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Study With Joseph Böhm



Photo: Emil Rabending, k. k. Hof-Photograph, Vienna

What an intimate friendship customarily exists between the earnest teacher and the attentive student! It is the communion of minds, and they tread in a relationship like that of father and son. [ii]

— Simon Sechter, 1841

An important teacher, [Leopold] Joseph Böhm is known today as the father of the Viennese school of violin playing. His pupils included some of the leading artists of the age: Ernst, Joachim, Georg Hellmesberger senior, Adolf Pollitzer [1], Eduard Rappoldi, Ede Reményi (Eduard Hoffmann), Ludwig Straus, [2] Edmund Singer, Jakob Dont and Jakob Grün. In 1819, Böhm was named the first professor of violin at the recently-founded Vienna Conservatory, a position he held until 1848. His pupils Grün and Hellmesberger later joined him on the Conservatory faculty. In the days of Richter and Mahler nearly all the violinists in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra were scions of this distinguished musical family, as they continue to be today. Grün’s pupil Franz Mairecker taught, among others, the Philharmonic’s 20th-century concertmasters Walter Barylli, Willi Boskovsky and Franz Samohyl. Samohyl’s pupils include more than twenty of the Philharmonic’s current members. Numerous others, past and present, are descendants of the Hellmesberger branch, including Arnold Rosé, Wolfgang Schneiderhan and Gerhart Hetzel. [3] Böhm’s violin playing was said to be “exquisitely pure and delicate,” and full of “soulful intimacy.” The unique beauty of the Philharmonic strings is often traced to the dark, voluptuous Hungarian sound introduced to Vienna by Böhm in the days of Beethoven and Schubert.

“Böhm’s personality was utterly endearing,” recalled Edmund Singer in his memoirs. “He was distinguished; seemingly cool, but never stiff. And he was never impatient, not even when he required this or that passage to be repeated a dozen times, until it turned out the way he thought it should […]. Occasionally moved to anger, he nevertheless was never provoked into an offending remark. A pupil of Rode, his method was a combination of the German and French schools. He frowned upon nothing so much as mawkish, mannered playing. ‘You’re feeling awfully sentimental again today,’ he would say. ‘An artist must have healthy playing, healthy feelings, healthy technique; only then is he an artist.’”

“Böhm’s instruction was very inspiring,” Singer continued, “although the master seldom took violin in hand to demonstrate. One knew, however, that he, himself, assiduously practiced all of the pieces that he taught, and I, like many others of his students, often stood before the doors of his room and evesdropped on his magnificent playing. He never played in concert, because appearing in public made him nervous; it was even said that his agitation immediately before a concert once reached such a degree that he fell into a faint, and that, as a consequence, he once and for all gave up appearing before a larger audience.”

Joachim’s training under Böhm was a true apprenticeship. In accepting Joseph as a student, Böhm and his wife agreed to take the “Pester Buam,” [4] as they called him, into their home on the Glacis, two blocks from the Schwarzspanierhaus where Beethoven had lived and died. [5] For the next three years, for all but the summer months, they would raise him in loco parentis, and train him in the practical skills of a professional violinist.



Joseph Joachim
From a daguerreotype

Once a “Pester Buam” himself, Böhm might have had a particular sympathy for young Joachim. Böhm had been born in Pest on March 4, 1795, and had studied violin with his father, a violinist in the local theater. As a boy, he practiced guitar as well as violin, and by the age of 12 he was able to earn money giving guitar lessons. He later took violin lessons with Pierre Rode, practicing so faithfully that he was banished to the attic by the other residents of his house. Rode, a principal representative of the bold new French style of playing, was then on the cutting-edge of violin pedagogy. Rode’s caprices and concerti are still studied today by every aspiring violinist. Together with selected works of Mayseder, they formed an important part of Joseph’s technical and musical training. In later life, Joachim was capable of playing from memory pieces by Viotti, Rode or Mayseder that he had studied with Böhm, though he had not practiced them since. “I have gone through a good school,” he said. “The rest has been given by a benevolent God.” [iii]

As a teacher, Böhm was able to help Joseph remedy the defects in his bowing that Hellmesberger had found so ruinous. “Based on an unfailing left hand and ideally smooth bowing, Böhm possessed an art of phrasing that enabled him to realize anything that he envisioned or felt,” Joachim later recalled. [iv] “In Böhm’s school Joachim’s bowing had become broad and free,” wrote Moser, “and he had acquired a degree of skill which in a few years was to lead to complete mastery. His pre-eminent power—later so conspicuous—of giving to each bowing its distinctive individuality; the absolute repose in his manner of drawing a long note; the incisiveness and pith of his half-bow; his spiccato, in all its shades, from “snow and rain to hail”; his equality of tone in all parts of the finger-board; in short, all the characteristics which adorn Joachim’s violin-playing, owe their origin to Böhm’s splendid method of teaching.” [v] “For the rest of his life,” Moser tells us, “Joachim could not say enough commendable things about the manner of [Böhm’s] instruction. Rigorous, serious and objective, it was at the same time loving and encouraging in every respect.”

As Catholics, the Böhms endured some criticism over their parental solicitude for Joseph; it was surely unusual in those years for a Jewish boy to live with a Catholic family. Moser claims: “Joachim was the butt of much harmless teasing at home on account of his Jewish descent.” Joachim also recalled to Moser how Frau Böhm would occasionally frighten him by saying: “Well, Pepperl, today the Chaplain gave me another good dressing-down because we have a heathen like you in our house. But don’t worry — practice like a good boy. We’ll answer to the dear Lord God for the rest.” [vi]

Though not a violinist, Frau Böhm played a critical role in the Joseph’s musical upbringing, attending his lessons, and taking personal charge of his practicing. Moser affords us a telling glimpse of their domestic life: “While Böhm was teaching in the Conservatoire, or discharging his duties in the orchestra of the Imperial Chapel, Pepi had to practice his assignment at home, and Frau Böhm would sit down, needle-work in hand, and supervise the boy’s practice. She would correct him with a ‘Pepperl, weißt, das war aber gar nit gut, und schöner klingen muß es auch noch… ’ (Viennese dialect: ‘Pepperl, look, that wasn’t at all good, and it must sound more beautiful still. You must practice such a passage repeatedly until you can manage it smoothly and without effort, etc.’).”  If he did not respond to Frau Böhm’s cajoling, “it might happen that the curtain was drawn back from the glass door of the adjoining room, and Böhm’s Mentor-head, with its strict but loving demeanor, would appear; or the door would open and the stern Herr Professor would call into the studio: ‘confounded boy, will you play that properly?’ This usually helped.” [vii]

Supervised practice was a critical element in Joseph’s success.  “For a long time, I […] was not allowed to practice alone,” Joachim wrote to Clara Schumann in 1861. [viii] Böhm employed a different approach to supervision with his conservatory pupils: an adaptation of the Lancasterian Monitorial System, a method developed by the British pioneer of mass education, Joseph Lancaster (1778-1838). Following Seneca’s motto, Qui docet, discit (“He who teaches, learns”), Lancaster’s system employed advanced students as peer tutors to help the less experienced members of the class. [7] According to one of Joachim’s fellow students, Adolf Grünwald, Böhm had his students play duets “for months together, so that the pupils became perfectly familiar with this form of music, indeed thoroughly tired of it.” [ix]

Not all Conservatory pupils thrived under this system. Karl Goldmark, who briefly studied with Böhm in 1847, gives an insight into this tiered system of instruction as Böhm practiced it: “Joseph Böhm was an extraordinary teacher. Great virtuosity, combined with thorough musical culture, were the results of his instruction. He spoke but little—his censure was a scornful smirk; it was devastating. In the five months that I attended school in his upper class, I only got to see how one holds the violin. And yet, from this class the greatest violinists emerged: for example, Ernst, Joachim, Auer, Ludwig Strauss, Singer, etc. Admittedly, only his private students got to hear him. And we learned from them.” [x]

Boehm crop


Joseph Böhm

Though Böhm no longer gave solo performances, he could nevertheless look back upon a distinguished performing career. He made his début in Vienna at the age of twenty-one, and two years later toured Italy with the piano virtuoso Johann Peter Pixis (1788-1874). Böhm and Pixis were still playing together in September, 1823, when a reviewer in Frankfurt am Main described Böhm’s playing of his own violin concerto in D Major and a Rondo brillant of Mayseder: “clarity, security, beautiful tone, [8] excellent facility and variety of interpretation; Herr Böhm possesses all of these characteristics. Particularly surprising was his articulate staccato in the quickest tempo.” [xii]

As a member of the Imperial Hofopernorchester from 1821 to 1868, Böhm played in many historically significant concerts, including a performance of Beethoven’s 9th symphony under the composer’s direction. He became an early advocate for Schubert’s chamber music, and on March 26, 1828 he gave the premiere of Schubert’s opus 100 trio.  Together with Holz, Weiss and Linke of the original Schuppanzigh Quartet, he performed Beethoven’s string quartets under the composer’s supervision, [9] in venues that included a popular series of morning concerts in a coffee house in Vienna’s beautiful Prater. The 8:00 a.m. concerts commenced on the first of May, when there was still a chill in the air. “This is the way to hear Beethoven’s and Mozart’s quartets!” exclaimed the Vienna Musikzeitung in 1821. [xiii]

For Joachim, this direct personal and musical connection to Beethoven held a great and abiding significance. “I cannot think back upon it without emotion,” he told Moser:

how Böhm recounted the course of a rehearsal with Beethoven of one of his last quartets [10], around the year 1820. How the stone-deaf man sat and stared with wide-open mouth, and could only deduce which passages they were playing from the gestures of the players’ bowing. How, from time to time, he grabbed the arm of one or the other of them and sang for him, with horrible expression in impossible intervals, reading in the faces of the quartet players whether they had understood him or not. In the one case he rubbed his knee and smiled to himself with satisfaction; in the other, however, he strode across the room with agitated steps, fists clenched across his back, muttering unintelligible words to himself. How he ranted and cursed when, despite his careful correction of the parts, the players nevertheless found errors, or when one of them gathered up the courage to declare that this or that passage could not be performed in the prescribed way, even with the best of intentions. On the other hand, he could smile unbelievably indulgently and thankfully when one described a passage as particularly well-written, or offered the opinion: only ‘he’ could have composed something like that.

But Böhm was always honest enough to admit sincerely that neither he nor his colleagues — Schuppanzigh not excepted — had comprehended Beethoven’s genius during his lifetime to the extent that it was known after his death, when the composer could no longer torment them with his often completely unfulfillable demands, but instead, having entered into immortality, holds watch over the performance of his works as an invisible spirit. He assured me repeatedly that upon hearing the last quartet played by the elder Hellmesberger’s quartet a generation after Beethoven’s passing, he saw the form of the Titan so vividly before him as though it had been yesterday, and that he would not have wondered at all to see him enter the hall and to hear him argue about many things which were not to his liking in the otherwise truly outstanding performance. [xiv]

In this story we have a palpable representation of what Carl Dahlhaus claims as one of Beethoven’s signal contributions to the art of music:

Beethoven, virtually in one fell swoop, claimed for music the strong concept of art, without which music would be unable to stand on a par with literature and the visual arts; […] Beethoven’s symphonies represent inviolable musical “texts” whose meaning is to be deciphered with “exegetical” interpretations; a Rossini score, on the other hand, is a mere recipe for a performance, and it is the performance which forms the crucial aesthetic arbiter as the realization of a draft rather than an exegesis of a text. […] That a composer who did not care a whit about Ignaz Schuppanzigh’s “wretched fiddle,” as Beethoven called it, could successfully demand that performances be a function of the text, rather than vice versa, can only have astonished early-nineteenth-century contemporaries; and even though this view is now taken for granted among the artistically well educated, historians ought to receive it in its original spirit. The new insight that Beethoven thrust upon the aesthetic consciousness of his age was that a musical text, like a literary or philosophical text, harbors a meaning which is made manifest but not entirely subsumed in its acoustic presentation — that a musical creation can exist as an “art work of ideas” transcending its various interpretations. [xv]

From the earliest age, then, Joseph’s involvement in Beethoven’s circle taught him important artistic lessons: from Beethoven, through Böhm, he was imbued with the notion that the greater meaning of a work resides in the score itself, not as a “recipe for a performance” but as a text to be construed (here, after all, was the stone-deaf composer, nevertheless insisting on the finical interpretation of what he had written); that great music is not always easily understood or realized, even by distinguished musicians; and that a musical artwork possesses a quality of timeless “truth” that can be viewed sub specie aeternitatis — under the aspect of eternity. It is in that sense that the composer remains personally invested in his work, holding watch over it in spirit, even after death.

Böhm continued to be an enthusiastic quartet player at home. His informal performances with colleagues formed an important part of Joseph’s musical education:

Even today, I still have the liveliest recollection of the manner in which he played Beethoven quartets with his colleague friends on Sundays at his apartment. Indeed, they were the first truly great artistic impressions of my life. For what I heard my teacher Serwaczynski do in the house of Count Franz von Brunswick when I was a child in Pest has naturally nearly fully escaped my memory. I still remember only darkly that several times I had to jump in for the missing or sick second violinist in quartets by Beethoven and quintets by Onslow.

I remember all the more thankfully the affectionate care with which Böhm went through the second violin part of the F minor quartet, op. 95, with me one day […] Since the experiment was carried off to the satisfaction of my teacher and his companions, I was invited to participate more and more frequently, and in this way — already in my childhood — I learned a not insubstantial part of the quartet literature.

Indeed, it had the consequence that, spoiled by Böhm’s superior ability to give shape to the music, I could not be particularly satisfied by either the quartet-playing of the elder Müller brothers [11] or, later, that of Ferdinand David. The former only used to play single movements of the “late Beethoven” now and then, and even these were done in what seemed to me an insufficiently incisive way, while David very often played them in questionable taste, especially when Mendelssohn was away from Leipzig, sojourning on the Spree,[12] since he felt it was necessary to spruce them up with all manner of coquettish gimmicks. In general, he felt things absolutely correctly and, for the most part, he knew what was what, but sometimes he could not help overdoing it.

It was only in the fifties, when, together with Wieniawski and Piatti, I joined the quartet of the London Beethoven Society under H. W. Ernst’s leadership that I came to love and honor in the latter an artist that not only accorded with my ideals, but in certain points even exceeded them.

Admittedly, Ernst was also a pupil of Böhm’s and as truly devoted to him as I; indeed it was he who led me to become his student. [xvi]

“For Joachim,” writes Moser, “these gatherings in the Böhm household were an inexhaustible source of recollection about an epoch in the performing arts that has found its conclusion with his passing; and for me an object of inestimable edification when we later worked together on our shared edition of the Beethoven string quartets.” [xvii

Joseph Böhm


Joseph Böhm

© Robert W. Eshbach, 2013.

Next Post in Series: Conservatory Student  

Addendum: Joseph Böhm in Concert

Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, No. 66 (16 August 1823), p. 528.

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Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, No. 80 (4 October, 1823), p. 640.

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Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, No. 84 (18 October, 1823), p. 680

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Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, No. 97 (3 December, 1823), pp. 769-771.


[1] Adolf Pollitzer was born in Budapest on July 23, 1832 and died in London Nov. 14, 1900. In 1842 he moved to Vienna, where he studied violin with Böhm. He was awarded first prize in violin at the Vienna Conservatory at age 14. After a concert tour in Germany, he went to Paris, where he studied with Alard. In 1851 he settled in London where he was concertmaster of Her Majesty’s Theatre under Sir Michael Costa, as well as of the new Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal Choral Society. A noted chamber musician, Pollitzer was appointed professor of violin at the newly-established London Academy of Music in 1861, and principal of the Academy in 1890. Pollitzer was the teacher of Sir Edward Elgar. His editions of standard violin works are occasionally still in use.

[2] Ludwig Straus was born in Pressburg on March 28, 1835 and died in Cambridge on October 23, 1899. From 1860-1864 he was concertmaster of the Frankfurt opera. He settled in England in 1864 as concertmaster of the Hallé Orchestra, also appearing frequently as a soloist. From 1888 he lived in London, retiring to Cambridge in 1893.

[3] Fritz Kreisler was also a Hellmesberger pupil.

[4] In dialect: “the boy from Pest.”

[5] The Böhms lived in Building 301 in Alservorstadt, currently Berggasse 7. [Handbuch 1843, p. 118.] Siegmund Freud’s famous residence at Berggasse 19 had not yet been built. The building faced directly onto the Glacis. The Böhm’s residence was also just 300 yards from the elegant summer palace and park of Prince Franz-Josef von Dietrichstein, the current Palais Clam-Gallas in the Währingerstrasse. The view from the Böhm’s house would have been essentially the same as that from the Schwarzspanierhaus, which, according to Gerhard von Breuning, “had a wide view over the Glacis and the inner city lying just opposite, with its bastions and church towers, left to Leopoldvorstadt and beyond that over the towering trees of the Prater and the Brigittenau…” [Breuning/MEMORIES, p. 60.]

[6] This is one of the earliest Daguerreotypes in existence, since the process was only patented in 1839.

[7] Lancaster made use of an intricate scheme of rewards and punishments, including silver-plated badges, toys or money for the diligent—and humiliation for the lazy. Some of Lancaster’s maxims, “a place for everything and everything in its place,” and “let every child at every moment have something to do and a motive for doing it,” are still known. Though Lancaster’s personal life “was mainly one of failed prospects, broken engagements, sordid quarrels, and endless debts,”[7] his method achieved worldwide popularity by the beginning of the 19th century, especially in Christian education. Böhm may have learned of the method through the Catholic Church, which formally adopted the system in many of its schools.

[8] Böhm played the Khevenhüller Stradivari, later owned by Yehudi Menuhin.

[9] Including a famous second performance, at Beethoven’s insistence, of Op. 127, after Schuppanzig’s performance had achieved only a succès d’estime.

[10] Op. 127. In 1863, Böhm wrote his own account of these rehearsals: “It was studied industriously and rehearsed frequently under Beethoven’s own eyes: I said Beethoven’s eyes intentionally, for the unhappy man was so deaf that he could no longer hear the heavenly sound of his compositions. And yet rehearsing in his presence was not easy. With close attention his eyes followed the bows and therefore he was able to judge the smallest fluctuations in tempo or rhythm and correct them immediately. At the close of the last movement of this quartet there occurred a meno vivace, which seemed to me to weaken the general effect. At the rehearsal, therefore, I advised that the original tempo be maintained, which was done, to the betterment of the effect.

Beethoven, crouched in a corner, heard nothing, but watched with strained attention. After the last stroke of the bows he said, laconically, ‘Let it remain so,’ went to the desks and crossed out the meno vivace in the four parts.” [Thayer/BEETHOVEN, pp. 940-941.]

Sir George Smart described a rehearsal of the op. 132 string quartet by Schuppanzigh, Holz, Weiss, and Lincke at which Böhm was present: Beethoven “directed the performers, and took off his coat the room being warm and crowded. A staccato passage not being expressed to the satisfaction of his eye, for alas, he could not hear, he seized Holz’s violin and played the passage a quarter of a tone too flat. I looked over the score during the performance. All paid him the greatest attention. About fourteen were present, those I knew were Boehm (violin), Marx (‘cello), Carl Czerny, also Beethoven’s nephew…” [Smart/JOURNALS, p. 109.]

[12] Berlin’s river.

[i] Photo: Emil Rabending K. K. Hof-Photograph Wien; Wieden, Favoritenstrasse No. 3.

An original of this picture is in the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Ph 32. Another nice photo: Ph 4170 Standing portrait of Böhm in “Frack” with violin. Ph 3156 rather poor repro of Kriehuber portrait of Böhm. [1839]

[ii] Allgemeine Wiener Musik-Zeitung, No. 51 (April 29, 1841), p. 216.

[iii] Moser/JOACHIM 1908 II, p. 387.

[iv] Boris Schwarz: “Böhm, Joseph,” Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 5 May, 2004),

[v] Moser/JOACHIM 1901 p. 33.

[vi] Moser/JOACHIM 1908, I, pp. 28-29.

[vii] Moser/JOACHIM 1908, I, p. 28.

[viii] Joachim to Clara Schumann, June 28, 1861. [Joachim/BRIEFE II, p. 149.]

[ix] Moser/JOACHIM 1901, p. 22., quoting a “Professor Grünwald,” who can be identified through Conservatory records as Adolf Grünwald.

[x] Goldmark/ERINNERUNGEN, p. 26.

[xiii] Moser/VIOLINSPIEL II, p. 243.

[xiv] Moser/JOACHIM 1908, II, pp. 288-290. [Author’s translation]

[xv] Dahlhaus/19th CENTURY, pp. 9-10.

[xvi] Moser/VIOLINSPIEL II, pp. 244-245.

[xvii] Moser/JOACHIM 1908 I, p30.

[xviii] Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Vienna