by SIR MICHAEL MORPURGO – How it all began.
Like 90 percent of the books that I’ve ever written, the stories I’ve ever told, this came from real happenings. I have to have the roots of the story in my own life, my own memory, or in history. And in this particular case, it was a trip I made with Clare, my wife, to Venice 25 years ago.
We were coming back through the streets of Venice towards the Accademia Bridge, round the corner by a church into a small square. We started hearing music, and there was this man standing under a lamp, 11 o’clock at night. It looked like he was playing to himself as no one was around, and then we noticed 10 meters away from him, this extraordinary sight of a small boy in his pyjamas sitting on a tricycle. The man was playing away, and it was just the two of them. We stood in the shadows at the edge of it and just watched this extraordinary scene, this wonderful music, and a single child listening to it. I knew we were witnessing the most beautiful moment. There was this wonderful connection of people going on. The supreme evidence, if you like, of how arts of all sorts can touch the children’s heart very young, and that can change your life, whether it’s a good story, or a great piece of music, or a play.
The next day we got up and thought we would go for a walk, wherever it takes us, not going anywhere in particular. We came to this strange gateway, and it looked rather different from everywhere else. We walked through it, past one or two rather forbidding looking buildings into another square, with a very stark group of buildings all around. Not at all gracious. We suddenly realized we were in a place called the ghetto. This was the first and most famous ghetto of all, where the Jews who lived in Venice had to stay. They could come out, but at night, they were shut in. About 400 of them. We started seeing memorials on the wall around, and we realised the fascists had come to this particular square, and they’d rounded up all the Jews, and marched them off to the camps, and I believe four or five came back. That was it.
The echo in my head was of last night. I had just witnessed the most beautiful moment I think I’d ever seen in my life, and here I was in this place, which simply was where hell began for so many people. And I suddenly realised I had gone from heaven to hell, within 24 hours. I had to decide, which was more powerful, the evil I was witnessing and remembering, or the music? I then thought, weren’t there musicians in the concentration camps where those 400 went? And might there not have been, amongst the 400, a violinist or a cellist?
I hadn’t researched it yet, but I had heard that in the camps the Nazis gathered together musicians, Jewish, mostly, because they wanted orchestras. They wanted music for themselves, but also because they had devised this devilish idea that when the trains came in the Nazis thought they should put this orchestra by the gate so all the prisoners had to march past. They wanted them to feel that this was alright, this was a nice place. The prisoners didn’t know what they’re walking into. It was just truly horrible.
What I really understood from that was that they used this wonderful thing of music, for this awful purpose. And then I ask myself the question, if you had been in such an orchestra and been lucky enough to survive, would you ever play your instrument again? And if you’d been playing Mozart, would you ever want to play that again?
Maybe there is a father, maybe his wife works in the laundry, and they have a child. And they’ve hidden a violin on a cupboard in their flat, and the boy finds it. He wants to play it, but his mother says “No, you can’t. Your daddy was a violinist, but he doesn’t play anymore. It’s a big secret.” Well, you know what children are like with secrets, they want to unlock them.
So, I had this story in my head now. Of what a father or mother might do after they got out of the camps and they had survived. Those were the true facts that I had in my head, and a little bit of the dreaming weaving it together. At some particular point, we started making a concert out of this story. I had a wonderful group called the Storytellers Quartet, I would read the story with an actor friend, and we’d have concerts. The quartet would play the kind of music which these poor musicians would have played at the camps in order to survive, and it always seemed to go down very well, there was clearly a lot of drama in the story and the music echoed it.
Then the thought came to us that maybe you could take this a step further, perhaps there’s a play here, and we happen to know these wonderful people called the Barn Theatre. We got talking, and the notion came up that we could make a play of The Mozart Question.
So, from that night in Venice and the walking through the streets and the hearing of that music and that little boy on the tricycle, the journey of 25 years to bring it to the stage. For me, it’s not magical. It’s wondrous.
The Mozart Question is running at the Barn Theatre, Cirencester, from 21st March until 30th April. To book tickets go to barntheatre.org.uk or Call box office on 01285 648255.
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