Joseph Joachim

Posted on March 7th, 2011 by

Joseph Joachim – ( Joseph Joachim by Sir Leslie Ward
watercolour, published in Vanity Fair 5 January 1905
Primary Collection 

PSS JOURNAL ENTRY: I have just had an ONLY CONNECT moment here in Hannover. I was wondering around the Gartenfriedhof, 300 metres from where Brahms  would stay when he was in Hannover working with Joachim. This graveyard is where Charlotte Kestner (1753-1828) is burired. Charlotte is, was, ‘Lotte’ the inspiration for Goethe’s ‘Sorrows of Young Werther’. The graveyard is a romantic idyllic, now, Narcissi and long grass in the shade of linden trees. 10 metres from Charlotte, to my astonishment, to my amazement, lies Caroline Herschel (1750-1843), the great comet chaser, sister of William Herschel, that Fanny Burney went to visit at work. I was here with my long time collaborator Jan Philip Schulze, and there we we next to two women who symbolised the poles of the Romantic imagination, together in a flower filled graveyard in Lower Saxony. Total inspiration. 330pm 19th April 2011 (Hannover)


 The Hungarian Violinist Joseph Joachim acquired near-legendary status with his debut in London, under the baton of Mendelssohn, in 1844. As was still the practice he arrived armed with letters of introduction to the Hanoverian Embassy, from Mendelssohn:

  “His manner of playing all modern and classical solos, his interpretations, his perfect comprehension of music, and promise in him of a noble service to art, will, I am sure, lead you think as highly of him as I do. But at the same time, he is a capital, healthy, well brought up, and altogether thoroughly good and clever lad, full of intelligence and very straight forward. Therefore be kind to him, look after him in Great London, and introduce him to those of our friends who will appreciate such an exceptional personality, and in whose acquaintance he, for his part, will also find pleasure and stimulation.’

 Mendelssohn was effectively an honorary Londoner, so the combination of this letter and the other doors which he could open to his protégé, ensured, at the least, a social success. The rest was up to the musicians.

 Joachim and Mendelssohn took a calculated risk, and presented Beethoven’s Concerto at a concert of the Philharmonic Society, on May 27th 1844. In 1920, Pamela Willetts wrote:

 ‘After its first performance by Eliasson at a Philharmonic Society concert on 9th April 1832, the violin concerto [Beethoven] was dismissed by The Harmonicon: ‘It is a fiddling affair, and might have been written by any third or fourth-rate composer.’ It was not until the youthful Joachim aged thirteen, performed it at a Philharmonic concert on the 27th May 1844, with Mendelssohn as conductor, that it was appreciated in London.’

 Three years later, on the 3rd February 1847,  Joachim then fifteen years later, celebrated Mendelssohn’s last birthday in Leipzig, in fine style. Ignaz Moscheles remembered:

 ‘The proceedings opened with a capital comic scene between two lady’s-maids, acted in the Frankfurt dialect by Cécile and her sister. Then came a charade on the word Gewandhaus. Joachim, wearing a fantastic wig a la Paganini, played a crazy impromptu on the G-string; the word Wand [wall] was represented by the ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ wall-scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream; for Haus, Charlotte [Moscheles] acted a scene she had written herself, in which she was discovered knitting a blue stocking and soliloquizing on the foibles of female authoresses, advising the to attend to their domestic duties. By way of enforcing the moral, she summons a cook-that was me, and my appearance in cap and dress was the symbol for general uproar. Mendelssohn was sitting on a large straw armchair which creaked under his weight as he rocked to and fro, and the entire room echoed with his peals of laughter. The whole word Gewandhaus was illustrated by a full orchestra, Mendelssohn’s and my children playing on little drums and trumpets, Joachim leading with a toy violin, and my Felix conducting a la Jullien. It was splendid.

 The death of Mendelssohn later that year left the teenage violinist bereft; he did not find a replacement for his great teacher for six years, when he met Johannes Brahms. In a letter to Gisela von Arnim, he would remember:

 To Gisela von Arnim, Düsseldorf, August 8, 1856: ‘The wise and gentle expression which rests on the brows of the dead is remarkable; I noticed it in Mendelssohn too, the only person besides Schumann whom I have seen after death.’

 George Bernard Shaw was ambivalent about Joachim, and suggested that his charisma had blinded listeners:

  “I must first mention, however, that Joachim was never to me an Orpheus. Like all the pupils of Mendelssohn he has seldom done anything with an allegro except try to make speed to duty for meaning. Now that he is on the verge of sixty he keeps up the speed at the cost of quality of tone and accuracy of pitch; and the results are sometimes, to say the least, incongruous…Of course, you cannot really play a fugue in three continuous parts on the violin: but by dint of double stopping and dodging from one part to another, you can evoke a hideous ghost of a fugue that will pass current if guaranteed by Bach and Joachim. That was what happened on Tuesday. Joachim scraped away frantically, making a sound after which an attempt to grate nutmeg effectively on a boot sole would have been as the strain of an Eolian harp. The notes which were discernible enough to have any discernible pitch at all were horribly out of tune. It was horrible-damnable! Had he been an unknown player, introducing an unknown composer, he would not have escaped with his life. Yet we all-I no less than the others-were interested and enthusiastic. We applauded like anything, and he bowed to us with unimpaired gravity. The dignified artistic career of Joachim and the grandeur of Bach’s reputation had so hypnotised us that we took an abominable noise for the music of the spheres.”

 For all this, Shaw was in awe of Joachim’s abilities as a chamber musician:

 [Shaw 14 February 1876] On the following Monday, when Herr Joachim made his rentrée, was heard the first really well played allegro since the departure of Mme. Norman-Neruda: that of Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 59, with the fugued finale. The great violinist also played in a Haydn quartet; and for a solo Sebastian Bach’s Chaconne in D minor. Being encore, he played a familiar gavotte by the same master, whose music he treats in a peculiar style, which is the more welcome because it differs from the traditional insistence on hard outline to which we are accustomed.

 Joachim’s quartet performances in the UK established a tradition and a reverence for chamber music that continues to this day. W.S.Cobbett, perhaps the greatest enthusiast for quartet playing this country has ever known, recalled the impact these performances made on him as a young man:

 ‘I listened in my youth to another and scarcely less remarkable ‘Joachim Quartet’ at the London ‘Pops’. The ‘cellist Piatti, was admittedly the greatest then living, Ludwig Straus as violist of singular elegance of style, though producing less tone than Wirth, and Louis Ries a second violin who at least was solid as a rock. These were the men whom Joachim led to victory, an artistic victory almost without parallel in music history, for he may be said to have opened the eyes of English musicians to the truth that chamber music, so far from being a remote, almost esoteric art, is an art of universal appeal among real lovers of music…. In short he was a nation’s teacher. In my humble self I speak with the certainty that hundreds of other amateurs had in those days a similar experience. Although I never took a lesson from him in my life, he was as truly my teacher as if I had taken hundreds of the conventional kind. I rarely missed a ‘Pop’, and usually, by waiting at the doors of St James’s Hall, secured a seat on the platform. Had I heard him in a room I could hardly have been better able to study his methods.’


Fifteen years after his first appearance on the London stage, his friends in Germany were confused by his love of London, Brahms, most of all, who was determined, in 1859, not to visit:

 To. Clara Schumann: ‘ Hamburg, July 3, Sunday Evening 1859. I don’t like to hear, nor do I like to think, of Johannes Anglo-mania. Is it all going to end in marriage? If no, why does he wear himself out so? I only hope he will remain as he is and that this is only a temporary aberration, which will not continue to take up his time and strength. I don’t think that for am moment that I shall ever go to England-at least not until I have been to Swabia, and wandered to my heart’s content in the beautiful forests of Germany, nor before I have seen the Tyrol, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, Egypt, India, etc. etc, in spite of all the Handel Choirs of 3000 voices, and all the wonderful scenes and battle pieces in Shakespeare plays.’

 Brahms’s sniffiness about Joseph Joachim’s love of ‘battle pieces in Shakespeare plays’ was perhaps more perceptive than he might have thought.  Joachim was delighted to vist Charles Dickens at this hous at was Joachim. Dickens himself referred to him  as ‘a noble fellow’. Dickens’s daughter wrote about the visit:

 “I never remember seeing him so wrapt and absorbed as he was then, on hearing [Joachim] play; and the wonderful simplicity and un-self-consciousness of the genius went straight to my father’s heart, and made a fast bond of sympathy between these two great men.

 Joachim himself was not only inspired to visit the great writer, but to find himself at Gads Hill, linked to the past, close to Shakespeare.:

  Joachim to Hermann Grimm[LONDON] Tuesday, the 15th [July 1862]. ‘Last week I spent two days in Dickens’s hose, near Rochester, and hour’s railway journey. You and Gisel would enjoy being there; the house stands on Gadshill, where Falstaff’s knavery , of jovial memory, took place.’

 It is not surprising that he was excited; he had written an Overture to Henry IV.

 Joachim was also friends with Alfred Lord Tennyson. The poet’s son wrote of an extraordinary evening:

‘My father was fond of asking Joachim to play to him in his own house. One particular evening I remember, at 86, Eaton Square. My father had been expressing his wonder at Joachim’s mastery of the violin-for Joachim had been playing to us and our friends numberless Hungarian dances-and by way of thanks for the splendid music I asked him to read one of his poems to Joachim. Accordingly, after the guests had gone, he took the great musician to smoke with him in his ‘den’ at the top of the house. There they talked of Goethe, especially praising a poem of Goethe’s old age, Der West-Östliche Divan’, and then my father read ‘The Revenge’. On reaching the line- ‘And the sun went down, and the stars came out/ far over the summer sea’–he asked Joachim, “Could you do that on your violin?”- the peace of nature after the thundering of the battle. There was no more reading, however, that night, for he suddenly turned round to me, saying,  “I must not read any more, else I shall wake up the cook, who is sleeping next door.”’

This discussion continued, as it were, in the ether. When Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said extended their discussions of music and politics into the sphere of action, it was to Goethe’s poem that they turned, founding an orchestra formed of young people from both sides of the West Asian conflict, the ‘East-West Divan’.

 In 1860, Joachim was giving concerts in Dresden. Hans Christian Andersen was profoundly moved by the concert he gave with Clara Schumann:

 Dresden 2nd November 1860-Til Edvard Collin [trans. PSS] ‘Last night, I was at the last concert that Clara Schumann and Joachim gave here; it was overwhelming and that was a true novelty to here. She asked me to say that she would be delighted to be invited to Copenhagen. Joachim is somewhat famous, and I wish that everyone in Copenhagen had heard him-there is strength and beauty, there is a human-heart in his violin.’

 The memory of Joseph Joachim was all but removed by the Nazis; like Mendelssohn, his statues were pulled down, paintings removed. Bertha Geissmar, whose extraordinary memoir The Baton and the Jackboot tells the story of the impact of this period on musical life in Germany tells a charming story of her father’s friendship with the aged Hungarian:

 ‘The Joachim Quartet played in Mannheim. Joachim asked to see the Strad (Vieuxtemps), but remarked critically that there was some rosin under the bridge. My father started to clean it off with a silk handkerchief, but Joachim stopped him by saying: “I never do that, I spit on it; that is the best method to preserve the varnish”, and in future we cleaned our instruments in the way advised by the great violinist.’


 Stayed at 25 Phillimore Gardens in February 1873 and 13 Airlie Gardens in March 1886.[1]

 Joseph Joachim, J A Fuller Maitland, John Lane, Bodley Head, London, 1905.

 Beethoven and England, Pamela Willetts, British Museum, London, 1920, P.53

 On wings of Song, Wilfred Blunt, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1974,P.259

 P. 132

 GBS ‘On the Subject of Fiddling’ The Star, 28 February 1890. Shaw’s Music, Ed. Dan H Laurence, The Bodley Head, London, 1981, Volume 1, Pp.933-4 

 Shaw’s Music-The Complete Musical Criticism of Bernard Shaw, Volume 1 1876-1890, ed. Dan Laurence, The Bodley Head, London, 1981,Pp.89-90

 Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Study of Chamber Music, Compiled and Edited by WW Cobbett, OUP,  London, 1929, Volume 2, P.38

 Pp,105-6, Letters of Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms¸ Vol. 1, Ed. Berthold Litzmann, Vienna House, New York, 1973.

(Dickens and Music: Lightwood)


 The Musical Times and Singing Class Circular, Vol. 39, No. 662 (Apr. 1, 1898), pp. 225-230

 Breve fra H.C.Andersen , Redigeret at C.St.A.Bille & Nicolaj Bøgh, Aschehoug, Copenhagen 2005, P.727

 Great Morning, Osbert Sitwell, Macmillan, London, 1948,P.9