Düsseldorf In an interview, the world-renowned violinist talks about self-sacrificing mothers, the war in Ukraine, her infection with the coronavirus — and the gift of her musical engagement.
My dear mother, where are you sitting now, where are you standing, and where are you lying?
Mother I just came home in Munich after a very long day at work, I’m going to exercise a bit more and go to the concert at Herkulessaal in Munich tonight. I decided to do it spontaneously.
what’s up? Who is playing?
Mother The Italian pianist Beatrice Rana, whom I don’t know yet. She plays the Clara Schumann concerto with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jannick Nzet Seguin.
Ah, you’re in luck, Beatrice Rana is awesome. I have a number of recordings of it. You will be happy there
Mother It’s great that you say that. I am now doubly happy.
And what will you exercise? I suppose a piece of yours you’ll be playing soon?
Mother This is it: Violin Concerto by Andre Previn, my ex-husband who sadly passed away in 2019. I’m also playing that in Dusseldorf for the current tour.
The action has a thrilling start, it starts on the low G string, ramps up after a few tones and ends up in eternal snow – just barely up. Did Previn ask you if he could do that?
Mother First, I listened carefully. It starts at G#, which is a semitone on the highest lowest pitch, and ends high on G, which is the highest pitch, at the end of the fretboard, at the end of the flagpole. Second: I didn’t get involved in the configuration for a second. And he didn’t ask me either. I told him that technically I can play everything, he should just write.
Really did not ask?
Mother No, he should feel that he can write whatever he wants. Just as a dream. His engagement was present to me. He sure had my voice in his ears, but that was it.
They used to play the piece a lot, but not recently. Are there passages where, when you practice again, an idea comes to mind: did he fully understand me as a violinist or did he particularly like me? After all, the composition’s subtitle is “Anne-Sophie”.
Mother It’s definitely a very autobiographical work. And he went on to write the last sentence in 2001 on a train trip in Germany, the country from which Andrei Previn came…
… He was born in Berlin in 1929 as Andreas Ludwig Breuen, who then had to flee the Nazis with his family in 1938 …
Mother …and in his capital he saw his parents’ house again long after that. There is a quote from a poem by TS Eliot in the third sentence that indicates exactly that. Translated this means: “And at the end of all our search we shall return to where we began – and we shall get acquainted with this place for the first time.”
Was Previn interested in literature?
Mother And how! He was also very attached to Germany, he loved German art, such as Georg Gross or Otto Dix, spoke German perfectly and was at home speaking German. Whether it is Heinrich Böll or Thomas Mann, he knows a lot. By the way, he used his favorite children’s song in the last sentence, “If I were a little bird.” When he showed me the score, I was very moved because it was also my children’s favorite song.
Mother No, it affected me more. It has a beautiful, heart-breaking text, and a very sad one at that.
Is it hard to focus on practice these days? How close is the war to you?
Mother I gave my first concert to Ukraine shortly after the outbreak of the war, and before that I played the quartet in the German Red Cross, and they told me that there are at least 200 wars in the world at the moment. This is in no way to put this terrible attack on Ukraine and this deadly war into perspective. But we musicians are playing against it, trying to create a community, trying to give hope. And we collect money.
Would you have trouble playing Peter Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto now?
Mother never. There is no relationship between one and the other. You have to distinguish between the dictatorship that wants this war and the Russian people, who certainly do not want it. You have to distinguish between the hysterical fanatics of the regime who considered Putin their friend and still are, and those who were born in Russia. For the Russian artists who get talked about a lot these days, would we really talk if we knew we were going to have to stay behind bars for 15 years? You can always tell from the comfy chair that you’re a hero.
Mother We must realize how privileged it is to live a free and democratic life and that we must fight for it with all our might and passion. We have to use our right to vote, we have to inform ourselves, and we have to read carefully and think carefully about whom we can trust.
Can music also teach us something?
Mother Politicians should play music together, and then we’ll be in a completely different dialogue with each other. I have been firmly convinced of this for many years. Only when you are on an equal footing will you notice the feelings the other person is feeling – and it is easier to accept their opinions and rights.
Among the truly famous politicians with first-class mastery of a musical instrument, I can think of former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who once wanted to be a pianist. She even played with the famous cellist Yo Yo Ma. There is a video for that.
Mother I didn’t know, I’ll take a look. Let us not deceive ourselves: as we know from the German past, music is in no way designed to make us better people. But it is a foundation for shared experience and cultural exchange, which operates on an entirely different level than language and occurs—and must occur—very early in life. Instead, we see children participating and communicating almost exclusively through the media, through instant posting and retweeting. Nobody learns to sleep and think about something all night long anymore.
But this is the main thing if someone wants to progress musically.
Mother They say it is indispensable for the study of musical notation. Knowledge doesn’t come right away, you have to work hard to get it. Everything that comes easily in life is actually worthless.
I read somewhere that you have been lovingly interested in rebuilding a historic member of a village called Aurach near Kitzbühel. How do we get to that? The member is not your builder site at all.
Mother Here in Munich is the wonderful organist of Saint Michael, Peter Kofler, whom I know very well. He has opened an organ from Mauracher since 1840 after several years of restoration in Aurach. It is a gem in terms of music history. Organ builder Klais from Bonn has made it operable and audible again. She played three great concerts and collected a total of 350 thousand euros.
My God. Do you like the member?
Mother. Yeah. I’ve always thought: Sponsors come and go, and the member stays. And what keeps me in church? Music. If there is a good organist, this is a gift. Then you can also look for and believe in the good things.
You were, what many do not know, one of the first German cases of Corona, in March 2020. How do you look back on the infection since then?
Mother At that time, very little was known about the course of the disease, and my older brother, who is well connected internationally and had a lot of information on what to know, helped me a lot. And the tenth day of infection was known to be critical: either things really went downhill or things slowly got better again. I tried not to think about it too much.
But you had symptoms, right?
Mother Well, I was short of breath, but other than that I couldn’t complain. The positive is that I grew like a bear. I slept better than I did when I was a kid ten nights in a row.
Mother When my famous insomnia started on day 11, I knew my next corona test would be negative. And it was.
Do you really suffer from insomnia?
Mother Yes, sometimes. I tend to be hyperactive, you can never tire of me. I didn’t choose it.
and then? Do you pass around the house?
Mother No, I’m practicing in my head. At the moment, I mentally express passages in Previn’s violin concerto – and eventually fall asleep.
It’s a fascinating phenomenon that we know from neuroscience: you can practice a piece of a piece of music by imagining your brain that you’re playing it. The hand area of the brain is also active, even if you don’t move your hands at all.
Mother Yes, we do it as professional musicians and athletes, who keep imagining their processes in the brain. Race drivers drive the turns in their heads, tennis players practice serving in their heads. It is an exceptional tool that unfortunately not many people use. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid.
It’s called “mental training”.
Mother Yes exactly. And then it couldn’t have been any other way, as a single mother I had no other choice. How else can you practice changing diapers or sitting on the toilet yourself? Somehow you have to keep going and keep going.
It is possible that mothers have a special gene for energy, otherwise it will not work at all.
Mother Yes, I admire all women who have a job and are raising sons. I have been very fortunate and had a lot of help. It is still difficult. Society does not even know what mothers achieve. I’ve seen it admirably in Corona with the home office.
In the end I can risk the joke and ask: What’s going on at Anne-Sophie Mutter on Sunday when it’s Mother’s Day?
Mother (He laughs) I expect it to be celebrated.