The Spectator, No. 4,131 (August 31, 1907), pp. 288-289

Downloadable German version: Preußische Jahrbücher, vol 130, (October — December 1907), pp. 120-126. stanford-erinnerungen-an-jj-2


Charles Villiers Stanford




SIR, — μηδὲν ἄγαν [1] was essentially the guiding principle of Joseph Joachim; but with the important qualification that everything which he interpreted was to reach exactly, and not to fail to reach, the point beyond which exaggeration would begin. He satisfied without surfeiting, he warmed without scorching. He commanded precisely the right amount of emotion to touch the higher qualities of appreciation in his hearers, without ever by an excess of it over-stimulating their nerves or rousing hysterical passion. He appealed, therefore, to the healthy, and the few detractors he had (and they were not of this country) will be found amongst the worshippers of excitement and the apostles of humbug. It was this guiding principle which impressed itself so markedly upon two excellent musical judges of my young days, who had heard both him and Paganini. They unhesitatingly gave the palm to Joachim, not because he was a greater technical player, but because he thought of his music first and of his public afterwards; while with Paganini the reverse was only too obvious. In one gift they found but little to choose between them, personal magnetism; though I gathered from them that they would have characterized the Italian’s attraction as the more diabolically brilliant, and the Hungarian’s as the more divinely intimate. They summed them up in the words “Paganini for once, but Joachim for always.” The late Master of Trinity, Dr. Thompson, in criticising a young musical performer, put their opinion of Paganini in a neat epigrammatic form: “—‘s playing always charms and occasionally — astonishes; and I may add that the less it astonishes, the more it charms.” This cultivated gibe could never have been applied to Joachim, and, curiously enough, Thompson, whose contempt (whether simulated or genuine) for the pursuit of music was expressed in his judgment of it as “only a grade better than dancing,” was completely captivated by the personality and intellectual force of Joachim when he became an annual visitor to Cambridge.

Another quality which he possessed in a marked degree, exceeded, indeed, by no artist I have ever met, was veneration for the genius of other great men. This reverence, like his modesty, was innate. It was as evident in his attitude towards the masters of his own art as towards the great creators and inventors in other arts and sciences. Not that it was undiscriminating. He was big enough to grasp their points of weakness without unduly undervaluing their points of strength. But the reverence with which he approached anything savouring of criticism upon a great master was an earnest of its sincerity. The few who had the privilege on one occasion of hearing an almost Socratic discussion in Coutts Trotter’s [2] rooms at Trinity (anno 1877) between him, Robert Browning, and George Grove upon the later quartets of Beethoven (at the time still a subject of hot difference and argument) were impressed by this gift in a way which they can never forget. To some moderns who think that he was personally prejudiced in favour of the Schumann school, and who know the history of his defection from Weimar, it may come as a surprise that when I asked him whom he considered to be the greatest pianist he ever heard, he promptly replied, “Liszt.” I witnessed the first meeting between him and Liszt after their separation in the “fifties,” at the unveiling of the Bach Statue at Eisenach. It was a trying moment both for him and for the large crowd of musicians, who, for the most part, knew all the events; but the perfect combination of dignity, deference, and gentle grace with which he met his old colleague set everybody at their ease, most of all Liszt himself, that past-master of elegant finesse and courtierly tact. It was undoubtedly these qualities which lifted the standard of every performance with which he had to do, actively or passively, far above the ordinary level. His presence stimulated executants to do a little better than they thought they could, and listeners to understand a little more than they considered themselves capable of appreciating. It made one shiver miserably at the least sign of inferior taste, or of self-advertised and overrated accomplishment. It was these qualities which personally endeared him to a host of friends, undistinguished as well as famous; to Tennyson, Browning, Thackeray, Dickens, George Eliot, Landseer, Leighton, Millais, Watts, Darwin, Gladstone, Jowett, Grove, to mention only a few of the great departed in England alone. To what proportions would this list grow if it included Europe? In the Elysian Fields he will not have to look far for friends.


Archbishop Campbell Tait

And what a fund of humour he had! No one enjoyed a good joke more thoroughly, or remembered it more accurately. Lunching at the Savile Club one day, he dared me to guess whom he was mistaken for at a party in the same house, when it belonged to the late Lady Rosebery. I failed, for the answer was “A Bishop,” Dr. Tait, then Bishop of London (at that time Joachim’s magnificently massive jowl was not hidden by a beard). On one occasion I had a long and most interesting discussion with him about the position attained by Jews [3] in creating music (as distinct from performing it). He commented upon the curious fact that, while many like Spinoza and Heine had excelled in philosophy, literature, and science, music, which was one of their greatest gifts, did not possess one Jewish composer of the absolutely first rank, and he thought it possible that this was due to their lack of a native soil, and of a folk-music emanating from it. The same evening we went to a theatre, the late manager of which wished to be introduced to him. After greeting him, Joachim turned to me and whispered, with a twinkle in his eye: “Not a composer of the first rank.”

He was a strong politician, — in Germany a National Liberal, in England a Liberal Unionist. At one of his quartet evenings in Berlin, when Brahms’s B flat quartet was produced for the first time, I sat near a most interesting person, who, he afterwards told me, was Lasker, the leader of his party, and an ardent lover of chamber music. His keenness at the time of the Home-rule Bill in 1886 could not have been exceeded by the most patriotic Britisher. At the Birmingham Festival of 1891 he was walking across to the Council House for luncheon when one of the party said: “There is Chamberlain in front of us.” “Oh, let me have a look at the other Joe,” said J. J. He had the knack of putting political points in a pithy, common-sense way. When I asked him in 1900 if he was a Pro-Boer, he said: “I was; but I changed my views when I saw that they were ready and you were not.”

He was a stickler for accuracy, and for absolute purity of writing down to the criticism of a single note. How often one has seen him take up a piece of new music, examine it under the left glass of his spectacles, and lay his finger on a questionable passage with the gentle query: “Do you really like that?” He once quoted to me a sentence which Brahms wrote to Dvorák concerning a piece of slipshod workmanship as a perfect summing-up of what a composer’s ideal should be: “We can write no more with such beauty as Mozart did; so let us try to write with as much purity.” [4] Joachim’s own compositions were few, much too few, but they absolutely conformed to this principle. They are individual to a marked degree, and have not been without their influence even upon such a giant as Brahms. The G major Concerto is undoubtedly one of the greatest works of its class, and will be admitted to be so when the public are given the chance of knowing and loving it. The overture to Henry V., which delighted the huge audience at his jubilee in Queen’s Hall, is astonishing in its anticipation of the effects in the Meistersinger, a work eight years its junior. It was a special favourite of Brahms, who carried off the score in 1853 to arrange it for pianoforte duet. His orchestration was above proof, and remained throughout superior in freedom and more telling in effect than that of his famous friend, albeit designed on similar lines. As a conductor he was in one respect wholly admirable, the quality which Wagner places first amongst the virtues of a chef d’orchestre, — the intuitive grasp of the composer’s tempo. But his beat was jerky and difficult to follow, and he was only at his best when in command of an orchestra which knew every turn of his wrist, such as that which he directed at the Schumann Festival at Bonn in 1873.

Few men retained their boyish characteristics so completely. I have it from the late Mr. Rockstro that he was the same Joachim in a frock-coat in the “nineties” as he was in short jackets at Leipzig in the “forties.” He told me that there were three of them always together — Joachim, Otto Goldschmidt, and himself — and that this trio used occasionally to become a quartet by the advent of a fourth brilliant boy who was studying law, which he used to lay down so dogmatically that Joseph and he sometimes nearly came to blows: whereupon Rockstro, the eldest of the party, had to act as general peacemaker. The occasional visitor was Hans von Bülow, and much as they admired each other’s genius, they always went on in the same way; Hans taking an impish delight in treading upon a tender toe, and Joseph just letting him go as far as he dared, but no farther. Their immense sense of humour however, generally saved the situation.

He did not conceal his dislike of the latest developments of German music, not, however, without studying and listening to all its products; but his main indictment of it rested upon two allegations, which may be denied, but which the test of time alone will disprove, — rough and unfinished workmanship, and lack of genuine spontaneous invention. He did not deny the beauty of the millinery, but he questioned that of the body it clothed. Of the workmanship he was a past-master, of the invention he was at any rate no negligible judge. For these views some have denied him a place amongst the progressists and the pioneers. Who are they who would deny the name of pioneer to the man who won the battle in Europe for Schubert and Schumann, for Dvorák and for Brahms, before they were born? Pioneer he was, but he made sure of his base before he sallied out into new and unknown paths.

The natural gifts of Verdi appealed to him even in the days of Traviatas and Ernanis; when a musician once spoke to him of their “vulgarity,” he rebuked him by insisting upon the genuine honesty which shone through them, and that long before Otello and Falstaff came to verify his criticism, developments which did not astonish him so much as they did the bulk of the musical world.

It is difficult to realize that this great figure — the one man in Germany who solidly and consistently, through evil and good report, by example and by precept, upheld the traditions of the best and the greatest, and accepted nothing which he thought of baser metal for the sake of a passing popularity — will be seen no more. If the generation to come must needs grow up in ignorance of how the C sharp minor Quartet of Beethoven can be made “understanded of the people,” it must not be allowed to forget how the Chaconne of Bach came out of the dusty back volumes of an unplayable mathematical Bach to become the first ambitious effort of every rising violinist [5] or how the Violin Concerto of Beethoven, deemed impossible for nearly twenty years after its composer’s death, took its place as the greatest work of its class in existence. This, and much more also than this short paper can tell, did Joseph Joachim accomplish; and let it be added that, great as was his genius, sincere as was his modesty, and loyal as was his friendship, he had one gift more rare than all, — a large, true heart. Two sentences from letters written by men, neither of them musicians, and one of them personally unknown to him, seem a fitting close to these inadequate lines: — “It is good to have known such a man, to have felt the touch of his hand, seen the smile on his face, and heard the sound of his voice, all apart from the violin.” And: “He has left the world the poorer, save for his example.” — I am, Sir, &c.,


[1] Meden agan — “nothing in excess.”

[2] [Original footnote] Trotter was Joachim’s nominal tutor when he entered his name on the books of Trinity College at the time of his Honorary Degree. After the ceremony he saw Trotter, a large, bulky man, hurrying to his rooms, and said to me: “Do look at my tutor trotting across the grass.”

[3] [Original footnote] He was by descent a pure Jew, and extremely proud of it.

[4] [Original footnote] “So schön wie Mozart können wir nicht mehr schreiben: versuchen wir also so rein zu schreiben.”

[5] [Original footnote] An old musician once said to me: “Joachim is the only violinist who brings flames out of his violin.” The scale-passage in the Chaconne will recall the truth of this picturesque remark.