Joseph Joachim, in A. H. Fox Strangways, Music Observed, Freeport: Books for Libraries Press (Reprint), 1968, pp. 73-76.



Last Sunday (28.6.31) was the centenary of Joseph Joachim, born at Kittsee, near Pressburg. This generation never really heard him, for his power over the bow began to fail at the end of the century. That power he took great pains to achieve, and violinists can tell us something about it and its effect upon the ears of those who heard it. But no man can explain the inexplicable — how it is that the human spirit can transmute itself into sound and speak direct to other human spirits. And it was this quality in his playing, this intimate voice whispering from mind to mind, that made him different from all players we have ever heard, because that mind held so much.

It held reverence. Wherever the soul of goodness lay in man or work he loved to discover it to others. He gave all their due; the great men first, but others in their order. He filled himself with the passionate immensity of Beethoven and the lyrical steadfastness of Bach, and so became aware before anyone else of the security of purpose that lay deep in the nature of Brahms. Many talk of the three B’s: he lived them, by making them vital. He showed us by his method of approach how far we often are from being fit company for the great. His answer to the waywardness that picks and chooses was to show how much it had missed in what it turned away from. The modesty that endeared him so especially to our nation, that spoke in so many little actions and quaint sayings, was the outward sign of this inward reverence.

It reacted also on others. He brought together and, what is much more, kept in being a famous quartet. A quartet is not a mere combination, as it is often called. It is a living whole. A little fault of temper will wreck that, as surely as it will send a “coxswain-less” four to the bottom of the river. It is the captain who keeps the temper of his crew; and he does it by remembering always that the whole is greater than the part. Joachim set the example of self-effacement. He played his part sub specie aeternitatis — as it would look in the eyes of eternity. That sounds rather tremendous; but he also could ripple over into fun, irresponsible, sly, grey-eyed as Athene’s, or innocent as Lewis Carroll’s.  Over these lightning conductors of fun and modesty the levin of naughtiness passed harmless to the ground.

The quartet was in existence from 1869 to 1907, the year of his death. We may take a bird’s eye view of it: —


Leader’s / Average

38 / 40   Began, with Schiever, de Ahna, and Müller.

41 / 44   Rappoldi (viola) came, and de Ahna moved to second violin.

46 / 45   Wirth (viola) replaced Rappoldi, who went to Dresden.

48 / 41   Hausmann (violoncello) replaced Müller, whose interest was in an orchestra.

61 / 45   Kruse (violin) replaced de Ahna, who had died.

66 / 50   Halir (violin) replaced Kruse, who came to England.

76 / 60   Ended, with Halir, Wirth, and Hausmann.

The leader spent exactly half of his life in the quartet: so did Hausmann; and Wirth and de Ahna nearly the same proportion of their lives. Joachim was, during the whole time, head of the Hochschule at Berlin, which he raised to a high position; and all of these men came at one time or another to teach there under him. Schiever left the quartet to come to Liverpool, where he led the Richter orchestra; de Ahna, an Austrian, of gentle bearing and with a refined style, found, after a gruelling years in the army, a home in the Royal orchestra at Berlin. Wilhelm Müller came of a famous family. His father, Karl, and three uncles formed a string quartet, in the first third of the century, which gave the first great lift to chamber music: and in the second third, he and his three brothers started another, but turned before long to orchestral music. Hausmann was the pupil of Wilhelm and of his uncle Theodor. Wirth made a name as a violinist, and died at a great age. Kruse settled in London, where he revived the Saturday Popular Concerts, and alone of them all is still living.

Joachim’s constant visits to this country — bringing latterly his quartet with him every year — taught us a great deal. He speaks warmly in his letters to Brahms of the “good musicians” and what they think  — Parry, Grove, Stanford, and others. He liked to come, as Brahms disliked the idea of coming — though probably there was no more behind this than the terrible thought of getting into “Frack” (boiled shirt) and facing Mrs. Leo Hunter. And we liked having him here for his pure geniality as well as for his music. For he was simply pleased with simple things, a common mark of greatness, and was always good company because he could put people at their ease. What he taught us was to hear with fresh ears. He could take things like Beethoven’s concerto, that we thought we all knew, and make it sound as if for the first time; or things like Ernst’s Fantasia on Rossini’s Otello, that we thought common, and make it sound uncommon — so true it is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and in the ear of the listener.

There has seldom, more probably never, been a composer who could not play an instrument, and rarely an executant who had not also turned at some time to composition. Among those executants Joachim stands high, and his Hungarian concerto is valued for its own sake as well as for his. Moreover, unlike some other executants, he was drawn to composition by no desire of exploiting his instrument, by the prospect it offered of uttering by a new means the music that was in him. In that matter one could have wished him, perhaps, a less learned and more practical teacher than Moritz Hauptmann. But the fact that he tried seriously to compose had as its great and lasting result the help that he was able to give Brahms. Their friendship was lifelong; neither did anything without consulting the other, or at least hoping that it would win his approval. They fell out once or twice, as the best friends will, and perhaps should, for the joy of coming together again. When a man is quite at the top of his profession he is very much alone, and a real friend is more to him than to most. In this friendship each shared the hopes and soothed the fears of the other, and the work of both was the better for it. That it was so is one of the great facts of musical history on which memory delights to dwell.