Think of places associated with Mozart and most people would imagine his birthplace of Salzburg, or Vienna, where he spent his final decade as a freelance composer and performer. (Never mind that Salzburg, which he hated, makes a massive fuss of him while Vienna, which he loved, largely ignores him in favour of the Strausses.) Now, though, another city is staking a claim as a ‘Mozart Stadt’: the Bavarian town of Augsburg.
Augsburg was the birthplace of Leopold Mozart and the location, we are told, of his wunderkind son’s sexual awakening at the age of 14 – with his cousin known as Bäsle. It was among the first places the young Mozarts stopped on their grand concert tour in 1762 and both father and son would visit again several times later on. One of its churches – St Ulrich’s Basilica – even claims a quasi-holy relic: a blond lock from Mozart’s wig, wrenched out when he banged his head on the way up to the organ loft.
The city was also well known for its religious tolerance, as one of the few places where Catholics and Lutherans lived peaceably and with equal rights side by side. This liberalism became part of Leopold’s make-up, and the experience of the intellectual milieu in which he developed is said by some to have passed into Wolfgang’s Enlightenment character. Compare that with the comparative religious intolerance of parochial Salzburg and the naturally rebellious streak that ran through Mozart and it’s no surprise that he couldn’t wait to leave for the Austrian capital and the artistic freedom he was to enjoy there. (The good people of Salzburg will tell you a different story, however!)
Consequently Augsburg is understandably proud of its Mozartian heritage and the ideal venue for a new festival, one based around his own music and that of his predecessors, contemporaries and followers. So much so, in fact, that when Mozart@Augsburg first took place a couple of years ago, a broadsheet paper tried to manufacture a querelle between Augsburg and Salzburg for the title (as if such a thing could be officially bestowed) of ‘Mozart city’.
Artistic Director Sebastian Knauer is quick to emphasise Augsburg’s suitability for such an artistic endeavour, describing the city as the one place where Mozart was truly happy. ‘If you really want to understand Mozart, you need to come to Augsburg. Where else can you stay in the same hotel as Mozart, and then go to a concert in the same hall in which Mozart performed?’
An advantage of a festival’s AD being himself a performer of Knauer’s calibre is that he can invite all his friends and colleagues, building a notably rich programme played by some of the finest musicians active today. At the first festival in 2012, invitees included Daniel Hope, the Emerson Quartet and Sir Roger Norrington. And far from being housed in a faceless concert hall or dingy community centre, Augsburg’s finest architectural gems are pressed into use: last year’s memorable concerts included Lars Vogt and the Tetzlaffs in trios by Mozart (K502), Schubert (D898) and Dvořák (F minor) in the Baroque splendor of the city’s Kleiner Goldener Saal – a truly hot ticket, since the 2013 festival took place during a mini-heatwave and the Goldener Saal’s windows remained shut in respect of the microphones erected to record the concert for broadcast.
Other venues include the Mozartkirche in Biberbach, where the eight-year-old took part in one of those organ-playing competitions children seemed to be forced into in the 18th century: the Artemis Quartet brought their acuity and artistry to Mendlessohn (Op 44 No 2) and Brahms (C minor). There’s also the Swabian castle of the Fuggers, bankers to the Habsburgs, where Knauer gave a Beethoven recital with recitations by the German actress Hannelore Elsner.
This year’s festival opens this week with Anne Sofie von Otter and Daniel Hope bringing their Terezín programme to the Augsburg Synagogue, once again reflecting the religious plurality enjoyed by the city, and continues until September 20, with artists including Renaud Capuçon, Arcadi Volodos and a pair of Brendels (Adrian performing solo cello works, Brendel père reading from his own books), as well as Sebastian Knauer and soloists from the Berlin Philharmonic. Knauer insists that Augsburg is ‘probably the most culturally underestimated city in Germany’ and is determined to rectify that: ‘This magic of music and architecture,’ he says, ‘can be experienced only where Mozart himself experienced it – in Augsburg.’