The Spectator, 24 August 1907, p. 255.
N. B.: Obituaries are posted for historical interest only, and should not be taken as sources of accurate biographical information.
WHATEVER her claim to consideration on the score of her native musical products, England has on the whole been singularly fortunate in her relations with the great foreign musicians. Sometimes, as in the case of Handel in the eighteenth and Manuel Garcia in the nineteenth century, this attachment led to a permanent residence. Sometimes, as in the case of Beethoven and Brahms, Schumann and Schubert, there has been cordial and intimate appreciation without personal contact; while Mendelssohn and the great artist whom we all deplore, without abating a jot of their patriotism, found a second home amongst us. The association of the two names is inevitable, for Mendelssohn was one of the first to recognise the genius of the young Hungarian and to commend him to his friends in England. The relationship thus auspiciously begun more than sixty years ago remained unbroken to the close of Dr. Joachim’s life. For half-a-century his name has been a household word among us wherever music is cared for. He was the pillar and glory of the Popular Concerts from their earliest days. His periodical appearances lent a special lustre to the Crystal Palace and Philharmonic Concerts and the great provincial Festivals, and of late years the visits of his quartet party have been an outstanding feature in our musical annals. Many musicians have been admired and idolised, but none have been so reverenced as Joseph Joachim. Honours were heaped upon him, but they never exceeded his deserts, and there was that in the man himself which happily kept vulgar flattery aloof. He was never called upon to wade through roses to the platform, or mobbed by fashionable maenads in St. James’s Hall. His native dignity and simplicity rendered such adulation impossible. It has been said of certain performers that to do themselves justice they needed artificial lights and a gaily bedizened and bediamonded audience. Joachim was entirely independent of the adventitious stimulants of an artificial environment. Or, to put it in another way, the only music that he cared to play did not require a spectacular setting to reinforce its appeal.
One has only to compare Joachim with most of the famous violinists of the past to realise how small a part of his greatness was that which was their chief title to eminence,— technical dexterity. It was not that he despised or neglected it, for no one was more thorough in his methods, but that at a very early stage of his career he abandoned the desire, if, indeed, he ever harboured it, to astonish rather than enlighten his hearers. His early successes—for he was famous at thirteen—did not beguile him into following the lucrative, but unsettling and feverish, career of the travelling virtuoso. From that danger he was saved by his own exalted ambition, by the advice of his master, the admirable Böhm, and by the parental interest taken in his progress by Mendelssohn, and subsequently Schumann, who not only hailed him as a great interpreter, but predicted for him a distinguished future as a composer. His early, intimate, and lifelong association with Brahms, again, was another potent determining influence on the exercise of his gifts. Indeed, in the whole history of instrumental music it would be impossible to find a more felicitous or better matched partnership. In the great majority of cases the executant falls below the requirements of the composer when they are contemporaries. But Brahms found in Joachim an interpreter endowed not merely with a splendid technical equipment, but with the highest intellectual and spiritual qualities as well; and this confidence in a kindred spirit assuredly lent wings to his inspiration. Indeed, where Brahms’s music for the solo violin or the string quartet was concerned, he always wrote with Joachim in his mind, while occasionally, as in the case of the Hungarian dances, there was actual collaboration between the two friends. This relationship only emphasises the contrast which has so often been noticed between great players and great singers. The latter, in nine cases out of ten, act as a drag on composers, and where they associate themselves with contemporary music, generally exhibit a fatal preference for the work of inferior musicians. There have been brilliant exceptions in the past — Schröder-Devrient and Pauline Viardot-Garcia and Stockhausen— and in the last twenty years the standard of excellence in the choice of songs by leading professionals has immensely improved. Still, the fact remains that singers as a rule are loth to undertake pioneer work, even when their reputations are securely established. On the other hand, the great players have, in the main, kept much more nearly abreast of the creative achievements of their time. Joachim’s services in this regard were perhaps most conspicuously shown in his connexion with Brahms, but can be happily illustrated by his relations with many other modern composers. The number of compositions dedicated to him is legion, but it may suffice to mention Schumann’s Fantasia for violin and orchestra, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody in C sharp minor, Max Bruch’s First and Third Concertos, Dvorák’s Violin Concerto, Sir Charles Stanford’s Suite for violin and orchestra, and Sarasate’s First Book of Spanish Dances. The mention of Sarasate prompts one to add that the admiration was mutual, Joachim having always recognised the peculiar charm of the “fascinating Spanish violinist,” as he called him, and he repaid the compliment by dedicating to Sarasate his Variations for violin and orchestra. The proverb about two of a trade has often been painfully exemplified in the history of music, but it has found no support in the life of Joachim, who numbered amongst his intimate friends Ernst, Wieniawski, and Ferdinand David, as well as Liszt, von Bülow, and Rubinstein.
But Joachim’s loyal services to his contemporaries never interfered with his devotion to the great masters. His interest in the music of the past was not archaeological; it was governed by an unerring judgment which led him to consecrate his energies to the interpretation of the classic literature of the violin. He was the great hierophant of Bach and Beethoven, but his repertory was not confined to the music of Germany. No one had a livelier appreciation for the old Italian masters, from whom, handed down through Rode and Böhm, he derived the traditions on which his violin-teaching was based. The debt that the British public alone owe to Joachim as an educator of musical taste, as an elevating influence in art, is incalculable. The fame of the mere executant is, as a rule, short-lived; but the greatest music of the king of instruments will always remain inseparably associated in the minds of those who heard him with the tones of Joachim’s violin and the sight of his noble presence, — the very incarnation of strength, dignity, and simplicity. As a teacher no less than a player his influence was world-wide. He did not found a school, but he carried on and developed the best traditions of the great Franco-Italian school which originated with Corelli. The long list of his famous pupils is in itself a singular testimony to his greatness, while his modesty, his disinclination to thrust himself forward or claim a predominant position, could not be better illustrated than by the fact that, alone amongst violinists of the first rank, he devoted himself in the plenitude of his powers to quartet-playing, and as years passed on spent more and more time in this less remunerative and more self-effacing branch of his high calling. Few men of his eminence in art have inspired deeper affection than Joachim. He had known almost every one worth knowing in Germany and England during the last fifty years, and men of action as of thought yielded to the spell of his grave personal charm. Yet for all his sanity and seriousness he had a keen sense of humour, could enjoy a joke at his own expense, and used to tell with keen appreciation the story of the working man who accosted him at a railway station in the North of England where he was waiting late at night for his train, and, after some conversation, left him with the parting shot, “Paganini was the man.” It is good to think that the ties which bound him to this country were never relaxed, but rather grew closer with every succeeding visit, and it is a curious proof of his popularity that throughout the whole English musical world whenever the name “Joe” was mentioned, it stood for Joseph Joachim.