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First Lessons

            “Music did not take an important place in the Joachim family,” writes Andreas Moser; “they were fond of hearing it, but showed no deep interest in it.” [i] Joseph’s older sister Regina reputedly had a pleasant voice, and like many young women of her time, she studied singing. Young “Pepi” was fascinated by the guitar that she used to accompany her songs, and is said to have spent untold hours exploring its many possibilities. [ii] Joachim later told Britain’s Lord Redesdale that, when he was about four years old, his father went to town one day to attend a fair, and brought home a “little sixpenny toy fiddle” as a “fairing” for his son. “Little Joseph seized upon it eagerly,” writes Redesdale. “It became his constant companion, he contrived to coax a tune out of it, and his destiny was fixed.” [iii]

His sister’s songs, and the dances of local gypsies and street musicians, were Joseph’s first musical impressions. His early attempts at reproducing them on violin were encouraged and guided by a family friend, a medical student and amateur violinist named Stieglitz. [1] After a mere four weeks, impressed by the child’s unusual gift for music [2] and aware of his own limitations as a teacher, Stieglitz encouraged the Joachims to find him a proper instructor.

Joachim’s obituary in the Pester Lloyd asserts as a little-known fact that Joseph received his first formal violin lessons from Gustav Ellinger (1811-1898), [3] a first violinist, and later concertmaster, with Pest’s German Theater. Reportedly, Pepi took his lessons together with another student, Karl M., who subsequently became a noted writer. When Ellinger repeatedly criticized Joseph, comparing him unfavorably to his companion, the Joachims took their son to another teacher: the concertmaster and conductor of the opera in Pest, Stanisław Serwaczyński. Joseph was then “barely five years old.” [iv]


Stanisław Serwaczyński

Stanisław Serwaczyński [4] was a first-rate performer, esteemed for his soulful interpretations, his robust tone and his flawless intonation. A native of Lublin, in Austrian West Galicia (currently Poland), Serwaczyński had received his first music lessons from his father, the director of the Lublin cathedral choir. He subsequently studied violin with a certain Count Guadagni, an experienced violinist, and an officer in the Kaiser-Hussaren. Before becoming concertmaster in Pest, Serwaczyński toured extensively as a soloist, and his concerts in Italy in 1832 evoked comparisons with Paganini. For a time, he was employed as concertmaster under the renowned violinist and conductor Karol Lipinski in the Ukranian city of Lvóv. In 1832 he served for a season as first violinist and soloist at the Kärntnertor Theater in Vienna before departing for Pest.

Serwaczyński’s depth of emotion, combined with his love of dramatic contrast, his sensational staccato and command of every variety of accent made him an extraordinarily characterful player. At the same time, he has been described as “full of emotional sincerity and without a shadow of showmanship.” [v] He had known and performed with Frédéric Chopin, and descriptions of his playing evoke Chopin’s spirit. “Through the tender manner of his playing, Polish melodies acquired a wistfully affecting caste,” wrote a contemporary critic. In such music, his performances were “full of feeling, mellifluous, indeed, nearly melancholy, according fully with the character of the Polish people.” [vi]

Serwaczyński was a serious teacher, au courant with the latest in violin pedagogy. At the end of his career, he could count two of the greatest violinists of the century among his students — Joseph Joachim and Henryk Wieniawski — though each studied with him only briefly. If Serwaczyński’s style was characteristic of both the Eastern European and contemporary French schools of violin playing, his pedagogical methods were primarily French. In the 1830’s, the Paris Conservatoire was barely forty years old, yet its influence throughout Europe had been immense. The Conservatoire was the first modern music school, and its curriculum, disseminated by its own publishing firm, Le magasin de Musique à l’usage des fêtes nationales, soon found its way to far-flung regions of Europe. Thus, in the capital of Hungarian culture, six-year-old Joseph Joachim received, through Serwaczyński’s good graces, a thorough grounding in the modern French Méthode de violon, the work of Viotti’s successors, Rode, Baillot and Kreutzer. Violin lessons would soon come to dominate Pepi’s education. Nevertheless, Julius and Fanny saw to the general education of their son as well, sending him to the public Volksschule.

© Robert W. Eshbach, 2013.

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[1] Or Stiegnitz (see: Reich/BETH EL, p. 61).

[2] Joachim had perfect pitch. Charles Hallé wrote about this in his autobiography: “This faculty has proved to have one drawback: viz. that the pitch of that period, a good half-tone lower than the present one, has remained so impressed on my brain, that when I now hear a piece of music for the first time, it seems to me in a higher key than it really is written in; I hear it in C when it is in B, and have to translate it, so to say. My friend Joachim shares this peculiarity with me, and it is now and then very perplexing.” [Halle/AUTOBIOGRAPHY, p. 27]

[3] Though Stanisław Serwaczyński is generally credited with being Joachim’s first teacher, this little-known—or unknown—“fact,” rings true. Ellinger was the first teacher of two other distinguished violinists, both of them Joachim’s friends and contemporaries: Edmund (Ödön) Singer (1830-1912) and Jakob Grün (1837-1916). “Pepi” Joachim and “Mundi” Singer were boyhood friends. Edmund Singer was born on October 14, 1830 in Totis, Hungary. He studied in Pest with Ellinger and David Ridley-Kohné (who also taught Leopold Auer), and in Vienna with Joseph Böhm. At age 13 he went to Paris for several years, after which he returned to Pest, where he was appointed concertmaster of the German Theatre orchestra. Singer made a brilliant Leipzig Gewandhaus début in December, 1851, playing Lipinski’s popular Military Concerto. In 1854, he succeeded Laub (who had succeeded Joachim) as concertmaster of the Weimar Hofkapelle under Liszt. In 1861, he became professor of violin in Stuttgart, where he also founded a highly regarded series of quartet concerts. He died on January 23, 1912. Singer was the editor of many standard works for violin, still available in the Schirmer edition. He played a Maggini violin that he had acquired from his former teacher, Ridley-Kohné.

[4] Stanisław Serwaczyński (b. 1791, Lublin—d. 1859, Lwów).

[i] Moser/JOACHIM 1901, pp. 2-3.

[ii] Gumprecht/CHARAKTERBILDER, p. 261; MT/JOACHIM, p. 225.

[iii] Redesdale/MEMORIES, p. 659. This story, also found in Moser, is related by Lord Redesdale, in a somewhat inaccurate way as regards place: i.e. in Kittsee. By then, the family had moved to Pesth. The story of the toy fiddle is also found in Gumprecht: [Gumprecht/CHARAKTERBILDER, p. 261]. In each source, it probably stems from Joachim himself.

[iv] MT/JOACHIM, p. 225.

[v] GROVES article.

[vi] Article: Serwaczyński, in Wurzbach/LEXIKON, Vol: Seidl  Sina, p. 155.