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Alsager

NPG D13535; Thomas Massa Alsager ('The mirror of the Times') by and published by Richard Dighton, reissued by  Thomas McLean

Thomas Massa Alsager. By and published by Richard Dighton, reissued by Thomas McLean, hand-coloured etching, published August 1823

National Portrait Gallery, London


Music-making in early 19th Century London owed much of its character to the enthusiasm and enterprise of musical amateurs. Among them, none 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. Many of Beethoven’s works received their first English performances  — often by distinguished artists — at Alsager’s home at 26 Queen Square, Bloomsbury. Larger works were not excepted: the English premiere of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis took place there on December 24, 1832 conducted by Ignaz Moscheles. Alsager’s pioneering work on behalf of the Beethoven quartets culminated in a remarkable series of five concerts, held at two-week intervals between April 21st and June 16th 1845, in which the entire cycle of sixteen quartets (excluding the Grosse Fuge) was performed for the first time. Every concert featured at least one selection each from Beethoven’s early, middle and late quartets. Beautifully engraved programs and special pocket scores were printed for each occasion, to help the audience of 250 in their understanding of the works at hand. 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. [i]

Beethoven Qt pass 18

“Honor to Beethoven”

Admission token for a concert of the Beethoven Quartett Society

            Alsager committed suicide in 1846, on the anniversary of his wife’s funeral. Nevertheless, with the exception of 1849, 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. [1] 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. [ii]

Alsager copy

[iii]

One of the beautifully produced programs from the 1845 Beethoven Quartett Society Concerts. Poetry, musical incipits and program notes helped to do “Honor to Beethoven” and to spread the gospel of the Beethoven string quartets. The concerts were held at 76 Harley Street, the home of Louis Julienne (1812-1860), the colorful  director of the Drury Lane Theater. Hector Berlioz stayed there on his 1847 visit to London.

            Over the years, Mendelssohn had been a familiar participant at Alsager’s gatherings, performing both as a pianist and violist. On Thursday May 16th, 1844, having recently arrived from Berlin, he responded to Alsager’s invitation for the following Sunday: “Of course I shall be most happy to be allowed to assist to your musical Séance. . . I need not assure you that I will be at your house as early as I can, & you know very well how happy I shall be to shake you again by the hand & to perform on the Tenor [viola] or if that cannot be on the Piano as much of Beethoven’s music, and as little of mine as you possibly can give me.” [iv] Joseph was also invited to participate in the event, at which he delighted Mendelssohn with his performance of one of his “musical father’s” piano quartets. In the course of his stay in London, Joseph was a frequent guest at Thomas Alsager’s home, and a frequent partaker in the music-making there. [v] As a parting gift, Alsager presented Joseph with the Beethoven quartets in score.

On his second visit to London, in 1847, Joseph took part in the Beethoven Quartett Society’s ground-breaking performances, together with veteran performers Sainton, Hill, Thomas and Rousselot. [2] During that same 1847 visit, Joachim and the great Italian ‘cellist Alfredo Piatti [3] began a legendary chamber music partnership that lasted until Piatti’s retirement in 1898.


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[1] By Eduard Rappoldi and colleagues in Dresden. The Joachim Quartet did not perform the entire cycle until 1903. See: Mahaim/CYCLES, pp. 541-547.

[2] Violinist Prosper Sainton, violist Henry Hill and ‘cellist Scipion Rousselot were original members of the Beethoven Quartett Society.

[3] Alfredo Piatti (1822-1901) had been discovered, destitute and ill and playing on a borrowed instrument, by Franz Liszt, who, with characteristic generosity, bought him an Amati cello and introduced him in Paris. Shortly thereafter, Piatti made his London debut — on May 31, 1844, four days after Joachim. Longtime friends, Joachim and Piatti celebrated the 50th anniversary of their debuts together.


[i] Mahaim/CYCLES, p. 509.

[ii] Mahaim/CYCLES, pp. 508-509.

[iii] Reproduced in Mahaim, vol. I. Original in British Museum.

[iv] Levy/ALSAGER, p. 124.

[v] Margaret Alsager Ayrton’s unpublished diary in Levy/ALSAGER, p. 124 n.