Sir Michael Morpurgo examines the power of music in one of history’s darkest periods

Sir Michael Morpurgo
Sir Michael Morpurgo

Michael Morpurgo’s The Mozart Question comes to the stage at Chichester Festival Theatre, narrated by Sir Michael himself and directed by Simon Reade.

The tale will be beautifully enhanced and embellished with extracts from music by Mozart, Bach and Vivaldi –  the tale of Paolo Levi, a world-famous performer who developed his passion for music as a young child with the help of his teacher, Benjamin.

Alongside Paolo’s story is that of his parents who were both musicians too – Jewish prisoners surviving, playing music in a concentration camp during the Second World War. 

Treated with the ‘utmost sensitivity’ for a family audience, The Mozart Question, Sir Michael promises, is a story of friendship and family, truth and secrets, interwoven by the power of culture and music.

It all began with a trip to Venice some years ago, as Michael recalls.

‘My wife and I were in Venice and came across two extraordinary moments. The first was coming back and we were walking through the streets when we heard this guitarist playing in a darkened square around the corner.

‘There he was, playing under a lamp, and what we heard was so beautiful. It was wonderful 18th-century guitar music, but it was some moments before we saw that he was not alone.

‘There was a small boy sitting on his tricycle at 11 o’clock at night in his pyjamas, and he was listening absolutely rapt by this beautiful music.

‘We watched this extraordinary moment, this young child perhaps for the first time in his life absolutely entranced by this great music. We thought that this was potentially a life-changing moment. It was very beautiful to see.

‘And then the next day we happened to be walking past the ghetto in Venice which we had not been to before, and we saw this place where more than 400 Jews had been taken away to camps in 1940. We had gone from heaven to hell in the space of 24 hours in terms of our thinking. We thought we had to somehow make music the link.’

And so the story The Mozart Question emerged: ‘We knew the story of those musicians who were made to play music as people were being got off the trains and were being divided up into those who were going to be killed and those that were going to survive a little longer by being forced to do slave labour. The Nazis decided that the music would calm people down.

‘I thought what if you were made to play that music… would you ever be able to play that music again? And so I created this story…’

For Michael, as always, the most important things are to remember and to pass on that memory to those increasingly removed from the real-life events: ‘But also it seems to be very important to do that in a way that makes us remember that history happened to real people. There is no point walking along a row of graves and just counting the numbers… or just to say ‘Isn’t it terrible that 6m Jews died?’

‘What really works is if you can make one of those Jewish people come alive, and that is the reason why Anne Frank is so extraordinary for so many millions of people.’

And therein lies the responsibility of storytellers, alongside the rather different responsibilities of the historians: ‘We need to capture the hearts of children. If you want to give them a sense that the past is important, that the past belongs to them and that they are involved in the past, you have got to capture their hearts… so that if they hear stories of anti-Semitism now it will have echoes for them. They won’t just think “How dreadful”. They will have a sense of what happens if you take it to its logical conclusion which is what the Nazis did…’

Music extracts include Vivaldi The Four Seasons – Summer and Winter; Bach – Violin Sonata No.1 in G Minor (adagio); Mozart – Eine Kleine Nachtmusik; and Mozart – Violin Concerto No.4 in D Major.

THE MOZART QUESTION

Chichester Festival Theatre

Friday, January 11 

cft.org.uk