© Robert W. Eshbach, 2013

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Ferdinand David


After Mendelssohn, Ferdinand Victor David was the unquestioned leader of Leipzig’s musical community. A genial, energetic man beloved by the Leipzig public, the acclaimed concertmaster of the Gewandhaus Orchestra was Mendelssohn’s close friend and confederate. They had been born under the same roof, eleven months apart: Felix on February 3, 1809 and Ferdinand on June 16, 1810 [1]. At the time, Mendelssohn’s father was a leading Hamburg banker and David’s a prominent merchant. The house at Große Michaelisstraße 14 was a prodigious nursery. Fanny and Rebecka Mendelssohn were born there as well, as was David’s gifted sister Louise, who, as Mme. Louise Dulcken, would later have a notable pianistic career in England [2].

When David was twelve years old, his musical studies took him to Cassel, where for two years he studied violin with Louis Spohr and learned theory from Moritz Hauptmann. In 1825, he and his sister (“Cabale und Liebe” their father called them, after Schiller’s drama) [ii] set out on an extended concert tour, appearing in Copenhagen, Berlin, Dresden and Leipzig. In Berlin, they renewed their association with the Mendelssohn family, and Ferdinand and Felix became friends. The following year, on Felix’s advice, [iii] David settled in Berlin, where for two seasons he occupied a position in the Königstadt Theater Orchestra. During his Berlin years, David became a regular guest and chamber music partner at Leipzigerstrasse 3.

From 1829 to 1835, David led a string quartet in the employ of Field Marshal Karl Gotthard von Liphart (1778-1853) in the largely German-speaking city of Dorpat, Livonia (currently Tartu, Estonia). Liphart was a man of deep culture, an art historian and musical amateur. His collection of paintings, drawings, graphic art and sculpture, as well as his library of 30,000 volumes was pre-eminent in the Baltic lands. David’s duties were light enough during his years of service in Dorpat to enable him to undertake solo concert tours to a number of Russian cities, among them St. Petersburg, Moscow and Riga. When Mendelssohn was appointed conductor of the Gewandhaus in 1835, he invited David to lead his orchestra. Having achieved this prominent and secure position, the newly-appointed Gewandhaus concertmaster married Sophie von Liphart (13 November 1807 — 8 March 1891), the daughter of his former patron. His marriage brought with it a considerable fortune.



Gerhard’s Garden, 1851
The Thomaskirche is in the background

The newly-wed couple took up residence at Gerhard’s Garden number twelve, in a house that Chorley called the “the beau idéal of a German musician’s residence.” At that time, Leipzig’s inner city, which is a mere fourteen-hundred paces across at its largest diameter, was encircled by green space, with allées, meadows and large, elegant gardens, to which Leipzigers could escape in summer months for leisurely strolls, meals, outdoor concerts and theater performances.

Summer Theater Leipzig

Summer Theater, Gerhard’s Garden

A mere two decades earlier, from the 16th to the 19th of October, 1813, these pleasant gardens had been the site of the bloody “Battle of the Nations” — until then the largest battle in European history — in which Napoleon’s army of 191,000 was defeated by an allied force of 330,000, the combined casualties totaling nearly 100,000. Napoleon’s Polish-born Marshal, Jósef Antoni Poniatowski met his doom in the terrain west-northwest of the city, when his retreating armies were trapped in a curve of the Elster River, the only escape bridge having been mistakenly detonated by friendly troops.


Statue of Flora in Gerhard’s Garden

[Stadtgeschichtliches Museum, Leipzig]

On the site of this slaughter, legation councilor Wilhelm Gerhard later erected a large summer theater, and eventually a small seasonal museum of battle artifacts, surrounded by walks and garden-homes. [3] “Some parts [were] delightfully kept,” wrote Joseph’s friend Felix Moscheles, “others still more delightfully neglected. Wild tangles blocked disused paths; weeds and creepers climbed up the legs of classical statues, and wound round their arms when they had any.” [v] In these bucolic surroundings, David and his family led a “pleasant life […] spent in a constant interchange of good offices, musical and social, with his towns-men and strangers.” [vi] “In private life David took great delight in intellectual pursuits,” recalled one observer. “A well-read man, his brain was richly stored with knowledge beyond that required in his ‘daily round and common task.’”  [vii] He was well acquainted with art, for which, as a youth, he had shown an aptitude equal to his musical talent. He spoke fluent French and very good English. “Witty and humorous to a degree, he was a pleasant companion and excellent conversationalist.” [viii]

Turkish Baths Gerhardt's Garten


Turkish Baths, Gerhardt’s Garden

David was a presence in Leipzig. Wherever we look, we encounter him: as soloist, conductor, concertmaster, quartet player, composer, editor and teacher. Alfred Richter, who knew him well, left this vivid portrait:

David was […] not a virtuoso of the highest rank. His left-hand technique was not sufficient for conquering the greatest difficulties; instead, he possessed an exquisite agility of the right hand, to an extent that one encountered in no other violinist, Wieniawski excepted, [4] which, however, also tempted him into all sorts of tricks, as his violinistic opponents, allegedly also Joachim, deemed them.

[…] The “tingly” liveliness of his character, as Wagner would say, carried over into his playing; as repose did not accord with his nature, he did not like long-held notes. They did not suit him, and I can easily imagine that in the beautiful introduction to his friend Mendelssohn’s overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, where […] the violins have to hold very long, high notes, it must have cost him a prodigious amount of self-possession not to embellish it with a trill.

A propos, a funny story. I had composed a violin sonata — he had heard about it, and since he had always taken a great interest in me, invited me through my father to play it for him. In this sonata there was an eight-measure-long so-called “lying voice.” In the rehearsal, the talented violinist Stigalski said to me that David would on no account suffer this long note, but would immediately propose a trill. And, sure enough, it happened. Stigalski winked merrily, and I could hardly stifle a laugh. [x]

As concertmaster, David was “a man complete in his subject,” “the right man at the right time in the right place.” “I have met with no one at the executive head of an orchestra to compare with Herr David,” wrote Chorley. “Spirit, delicacy, and consummate intelligence, and that power of communicating his own zeal to all going along with him, are combined in him in no ordinary measure […].” [xi] Alfred Richter confirms Chorley’s impression:

One had to have seen David in the rehearsals: how he stood there, [5] following every note with an acute ear, turning around slightly at each difficult spot and playing into the first violins. And then, whenever a particularly difficult section appeared […] woe to the unhappy young fiddlers who ruined the passage! He used to single them out then, and it might also transpire that he would rehearse the place with a single stand, usually the last, on which the advanced conservatory students stood who were promoted to participation in the concerts — indeed with a single pupil — occasionally to the amusement of the large audience who also attended the rehearsals, but by no means to his own; for in things that pertained to art, and upon which the success or failure of the performance depended, he had no sense of humor, as witty as he could be otherwise. […] And how he took the initiative when the tempo was not taken up as quickly as he wanted it, and with what life and fire he filled the entire orchestra — he positively electrified it — one had to have seen that, or rather heard it! [xii]

David Scan

Joachim’s relationship with David was cordial, but it was not without a certain critical distance. Though it has often been averred that he studied with David, [6] Joachim never claimed David as his formal teacher: he considered himself to have completed his violin studies with Böhm. During Joachim’s Leipzig years, Böhm’s status as Joseph’s “final” violin teacher was freely acknowledged in the contemporary press, as well as in private correspondence between David and Böhm. In Andreas Moser’s authorized biography, we read that “the boy continued to study on his own, going to David from time to time for advice on pieces that he either had never heard, or had not taken up in Vienna: [7] primarily Spohr’s concertos, Bach’s pieces for solo violin and the concerti of Beethoven and Mendelssohn that he wanted to incorporate into his repertoire.” [xiii] Formal lessons may have ceased; nevertheless, given the importance of those pieces to Joachim’s long musical career, one can assume that David’s influence on Joachim must have been substantial. David clearly guided Joseph’s choice of repertoire, and he, himself, pioneered much of the repertoire for which his protégé would later become famous. He premiered Mendelssohn’s violin concerto, for example, and he was the first to play Bach’s Chaconne in public (in a Gewandhaus concert on January 21, 1841). [8] He also set an example for Joseph as a chamber musician. “[…] David was the greatest pioneer of Beethoven’s quartets in Germany,” claimed Ivan Mahaim, the French authority on the performance history of those canonical works. “He had been playing all the Beethoven quartets in Leipzig for many years, albeit separately, and from 1857 on he was the first musician in Germany who dared play the Great Fugue Op. 133 and indeed played it repeatedly in public. [9] The secret of the adolescent Joachim’s miraculous maturity in the performance of Beethoven’s music lies in the fact that he worked with both Joseph Boehm and Ferdinand David.” [xiv]

Though David’s influence on Joseph was strong, it is nevertheless unconvincing to try to ascribe to him the “secret” of Joachim’s “miraculous maturity.” David provided repertoire guidance, musical advice, opportunities for performance, and a healthy example of what it meant to be a dedicated, working musician. On the other hand, Joseph’s early letters to Böhm suggest that, already as a 13-year-old, he was self-confident enough to know his own mind musically, and it seems unlikely that David’s violin playing ever appealed to him in any deep way. “Just as in matters of taste the two men were totally different, so they were in the manner of handling their instrument, both technically and as regards performance,” wrote Alfred Richter. “One had to a high degree precisely that which the other had to a small degree, and vice versa. And so it is very probable that Joachim thought differently from David in many things that pertained to violin playing. But I believe it is totally out of the question that […] he therefore had a disparaging opinion of his quasi-teacher. […] I have never personally spoken with Joachim about David, but in earlier times, when the latter was still alive, I often observed, that [Joachim] was very devoted to him. Whenever he came to Leipzig and played in the Gewandhaus — and that occurred nearly every year with the exception of the Weimar period — he made a habit of […] standing near the first desk where David and the second concertmaster Dreyschock, later Röntgen, played […] after the intermission, and playing with the symphony, which always electrified the orchestra and the audience, and spurred [David] on […] to surpass himself, as much as this was still possible. Later, after David’s death, he no longer did this. [xv]

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[1] His birthday is sometimes given as January 19.

[2] Among her achievements, she introduced London audiences to Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor (on April 3, 1843, with the London Philharmonic), and was Queen Victoria’s piano teacher and court pianist.

[3] “Herr Legationsrath Gerhard,” wrote Felix Moscheles, was “a personal friend of the great Goethe, and himself a gifted poet, and so good a scholar, that he was able to make an admirable translation of Burns’s poems. The good people of Leipsic appreciated his talents, but were very angry with him because he was unmistakably a poet with an eye to business, and he charged five neugroschen (sixpence) for admission to the historical site and to the Poniatowski Kiosk.” [Moscheles/FRAGMENTS, p. 94.]

[4] Mendelssohn called upon this facility with the bow in the last movement of the concerto that he composed for David.

[5] The violinists in the Gewandhaus orchestra stood to play.

[6] Including in the New Grove entry for Ferdinand David: Albert Mell: “David, Ferdinand,” Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed July 18, 2006) http://www.grovemusic.com. Q. v. Moser/JOACHIM 1908, p. 52n.

[7] This is borne out by Fanny Wittgenstein’s November 26 letter.

[8] David was responsible for the first practical edition of J. S. Bach’s sonatas and partitas for violin alone. It was he who established the practice of combining an edited part, arranged with his bowings and fingerings, with what he believed to be Bach’s Urtext. Joachim followed this practice in his own — still popular — edition, published posthumously in 1908.

[9] This is something that even Joachim did not dare to do until the very end of his career.

[i] Author’s Collection.

[ii] Eckardt/DAVID, p. 2.

[iii] See the long, detailed and interesting letter of August 1826, Eckardt/DAVID, p. 9-13.

[v] Moscheles/FRAGMENTS, p. 93.

[vi] Chorley/MUSIC, p. 96.

[vii] The Musical Times, Vol. 47, No. 761 (July 1, 1906), p. 460.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Author’s collection.

[x] Richter/GLANZZEIT, pp. 216. m.t.

[xi] Chorley/MUSIC, p. 95-96.

[xii] Richter/GLANZZEIT, pp. 226. m.t.

[xiii] Moser/JOACHIM 1898, p. 42.

[xiv] Mahaim/CYCLES, p. 514.

[xv] Richter/GLANZZEIT, pp. 219-220. m.t.