Three musical pilgrimages: Mozart, Grieg & Hendrix

By Ed Boitano

Mozart – Geburtshaus;
Salzburg, Austria

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) could read and compose music, plus play the violin and keyboard, when he was 5 years old.

Born into a musical family in Salzburg, Austria (then part of the Holy Roman Empire), he had a unique ability for imitating music, which first became evident when he recited a musical piece by simply observing his father conducting a lesson to his older sister. This led to a childhood on the road, where the young prodigy performed before many of the royal courts of Europe.

At 17, no longer a child prodigy, he returned to Salzburg and accepted a post as a court musician, but was frustrated with the poor salary and stifling opportunities. His early travels and uncanny memory, though, had provided him with a plethora of musical styles and experiences, which he used to create his own compositional language. He eventually settled in Vienna, where he achieved fame, and is now considered one of music’s most influential and prolific composers.

Mozart was never happy with his career in Salzburg, as he experienced little fame; however, the city today is a mecca for all things Amadeus. An essential stop is a visit to Mozart’s Geburtshaus (birthplace). This is the house his parents lived in for 26 years and where young Mozart was educated.

Now a three-story museum, it is filled with original instruments – Mozart’s childhood violin, concert violin, clavichord and pianoforte – portraits, family letters and furniture, including Mozart’s cradle. I strongly recommend a private tour; guides are walking encyclopedias about his life. I asked mine, Why were Mozart’s famous eyes so bulging? The answer: He didn’t eat his vegetables!

Edvard Grieg – Troldhaugen;
Bergen, Norway

Despite his diminutive 5-foot frame, Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg was a towering rock star long before the expression existed.

Born into a successful Bergen merchant family in 1843, his life dramatically changed when violin virtuoso Ole Bull recognized his talent and introduced him to the treasures of Norwegian folk music. Grieg studied the masters abroad but dreamed of retreats to his beloved Norwegian countryside – a pattern that continued after he became a world-renowned composer.

Grieg and his wife built a home on Lake Nordås, on the edge of Bergen, which he called his best opus so far. Christened Troldhaugen, the Victorian villa featured a tower, flagpole and rooftop vegetable garden. It soon became a centerpiece for Bergen’s artistic community and visiting dignitaries. Grieg loved the attention, but he needed quiet to work and built a composer’s hut by the lake.

Grieg died in 1907 of chronic exhaustion. But today his legacy lives on at Troldhaugen, a living museum consisting of the Edvard Grieg Museum, the villa, the composer’s hut, concert hall and Grieg’s tomb.

For me, the high point of my visit to Troldhaugen was a recital at the concert hall, which is discreetly built right into the grounds, complete with sod roof. The floor-to-ceiling windows behind the stage overlook the composer’s hut where Grieg worked, superstitiously sitting on a stack of sheet music by Beethoven so he could reach the piano.

At the end of each day, he would leave a note: “If anyone should break in here, please leave the musical scores, since they have no value to anyone except Edvard Grieg.”

Jimi Hendrix –  Museum of Pop Culture, Seattle (formerly EMP)

To this native Seattleite, the Emerald City’s most famous export is James Marshall Hendrix. Born in 1942, Hendrix had an unremarkable life in Seattle. A second cousin of mine discovered from an attendance record – nine years after the fact – that “Jimmy” actually had been one of his students at Garfield High School. Hendrix later dropped out of school and joined the Army, never looking back.

A self-taught musician, the left-handed Hendrix played a restrung right-handed guitar upside down, creating a completely original sound. Discovered in New York by the Animals’ original bassist, Chas Chandler, Hendrix was relocated to London, where his name was changed, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was formed and his career blossomed.

Once asked if he was from Seattle, Hendrix replied, “A thousand years ago.” Nonetheless, he was one of us, and it seemed fitting when Paul Allen created a museum for Hendrix at the Seattle Center almost 30 years after his death at 27. Famed architect Frank O. Gehry was commissioned to build the museum, which must be seen to be believed.

Coined the Experience Music Project, the venue showcases the world’s largest collection of rare artifacts, handwritten lyrics, personal instruments and original photographs celebrating the music and history of Jimi Hendrix. I found the exhibit devoted to the early Northwest sound particularly riveting – local legends like the Wailers and Sonics would ravage the crowd at Tacoma’s iconic Spanish Castle Ballroom. The then-unknown Hendrix would occasionally sit in (sometimes playing outside on the sidewalk) and later immortalized the club in his song “Spanish Castle Magic.”

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