume than it may have once had. Ulrich Leisinger, research director at the foundation, describes the violin and viola objectively as “good quality but not first-rank instruments.”
But of course tone and craftsmanship are not the main draw here. These are Mozart’s instruments. As such the aura surrounding them is unmistakable, and yet it’s still tempting to prod that aura, to dip into the instruments’ history, and to wonder, at an event like Monday’s concert, what exactly are we hoping to hear?
Clearly the event’s appeal lies beyond the merely aesthetic. For decades now, historic recordings have made a degree of musical time-travel not just possible but commonplace. A few keystrokes and I’m with Enrico Caruso in 1912. Yet the centuries of the musical past that stretch out before the advent of recording still tempt the imagination precisely because of their inaccessibility, their wonders sealed by a vast sepulchral silence. These instruments then entice us with the prospect of accessing that lost world, connecting with the intimate particulars of Mozart’s musical life, the very sounds he heard.
And here we have distilled in its purest form an impulse that has animated the early music movement since its birth in the 1960s: a desire to return to the source, to understand and perform the music as it may have been heard in its own day. What are Mozart’s violin and viola if not the ultimate period instruments?
Surely they offer many insights for scholars of performance practice, but in truth, precisely reconstructing lost performance styles has always been something of a dream — a noble one, depending on whom you ask — but still a dream. Polemical debates of the 1990s forced many early music performers away from claims of strict authenticity. As was often pointed out, even if we could somehow reconstruct with complete accuracy how Mozart’s music was performed in his day, we would not hear it as his audiences did. Sound takes on meaning based on our memory of other sound, its place in the acoustic universe we inhabit; and of course there is no escaping the influence of centuries of later music, let alone the noise of contemporary urban life.
The skeptic here might also add, as the Mozarteum Foundation itself points out, it is impossible to verify with absolute certainty that these were in fact Mozart’s instruments. The paper trail accompanying them is credible but it starts in earnest only some decades after Mozart’s death in 1791, when they began their own separate journeys through private hands before being purchased by the foundation in the mid-20th century. Early on the instruments were regarded more casually, as objects of a musician’s daily life, not as relics to be meticulously documented and preserved. But who wants to hear such caveats on an occasion like this? No, this particular BEMF concert asks for a breed of aural generosity, an openness to possibility.
Even so, the distance separating us from Mozart’s day is not only a matter of years but also of perception. While the early music movement has helped illuminate the musical past, it has also made it seem in a way more distant by drawing our attention to the Romantic-era scrim through which we once viewed the Baroque and classical periods. Others have of course read a broader sense of historical disconnection into the more general condition of our modern lives.
Ultimately, the aura of instruments such as these flows not just from their sound but from their physical presence as such, their very thing-ness. They invite us to replace that sense of yawning metaphysical distance with the particulars of provenance, to swap the daunting stacks of centuries for direct chains of ownership, a series of handoffs through the generations.
Or we can simply allow a well-traveled violin and viola to speak in their own modest voices, and hear what we can.
“Time,” as W. G. Sebald wrote, “measures nothing but itself.”