The Times, (Saturday, June 27, 1931), p. 10; Issue 45860; col B
BORN JUNE 28, 1831
The great executant is short-lived. There were those who observed a diminution of power in the last years of Joachim’s long career and were so conscious of it that their memories of him as a great artist have remained clouded ever since. There were those, on the other hand, who were so ardent in their admiration of the artist that they refused to admit that of which Joachim himself was painfully aware, that in age the hand of the violinist is peculiarly liable to falter. “I cannot promise a Spohr concerto,” Joachim wrote to Stanford in 1901, “for the reason that my staccato, as wanted for his compositions, has left me. I am told that De Bériot was in the same predicament even at an earlier age.”
But the staccato and Spohr do not matter very much now. It is not of such things that even the older musicians, who remember Joachim’s playing in the plenitude of his power, think now when they look back on his career a hundred years after his birth. Rather they recall that it was he more than any other who put the chaconne of Bach and the concerto of Beethoven in their rightful places as masterpieces of musical literature; that he with his chosen colleagues created a standard of classical string quartet playing by which all later performances in that kind have been judged, so that to this day to say, “better than the Joachim Quartet” is held to be a rash bestowal of the accolade; and further that it was Joachim who taught the world to know Brahms, and to some extent taught Brahms to know himself.
Joachim’s ability for these tasks was dependent on the executive power which he displayed from an early age. Had he not been a great violinist he could have accomplished none of them, but executive power alone could not lead him even to the beginning of them. Mendelssohn, who introduced him to the Gewandhaus at Leipzig and played his accompaniments on his first appearance there, discerned in him something more than the exceptionally brilliant Wunderkind 12 years of age. He realized that behind the unerring left-hand technique, the supple bow arm, and the rich tone which the bow drew so easily from the fiddle there was a quality of mind which put all these things in their right places as sources of musical expression. The early letters show that the boy Joachim was keenly, sometimes crudely, critical of performance, but his comments on Ernst, Sivori, and other violinists who were his seniors show that his musical sense was never deceived for a moment merely by displays of virtuosity, but that he recognized an unfailing virtuosity as the groundwork of a musical interpretation.
Although Joachim appeared as a solo player all over Central Europe, and his first appearance in England took place only a few months after the concert with Mendelssohn at the Gewandhaus, he was spared by circumstance the life of the incessantly travelling virtuoso which has proved the ruin of so many artistic aspirations. He found a firm anchorage as Konzertmeister at Hanover at the age of 22, where the training of an orchestra, the organization of its concert repertory, and the performance of chamber music became the main preoccupations of his career until his removal to Berlin to take up the direction of the Hochschule für ausübende Tonkunst in 1869. The appointment at Hanover came just at the right moment for the development of his immense musical gifts to wider issues than the attainment of a personal ascendancy in performance. He threw himself into developing in his colleagues that sense of the right adjustment of the means to the end which was so strong in himself, and through the orchestra at Hanover he became one of the pioneers in that recreation of standard in ensemble playing which was so important a feature of the art’s history in the latter half of the century.
We are now so conscious that the big men like Liszt, Wagner, Berlioz, Hans von Bülow, and Joachim himself were all working at different parts of the same problem in this matter, whether they proclaimed themselves champions of the new music or defenders of the classical ideals, that their partisanships and controversies are apt to seem merely deplorable. Joachim’s rupture with Liszt and his friends certainly seems to display an excess of conscience and a defect of humour. But with less of the one and more of the other Joachim could scarcely have kept his step firm and his course straight along the middle of his appointed road. Just as for him complete virtuosity was a necessary condition of fine interpretation, so in composition a pure beauty of design, every perfectly formed phrase intelligibly linked with its surroundings by well-apprehended principles of rhythm and tonality, was essential to a genuine expressiveness. This he found in the chamber music of Brahms and failed to find in the symphonic poems of Liszt. The claim that the emotional impulse was everything, the design anything or nothing, was anathema to him. His rigorous code of criticism condemned much that the world has since accepted as belonging to artistic “progress,” but it does not follow that the world is right and he wrong. The suffrages of the masses are of slight consequence in comparison with the judgment of so sensitive an artistic nature as Joachim’s.
But be this as it may, the important testimony of Joachim’s career consisted not in what he stood out against but in what he stood out for. The late Poet Laureate has enshrined what he stood for, in England particularly, in a sonnet addressed to Joachim which speaks of
Thy ennobling trust
Remembered when thy loving hand is still,
and it was his sense that great music is a trust in keeping of the interpreter which guided the whole course of his career. For over 40 years, from the time of the Monday Popular Concerts at St. James’s Hall to the Joachim Quartet concerts organized by Mr. Edward Speyer at Bechstein and Queen’s Halls, Joachim was faithful to his trust of “Perfecting formal beauty to the ear” before English audiences. The debt which English taste owes to him is incalculable.