Interview / Gérard Caussé, violist

French violist Gérard Caussé performs with Alina Ibragimóva, violin; Renaud Capuçon, violin; Léa Hennino, viola and Clemens Hagan, ‘cello, Mozart’s String Quintets in B-flat, KV 174; g minor, KV 516; and E-flat, KV 614 on The Mozart Festival.

Wesley Horner: Is the viola the favorite instrument of Mozart?

Gérard Caussé: Absolutely.

Wesley Horner: Why do you think?

Gérard Caussé:  I think we have to say, “Thank you so much Mr. Mozart.” Because with Mozart, starts literally the story of the viola. Before, the viola was a totally anomalous instrument, a kind of big violin or something. A small cello. But with Mozart, we start to hear pieces interesting for violin and viola at the same time. It was possible to compare and to realize the difference between the two instruments.

Wesley Horner: Do you believe the viola is the most important instrument in the quintet?

Gérard Caussé: Yes.

Wesley Horner: Why do you think that?

Gérard Caussé: I love your questions. Because really, especially in the quintet for two violas, Mozart is the first one who composed for a two viola quintet. Normally you have two violins, one viola, one cello, and sometimes a double bass or a piano as an instrument for a quintet. With Mozart started the string quintet. This is a rare variation.

It’s a totally different balance between the high sound and the low sounds. The viola is in the best place in the family of the strings. It’s on the middle between the high voices – the violins – and the cellist or the double bass. It’s the best position. It’s like a tenor in a vocal quartet or quintet.

Wesley Horner: When the quintet rehearses, who is the boss?

Gérard Caussé:  It depends on the different personalities of the group. Honestly, with Mozart we are in the classical period, and the first violin is supposed to be more important. But what does it mean, “More important?” Is it playing more themes than the other instruments?

I suppose we can say, the first violin and, after that, the first viola, because Mozart was not at all in love with the cello and he composed nothing for the cellist. The poor cellist! It means they are always playing accompaniment, basic rhythms, you know. The first violin and the first viola are very important, here.

Wesley Horner: Your instrument you are playing was already almost 200 years old when Mozart –

Gérard Caussé: More than that. It is from 1560.

Wesley Horner: It’s a very special instrument. Can you tell me a little bit about the instrument?

Gérard Caussé: This viola is from is from the quasi‑middle age of luthier, the violin‑makers or viola‑makers. It is from the school of Brescia, in Italy, the north of Italy, between Italy and Austria. It is a very rich part of Italy, all the way north. In Brescia, born in the 16th century, was Gasparo Bertolotti or Gasparo da Salo. “Gasparo” means, from the city of Salo. He was the most famous violin and viola builder from this time. His first viola appeared on the 16th century. Mine is from 1560.

The interesting thing is, at this time, the form and the size of the instrument, the viola, were not fixed. Each instrument is different, with a different size, like in the society. People are all different. It’s the same for the instruments.

For this reason, I fell in love with my instrument, my Gasparo da Salo, because it’s unique. There is only one like this one. One and a half centuries later, you have Stradivarius in the Cremonese school. But all the violins by Stradivarius are identical. They are all the same. OK, it’s Stradivarius. But I prefer the kind of builder who really creates each instrument to be unique.

Wesley Horner:  It’s beautiful, a beautiful sound.

Gérard Caussé:  Yes it is, for this reason. The way of the builder was to try to build the voice of the viola. The viola is very specific sound, deep.

Wesley Horner: The quintets we hear in these concerts are being performed in a large concert hall with a lot of people. This is not the way they were heard when this music was contemporary music? If I heard one of Mozart’s quintets in his time, what kind of place would it have been?

Gérard Caussé:  Maybe some palace belonging to the prince or the Archbishop, or some high personage from the city of Salzburg or Vienna. Probably a small room for 80 or 100 persons, maximum. It was totally different then. The players were not obliged to produce a sound for big hall with more than 1,000 people inside. We are really in a really strange situation, because we are playing an instrument from 16th century, and we are playing in a hall from the 21st century. Can you imagine with 1,000 or 2,000 people? And sometimes, in America with 10,000 people?

Wesley Horner:  You have had an extraordinary career with Pierre Boulez and contemporary music. What do you bring to playing Mozart from playing contemporary music? How is it different, how is it the same?

Gérard Caussé: It’s very interesting to consider each kind of music as positive for the player. We learn a lot with different types of music, especially when the composers are great composers. And with Pierre Boulez, I really learned two things. First, for players it’s very important to read the score, exactly what the composer is writing.

It can be allegro, but what does it mean, allegro? After you understand all these details, it’s important to take care, really, about all these details. And second one, with Boulez and the repertory from the 20th century, it was very important to respect different dynamics and indications, and to be absolutely precise.

For Pierre Boulez, it was like an obsession. But, in one way, I was a young player, very enthusiastic and romantic. When you are 20 years old, you start to dream and to be open to everything. For sure, I was talented, but totally disorganized and with Pierre Boulez, quickly, I learned what it means to be really organized and precise. And this was very positive for the classical repertory or romantic repertory I was supposed to play.

Wesley Horner: What do you do when Mozart’s indications are not so exact?

Gérard Caussé:  For example, if you have a sforzando, a sforzando means you have to push a little bit, the dynamic. Sforzando, yes, on the word you have the expression, sforzando. There can be a sforzando in a piano, or in a mezzopiano, or in a forte. They are classical dynamics.

For the classical musician, without any experience of other kinds of music, sforzando is sforzando. It’s just accentuation, quickly. With a bow you press the string and you produce a “vuu”. But it’s different to produce a “woo” on the piano. One the piano it’s a “woo” on the mezzo it’s “voo.” It’s just one example.

Another example. You have a crescendo. What does it mean, a crescendo? A crescendo starts in one way and finishes in another. For a normal musician, a crescendo means you have to push the dynamic with enthusiasm. If you start to think about what a crescendo is, is it a crescendo included in a global movement, or on a specific moment, from one theme to another part. It can be a transition with a crescendo. All these questions are appropriate for all repertory. I learned a lot about this. It’s nice to have a connection between different repertory and the different eras.

Wesley Horner: Do you agree that Mozart, because he loved the viola, gave the viola some beautiful melodies, in these quintets, for example, more than other composers?

Gérard Caussé; Yes, definitely. In the history of the repertory, this composer, Mozart, it’s unbelievable what he composed for the viola. He composed two duos for violin and viola. Michael Haydn was supposed to produce six duos for the prince, and the day before they to be delivered, only four duos were ready. He asked Mozart to help him. Mozart composed two duos, fantastic duos, more extraordinary than Michael Haydn’s duos.

So, we have these two duos, really great pieces. And the famous string trio for violin, viola and cello, all bought and paid for by a friend of Mozart from the Masonic lodge. The viola part is extraordinary in this trio.

We have also Sinfonia Concertante, one of the most beautiful pieces Mozart composed for violin and viola. It’s really the first time, I told you before, it was possible to compare the violin and viola. It’s like a love story, one is speaking and the other one is listening and afterwards is speaking. It’s possible to realize how the same musical phrase is different with the color of the violin and the color of the viola.

Wesley Horner: Like a contest.

Gérard Caussé: Exactly.

Wesley Horner:  Suppose there was a knock on your hotel room door here in Salzburg, and you opened the door, and there stood Mozart. He says to you, “I have 10 minutes. Do you have any questions for me? You’re playing my music, these quintets. What would you like to know? I can tell you whatever you would like to know.”

Gérard Caussé:  Ten minutes? Oh God! I would stand with an open mouth for eight minutes. Then one minute to kiss him, and the other to say, “Thank you, really, thank you, thank you! You are really from the family of the violists.” I mean, with a special heart. It’s a special family to play the viola. We are not so much divas, like violinists. It’s very special. For sure, I would say, “Thank you Mozart, thank you, thank you.”

Wesley Horner: And no one else can read the clef anyway. Only violists, like a brotherhood.

Gérard Caussé: Exactly. You’re right.