© Robert W. Eshbach, 2013

Presented at the Ninth Biennial Conference on Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain
Cardiff University, June 25, 3013


“Last of a Classic School” — Spy (Sir Leslie Matthew Ward)

Joseph Joachim’s biography has been written by Germans, and we know a great deal about his life in Germany; today I’d like to speak a bit about Joachim’s very significant career in terra incognita, which is to say, Great Britain. Joachim’s British career spanned and defined a musical era, coinciding largely with the era we call “Victorian.” Victoria died in 1901, after a reign of 63 years and seven months. When Joachim died in August of 1907, he had been before the British public for 63 years and three.

Poor Joseph Joachim. In a career of nearly 70 years, he hardly got a single bad review — but the one that he got — for his performance of the Bach C Major Fugue — had to be from one ‘Corno di Bassetto’ — George Bernard Shaw:

 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 Aeolian harp. The notes which were musical 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 hypnotized us that we took an abominable noise for the music of the spheres.

It doesn’t matter that, a month later, Shaw virtually recanted this review, speaking of his renewed and increased admiration for Joachim’s talents. The nutmeg remark, clever as it was, is unforgettable, and has done its work on Joachim’s reputation. And it is about Joachim’s reputation that I would like to speak.

Aristotle, in his Rhetoric, gives the now classic three properties of effective persuasion: Logos, Pathos and Ethos. That is, the logic of the speech, the emotion with which it is delivered, and, not to be forgotten, the authority or reputation of the speaker. The role of Ethos in musical performance, referenced in Shaw’s review, was well demonstrated a few years ago when Joshua Bell, one of the best known of contemporary solo violinists, took out his Stradivarius in the entrance to the Washington, DC subway, and spent an hour playing the Bach Chaconne — the piece with which Joachim made half his career — and, because he appeared to be an unknown street performer, virtually no one paid the least attention.

Joachim’s career was built to an unparalleled degree upon Ethos — in the sense of professional reputation, certainly — but more importantly, in the sense of moral authority. The culminating demonstration of this came on May 16, 1904, when an audience of 2,000 gathered at London’s Queen’s Hall to celebrate the “Diamond Jubilee” — the 60th anniversary — of Joachim’s English début: the famous event at which the 12-year-old violinist first performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the Philharmonic Society, conducted by Felix Mendelssohn. For Britons, there had been really only one previous “Diamond Jubilee” — in 1897 the entire British Empire had celebrated 60 years of Queen Victoria’s rule. It was a notable tribute, then, that Joachim should be fêted with a “Jubilee.” J. A. Fuller-Maitland observed “perhaps no one except a crowned head has had so many opportunities of getting overdone with admiration as Joachim,” and indeed, amongst Victorian musicians, who but the “King of Violinists” could stand comparison, without a touch of irony, with the Queen? Amongst the event’s subscribers were more than six hundred eminences from the arts, literature and politics, including Parry, Stanford, Tovey, Elgar, the artists Alma-Tadema, Leighton, Watts, and John Singer Sargent (whose portrait of Joachim was presented to the violinist on the occasion). The evening was presided over by Prime Minister A. J. Balfour.

Then nearly 73 years of age, Joachim had transcended his virtuoso youth to become an elder statesman of sorts, recognized in England not only as “the last of a classic school,” the iconic representative of “absolute” German instrumental music, but as classical music’s equivalent to the great Victorian literary sages — men like Carlyle, Arnold, Emerson, Ruskin and Tennyson — the great intuitive thinkers who gave eloquent voice to the moral concerns of the age. Like them, Joachim was recognized for his interpretive insight and moral authority.

NPG D36522; Joseph Joachim published by Berlin Photographic Co, after John Singer Sargent

Joseph Joachim — Print of the oil painting by John Singer Sargent

Sargent’s portrait, presented that evening, brings these virtues to the fore. It is the classic image of a man of judgement: arms folded, head erect, sober, distinguished, self-assured, the imperious glance turned toward the viewer — and yet, importantly, the gaze is covered, introspective. The picture of a scholar, perhaps, or a philosopher — in any case, there is also no hint here of the virtuoso. Though his arms may often enough have cradled a violin, they rest now upon his chest. There is no instrument, no score to indicate the practical musician, let alone to suggest the showman. What Sargent shows us instead is a man of mind and spirit, the mature guardian of timeless wisdom — in Carlyle’s words, a man of “deep, great, genuine sincerity.”

could not be unframed in S.E.

Joseph Joachim (1904)

John Singer Sargent
American, 1856-1925
Oil on canvas. 87.6 x 73.0 (34 1/2 x 28 3/4 in.)
©Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Frank P. Wood 1928 901

This impression of inwardness, coupled with a complete lack of showmanship, was from his early youth an oft-noted characteristic of Joachim’s public persona. An auditor at one of his first concerts in England, Miss Robinson, imagined the “Boy-God” to be one of the elect, a messenger “sent from the Infinite Unknown with tidings to us:”

 …he bent his head close to [the violin] and shut his eyes till you might well fancy it was a spirit breathing out his plaint into his master’s ear. His face is very pale and perfectly free from vanity or consciousness of being anything extraordinary…

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Joseph Joachim — Portrait by G. F. Watts

The well-known portrait by G. F. Watts was famous in its day, not for being a particularly good likeness of the violinist, but for the way it captured his inward-looking expression — introspection being a prime characteristic of the sage.

Joachim was a member of the Holland Park Circle, and amongst his closest English friends were the artists Leighton and Watts, the photographer Julia Cameron, pianist and conductor Charles Hallé, and poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. Here, he was portrayed by Cameron in the classic pose of the literary sage:

JJ Cameron Shopped

Joseph Joachim — Photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron

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Alfred Lord Tennyson — Photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron

In the printed program for the Joachim Jubilee, poet laureate Robert Bridges apostrophised the violinist as

Thou that hast been in England many a year
The interpreter who left us nought to seek,
Making Beethoven’s inmost passion speak…
Bringing the soul of great Sebastian near;

Joachim’s contemporaries regarded him as the ideal interpreter of an edifying musical canon, founded on Beethoven and Bach. To Church of England clergyman Hugh Reginald Haweis, he was “the greatest living violinist; no man is so nearly to the execution of music what Beethoven was to its composition. […] He wields the sceptre of his bow with the easy royalty of one born to reign; he plays Beethoven’s concerto with the rapt infallible power of a seer delivering his oracle, and he takes his seat at a quartet very much like Apollo entering his chariot to drive the horses of the sun.” Royalty — seer. The appeal to Ethos. Apollo — and this is just taking his seat. And, indeed, this aura of the noble sage is often mentioned as some sort of mystical emanation from the great man even when he was not playing. An 1898 review from a “Pops” concert declares: “When he is not playing he sits there like some great seer — a master who, by the force of his wonderful personality, draws forth the homage and the profound respect of every music-loving soul who comes under his influence.”

Bridges continues:

Their music liveth ever, and ‘tis just
That thou, good Joachim, so high thy skill,
Rank (as thou shalt upon the heavenly hill)
Laurel’d with them, for thy ennobling trust…

Here is something rather new in musical reception: placing the interpreter’s art on a level with that of the composer (something that Brahms, you will recall, refused to do when Schenker appealed to him to contribute to Bülow’s monument, saying “er war ja nur ein Kapellmeister” — “He was, after all, just a Kapellmeister.” Donald Francis Tovey expresses a contemporary attitude when he claims: “[Joachim’s] playing was […] no mere reproduction, but creation.” Conflating the identities of interpreter and primary creator was a novel and essential aspect of the 19th-century critical outlook — characteristic of the great Victorian wisdom writers, and related to the growth of criticism generally. “The Victorian sage,” wrote George P. Landow, “is, above all else, an interpreter, an exegete […]. His essential, defining claim is that he understands matters that others do not — and that his understanding is of crucial value to those who see with duller eyes.”

The literary sage, like the preacher, relies heavily upon Ethos at the expense of Logos to move his audience. For Victorians, the ability to perceive spiritual truth was looked upon as a product, not of rational intellection, but of edification, or to use its German name, Bildung — a concept that has deep concordances with the Athenian notion of Paideia. As Cardinal Newman expressed it: “Religious truth is reached, not by reasoning, but by an inward perception. Anyone can reason; only disciplined, educated, formed minds can perceive.” The appeal of the sage’s art — Joachim’s art — lay therefore not so much in the realm of the objective — as epitomized in music by virtuosity — as in the imaginative: in its capacity to expand horizons — to discover the extraordinary in the common — to open minds to a quality of experience to which they had previously been deaf and blind. “To know; to get into the truth of anything,” wrote Carlyle, “is ever a mystic act, — of which the best logics can but babble on the surface.”

The literary sage interprets the world. The priest interprets scripture. The musical sage interprets a canon. Indeed, the art of interpretation is inseparable from the notion of canonicity. A canonic composition differs from a mere repertory item in that it seems to embody some timeless beauty or sacred truth that compels our attention as an object of interpretation. An improvisation or a virtuoso work cannot, properly speaking, be “interpreted,” since with such works it is the performance itself and not the text that is the decisive arbiter of the work’s impact and significance.

It was, of course, the works of Beethoven that formed the core of the emerging Classical canon, and it was the works of Beethoven — and Bach — works of high interpretive value — that formed the core of Joachim’s repertoire. Carl Dahlhaus observed: “The new insight that Beethoven thrust upon the aesthetic consciousness of his age was that a musical text, like a literary or philosophical text, harbors a meaning which is made manifest but not entirely subsumed in its acoustic presentation — that a musical creation can exist as an “art work of ideas” transcending its various interpretations. […] Beethoven’s [works] represent inviolable musical “texts” whose meaning is to be deciphered with “exegetical” interpretations […].”

Joachim’s embrace of Beethoven, and his avoidance after childhood of the virtuoso literature, was a significant and conscious choice. In my limited time, I should like to give some evidence that Joachim’s understanding of the performer’s role as interpreter derived substantially from his early engagement with Beethoven in “das Land ohne Musik”  — a land virtually devoid of canonic composers, but with a significant tradition of honoring interpreters — in literature, theology, the fine arts, and ultimately in music.


Joseph Joachim, aged 7

Joachim’s connection to Beethoven was personal. As a young boy growing up in Pesth, he had been a protégé of Beethoven’s intimate friends, Count Franz von Brunsvik, and his sister Therese. In Vienna, young Pepi Joachim lived with, and studied violin with, Beethoven’s colleague, Joseph Böhm, two blocks from the Schwarzspanierhaus where, a scant decade earlier, Beethoven had lived and died. Search as I might, however, I can find no evidence from his early life that would suggest the future interpreter or sage.


Pesth, ca. 1840

Pesth, long under the rule of the Turks, had no independent Classical musical culture, and hardly any concert music at all when Joachim lived there. Joachim’s early repertoire consisted of trivial works by composers like Mayseder, Cremont and Eck.

Joseph Böhm

Joseph Böhm

Biedermeier Vienna, where Joachim lived from the age of eight, was in the grips of Rossini and Strauss, and of virtuosity. Joachim was brought up by Böhm in the French school of violin playing — the school of Pierre Rode — post-Paganini, and it was Böhm’s intention to send him to Paris for finishing as a virtuoso. Joachim’s first, and formative, experience as a professional chamber music player came in England, and it was there, coincident with his studies under Mendelssohn, that he encountered the concept of a “sacralized” canon, to be explored with exegetical interpretations. It is also in England that his abilities as an interpreter, as opposed to a virtuoso, were first put to the test, and that his reputation as a mature artist was established.

Joachim’s youthful performance of the Beethoven Concerto was a trial by ordeal that provided the foundational myth for his English reputation. Strange to think, therefore, that this was almost a near miss with history: Joseph arrived in England expecting to play Spohr’s Concerto No. 8, the Gesangscene, but since Heinrich Ernst had only weeks earlier played the same work with the Philharmonic, the choice fell to Beethoven by default. Unlike the Spohr, Beethoven’s concerto was a profound, but unloved and misunderstood work — just the kind of piece that required a mature interpreter’s art to make its effect, and therefore a dubious choice as a début vehicle for a 12-year-old performer.

Joachim Daguerreotype

Joseph Joachim at the time of his London debut (Daguerreotype)

The Philharmonic had a long-standing ban on appearances by children. In arranging Joachim’s debut, Mendelssohn, who himself had a well-known aversion to the exploitation of prodigies, was required to give personal assurances to the committee that his young protégé was no mere Wunderkind, but already “an eminent artist and a fine person.” Impresario John Ella claimed much of the credit for easing the committee’s skepticism, by including Joseph in what amounted to a series of high-profile auditions:

By special invitation, I accompanied a literary friend, in April 1844, to the residence of the late Madame Dulcken, Pianist to the Queen, to hear a youth play the violin. M. Dulcken was in doubt whether a boy of the age of Master Joachim […] would be allowed to play at the Philharmonic Concerts, and both Sir Henry Bishop and Sir George Smart were sceptical on the matter. On the Tuesday following, the youthful violinist came to my second weekly quartet union, and led Beethoven’s Quintet in C. At two other of my private musical gatherings Master Joachim played solos, or led quartets, and ultimately I mustered a notable assembly of musical lions to hear him play Beethoven’s Posthumous Quartet in Bb. Royalty and nobility crowded my room, but the most illustrious of the company comprised Mendelssohn, Moscheles, Dragonetti, Ernst, Lablache, Döhler, Offenbach, Benedict, Thalberg, Sainton, Sivori, Sir George Smart, Sir Henry Bishop, and Costa.

Macfarren album page (scan-Lübeck?)

“For Joseph Joachim in remembrance of his friend G A Macfarren”

After the triumph of Joachim’s Philharmonic debut, his interim composition teacher George Macfarren was still at pains to distinguish the genuine musician from the Wunderkind. “Joachim is surely a prodigious fellow — I do not mean a ‘prodigy,’” he wrote. “This is a term that has been so abused that we conventionally understand it as a mountebanking charlatan. I assure you that on his instrument, in his general capacity for music, and in his mental powers in matters unconnected with the art, he is at once one of the most minded and most interesting persons I have ever known.”

NPG D10808; Thomas Massa Alsager ('The mirror of the Times') by and published by Richard Dighton

Thomas Massa Alsager

Music-making in early 19th Century London owed much of its character to the enthusiasm and enterprise of musical amateurs and entrepreneurs. Amongst them, few had a greater influence, or left a greater legacy, than the co-owner, financial writer and sometime music critic of the Times, Thomas Massa Alsager. At a time when Beethoven’s works were still struggling for recognition, Alsager was a devoted advocate for the most difficult of them: the later string quartets and sonatas that even today elude many sophisticated audiences.

Beethoven Qt pass 18

An entrance token to a concert by Alsager’s Quartett Society

Young Joachim was a frequent guest at Alsager’s home, beginning with his first visit to England in 1844, and was a frequent partaker in the music-making there. In 1845, Alsager’s pioneering work on behalf of the Beethoven quartets culminated in a remarkable series of five concerts, in which the entire cycle of sixteen quartets was performed for the first time. Alsager’s “séances,” as Mendelssohn called them, had a morally edifying purpose — to do “honor to Beethoven” by making his works comprehensible through exemplary performances. Beautifully engraved programs, with commentary by Henry Hill, and special pocket scores were printed for each occasion to help the audience of 250 in their understanding of the works at hand, reinforcing the notion that the quartets were canonical “texts” whose meaning, to borrow Dahlhaus’s words, was to be explored through “exegetical” interpretations. Listeners were requested to arrive at 8:00 o’clock for the 8:30 performances, to give them time to prepare their minds, and to assure that, once commenced, the music making would not be interrupted.


The performance of the complete Beethoven cycle by the “Beethoven Quartett Society” continued as an annual spring feature of the London season until 1851. It would be forty-three years before it would be performed again in its entirety. On his second visit to London, in 1847, 16-year-old Joachim took part in the Beethoven Quartett Society’s performances, together with veteran performers Sainton, Hill, Thomas and Rousselot. A contemporary reviewer commented upon the significance that these concerts had for the reception of Beethoven’s late works in England and beyond:

The Society’s concerts put an end to the controversy about the merit of Beethoven’s last quartets. Everything that used to be called eccentric, confused, linked to the excesses of a disorderly, unbalanced imagination resulting from the composer’s deafness, was actually only the product of the works’ originality which remained inaccessible to the uninitiated listener. In these brilliant recitals, the late Beethoven quartets were played with such exactness, such finesse of expression and nuances, with so much fire and impetus that they finally emerged in the purity of their architecture. They are listened to with most profound rapture. Unanimous opinion places them at the summit of this genre of composition.

That is to say, the truth that lay concealed in Beethoven’s canonic texts was merely waiting for the right interpreters in order to be revealed, and amongst those interpreters was the young Joachim. When, in 1904, Robert Bridges imagined Joachim laurel’d with Beethoven and Bach, he was expressing a sentiment that was uniquely English in its origins. In an age and a place that believed in the notion of edification through art, Joachim showed that the practicing musician, as well as the composer, the poet, or the painter, could unite and embody the qualities of genius and character, and that Euterpe and Polyhymnia could take their rightful place amongst their sister muses. Cambridge University bestowed a doctorate on Joachim in March of 1877. The University of Glasgow awarded him an LLD in 1887, and Oxford University followed suit the following year. Never before had a performing musician been so honored. Before Elgar, England may have been “das Land ohne Musik” for composers, but for an interpreter of the Classical canon, the land of the Victorian Sage — through the efforts of men like Alsager and Ella — was fertile ground indeed.