A Life in Tune

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Thoughts on faith and music by world-famous piano technician Franz Mohr

“He is an Institution, a Living Legend, an Icon in the World of Steinway. Throughout the piano community and industry, not just in the Americas or Europe, but all over the globe, Franz is well known, he is admired and he is loved. This is how Frank Mazurco, executive vice-president of Steinway & Sons, describes Franz Mohr, chief Steinway concert technician for over 25 years and indispensable associate to legendary pianists such as Vladimir Horowitz, Artur Rubinstein, and Glenn Gould. Mohr’s recorded many of these experiences in his book My Life with the Great Pianists, co-authored with Edith Schaeffer (Baker, 1996).

In addition to his international reputation as a piano tuner, he is also known as a man of deep faith and constant prayer. In 1999 he traveled with StoneWorks director Colin Harbinson to China to tune pianos for Harbinson’s international “Ode to Joy” cultural exchange festival there. In May of 2009, he talked about his life as a Christian in the arts marketplace to the participants at the European Arts Summit in Austria, co-sponsored by five Christian networks working in the arts: Stoneworks, Schloss Mittersill, Creative Arts Europe, Crescendo, and Arts+.

Crescendo director Beat Rink conducted a series of interviews with Mohr in 2004 that were published under the German title Große Maestros, hinter der Bühne erlebt [Backstage with the Great Maestros]. In the following excerpts from these interviews (translated into English by Melissa Manny Knabe), Mohr talks about his conversion to Christianity, the opportunities he has had as a piano tuner to share his faith with musicians, and the importance of prayer and Bible reading in a well-tuned life.

You can learn more about Mohr here: www.FranzMohr.com

My life has not always been easy and I went through many difficult times, starting with the great shock during the World War II. My college towns were destroyed, and a short time later, my hometown of Duren was also destroyed, which disturbed me deeply. In the winter of 1943, the Allies bombed the Music Academy in Cologne, where I had been studying violin. I had rented a small room nearby, and I ran to the site when I saw the building in flames. Even more horrible than the ocean of flames was the sound of the burning instruments. Piano strings were bursting, and then, all of a sudden, we could hear the concert organ wailing as a rush of hot air streamed through its pipes. It was as if all the instruments had begun playing a song of mourning.

The memory of those sounds stayed with me for a long time. Shortly thereafter, I was drafted. I absolutely hated this senseless war and searched desperately for a way to leave the service. In November of 1944, I had a few days off and went home to visit my parents and my younger brother in Duren. My older brother had been sent to Russia and never returned. On November 16th, the day after I returned home, the Allies destroyed our city. . . .

On that day in November, I lost my other brother as well as my faith in God. As we huddled in the bomb shelter of our house, I started screaming at my mother because I couldn’t take her appeals to heaven any longer, “Stop praying, Mother! Stop! There is no God!” And afterwards, I hated the English for destroying Duren. My parents had always been against the Nazis, and I knew all too well that Germany had started the war. But it didn’t matter: I hated the English anyway.

And then it had to be an Englishman, Dr. McFarlane, who gave me my first Bible and told me in his unforgettable, loving manner, “Franz, no matter how much you hate me, I love you. And Jesus Christ loves you. I will pray for you daily.” I was in a deep, dark crisis in life—totally depressed. I joined a group of Marxists and sought distraction, together with my friends from the Dixie Band in which I played guitar. We generally performed for American soldiers who turned out to be rather bold. They made a game out of throwing grenades through the window, while we musicians hid behind the piano. Germany was destroyed, but our lives were “fulfilled.” We had everything we wanted: food, drink, plenty of girls, money, cigarettes off the black market and even a car. We really didn’t have any problems.

One evening, while we were playing at an army barracks, our band’s manager went out to the courtyard and shot himself in the head. Shortly thereafter, I began reading the Bible and quickly discovered in the very first chapters that people had always faced hatred and death. Thus, I realized that I couldn’t blame God for the horrors of this world. I understood very clearly what Jesus Christ had done for us on the cross. He had died for us and had taken all the punishment upon Himself.

I was converted during the lowest point of my life. I fell on my knees in front of my bed and cried out to Jesus Christ. From that point on, my life changed dramatically. From one hour to the next, my addiction to nicotine disappeared, and I suddenly felt an indescribable peace and a joy that haven’t left me since.

. . . . .

I don’t just barge in with my faith. For example, I prayed for years to be able to talk with Horowitz just once about Jesus. It took quite a long time for this opportunity to arise. . . . I like to mention my faith if I feel that it is appropriate and the other person is receptive to it. The point is not to be confrontational, but to honestly tell people that God loves them and has forgiven them.

Only a few people reacted overly negatively. Wanda Horowitz was the most negative of them all until [her conversion]. Arthur Rubinstein didn’t want to hear about the Christian faith either, and so I didn’t talk about it with him. Although in the later years he always asked me, “Franz, are you still praying for me?”

Photo courtesy of Crescendo

I’m convinced that many musicians are open to faith. Whenever a pianist asks questions or openly talks about beliefs, I usually try to bring up the subject more frequently. That’s what I did with Vladimir Ashkenazy, who has often hired me. An interview with him appeared in the New York Times, where he said that he was an atheist and didn’t have any faith. Reading that hurt me deeply, and so I bought a Russian Bible. I had an opportunity to give it to him in the artists’ room in Carnegie Hall. His wife was there at that time. I told him that his comment to the New York Times had hurt me, because the Bible means the world to me and that all my strength comes from God’s promises.

Ashkenazy politely thanked me and took the Bible. He corrected his comment and said that he doesn’t see himself as an atheist, but that he simply doesn’t know that much about God. So he took the Bible and promised to read it. When I saw him a few weeks later he excitedly came up to me and said, “Franz, I read the Bible now! And I have to tell you that a whole new world is opening up to me!” He was very happy.

. . . . .

The success [of my career] has changed me inasmuch as I’m eternally grateful to have such a fulfilled life and to have the opportunity to share God’s love with so many people . . . I’ve always been amazed at the opportunity I have as a piano tuner to travel around the world.

. . . . .

One day, the Japanese pianist Kikuko Nakamura called me to say she was completely carried away by the English version of the book [My Life with the Great Pianists] and offered to translate it. . . . Mrs. Nakamura said on the telephone, “Mr. Mohr, I really like your book. Even though I’m a Buddhist, I bought a Bible right away. Now I’m reading both!” We talked for a while. From that point on, the pianist started translating and also found a good publisher. She called me regularly, sometimes twice a week, to ask lots of questions, some about Christianity. Since then, the Japanese version has already reached its sixth printing.

. . . . .

Franz Mohr speaks at the 2009 European Art Summit co-hosted by Stoneworks, Schloss Mittersill, Creative Arts Europe, Crescendo, and Arts+.

It’s a shame that many Christians forget Jesus’ promise: “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” . . . I don’t just mean financial and material fulfillment, but the fulfillment that comes from a deep relationship with Jesus Christ. Lots of affluent people don’t have depth and lack orientation. I’ve found this to be the case with many artists. But, just as I need my tuning fork to have a fixed reference point to tune a piano, we as humans also need a stable point of orientation in order to “tune” our lives. This point cannot be found within us, just as I can’t do anything with an out-of-tune piano without a tuning fork.

Please understand: it doesn’t matter how good the piano is, if it is not played, it is worth nothing. A happy and fulfilled life on the surface is still out of tune if there’s no faith in Jesus Christ. That’s why I need this exterior sound every single day.

. . . . .

The 180-minute interview between Beat Rink and Franz Mohr has recently been released as an audio book on CD. It can be ordered here: http://www.crescendo.org/index.php?id=20

I like to recall the picture by Corrie ten Boom, the Dutch Christian who survived the terror of a concentration camp: Our life is like a tapestry, which we only look at from the back side. There are many threads and strings that run along courses and into each other, having no apparent logic. But when we die and go to Jesus, the tapestry is turned over and we will be amazed at the artistic design revealed there. But, it’s important to refrain from weaving the carpet ourselves, but that we ask for God’s guidance and His will. I pray instead every morning, “God, I put this entire day into your hands! Do with me as you like and please guide me!” And I get to experience how God leads and directs me, helping me make the right decisions, in the most wonderful way.

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