© Robert W. Eshbach 2016



A Victorian Musician

Robert W. Eshbach

could not be unframed in S.E.

Joseph Joachim

Oil Portrait by John Singer Sargent
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

Therefore I summon age
To grant youth’s heritage

                  —Robert Browning, Rabbi Ben Ezra

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 9.25.20 AMn the evening of May 16, 1904, a brilliant and distinguished audience gathered at Queen’s Hall, London, to celebrate the “Diamond Jubilee” of Joseph Joachim’s English début. Outside on Langham Place, a crush of nearly 2,500 admirers in gala attire emerged from their carriages, or arrived on foot from after-dinner strolls down Regent Street, jostling to enter the ornate, high-ceilinged auditorium, home to the “Proms” concerts, then under the direction of their popular, 35-year-old conductor, Henry J. Wood. Among the evening’s subscribers were more than six hundred eminences from the arts, literature and politics.

In the three score years since the Monday in May 1844 when the chubby little Hungarian boy had given his historic début in London’s Hanover Square Rooms, Joachim had been the unrivalled favorite of the British public. “From early childhood Joachim never appeared on a platform without exciting, not only the admiration, but the personal love of his audience,” his friend Florence May observed. “His successes were their delight. They rejoiced to see him, to applaud him, recall him, shout at him. The scenes familiar to the memory of three generations of London concert-goers were samples of the everyday incidents of his life in all countries and towns where he appeared. Why? It is impossible altogether to explain such phenomena, even by the word “genius.” Joachim followed his destiny. His career was unparalleled in the history of musical executive art.” [i]

The Jubilee was the brainchild of Joachim’s friend Edward Speyer, a remarkable, indestructible old man, a prodigious collector of musical manuscripts and a musical connoisseur, familiar with all the most important musicians of the age. Speyer had grown up among musicians. His violinist father had known Weber, Ernst, Spohr and Mozart’s eldest son, Carl. [1] As a boy, he had met Mendelssohn in his father’s music room, at about the time of Joachim’s London debut. “Don’t forget, child, that you have just seen a great man; that was Mendelssohn!” his father had admonished him. As an old man, he still remembered.

Speyer had first heard Joachim in Frankfurt in 1856. It was in England, however, that their 45-year friendship flourished, beginning in the early ‘sixties, during Joachim’s annual visits to London to play in the Saturday and Monday Popular Concerts at St. James’s Hall. In recent years, Speyer had helped to promote Joachim’s concerts in England. For several years, beginning in 1901, he had been the organizer of the “Joachim Quartet Concerts” in London, an annual series of six musical evenings that Joachim gave with his Berlin colleagues Carl Halir, Emmanuel Wirth and Robert Hausmann. [2]

“Whilst the Joachim Quartet Concerts were following their brilliantly successful course, it occurred to me one day that in 1904 an event unique in the history of music would occur,” Speyer recalled. “Sixty years previously, on May 27th, 1844, Joachim, then a boy of twelve, made his first appearance in England, playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto under Mendelssohn at a concert of the Philharmonic Society. I formed a small committee of friends to make this anniversary the occasion of a worthy public celebration. One of them, Sir Alexander Kennedy, travelled to Berlin to inform Joachim of our plan. After some hesitation, mainly on account of his age, he finally agreed. He asked that works of his beloved friends Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms should be included in the programme.” [ii] The date was secured, and Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, known for his annual “Joachim parties,” was enlisted to chair the event.



Queen’s Hall, London

For Britons, there had been really only one previous “Diamond Jubilee” — that of the Queen. On June 22, 1897, the entire British Empire had celebrated 60 years of Victoria’s rule. From Hyderabad to Hong Kong, from Rangoon to Regent’s Park, the day had been marked by celebrations and feasts, fireworks, choral concerts, electrical illuminations and prisoner releases. In London, a service of thanksgiving had been held at St. Paul’s Cathedral, “the parish church of the Empire,” with a host of crowned heads and eleven Colonial Prime Ministers in attendance. In deference to her aging Majesty’s difficulty in negotiating steps, the ceremony was held outside. [iii] The morning had dawned dark and overcast, but by eleven o’clock the sun appeared — “Queen’s weather,” they called it. Cheering crowds lined six miles of streets that had been “splendidly decorated with flowers, garlands of bay, arches and Venetian masts from which fluttered countless blue and scarlet pennants.” [iv] There they waited in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Monarch, as she rode in her open landau along a circuitous route from Buckingham Palace to the church, accompanied by pealing bells and booming cannon. “No one, ever, I believe, has met with such an ovation as was given to me,” Victoria noted in her diary. “The crowds were quite indescribable, and their enthusiasm truly marvellous and deeply touching. The cheering was quite deafening, and every face seemed to be filled with real joy.” [v]


St. Paul’s Cathedral, ca. 1900

It was a notable tribute, then, that Joachim should be fêted with a “Jubilee.” Who but the “Violin King” could stand comparison, without a touch of irony, with a queen who created her own weather? Joachim’s British career spanned and defined an era. Victoria died on January 22, 1901, after a reign of 63 years and seven months. When Joachim died in August of 1907, he had been before the British public for 63 years and three. [3]


To help “make this anniversary the occasion of a worthy public celebration,” Speyer’s organizing committee decided to commission Joachim’s portrait, and to present it to him at the event. Speyer elected to approach the great, irascible Italian-born American painter John Singer Sargent, who, the year before, had been personally chosen by Theodore Roosevelt as “the one artist who should paint the portrait of an American President.” [4] “On learning the object of my errand,” said Speyer, “he looked much disturbed and exclaimed almost ferociously: ‘Good heavens, I am sick of portrait painting. I have just returned from Italy, where I buried myself for six weeks to escape the cursed business, and now you have come and ask me to do another one, and that too when I have a large number of old commissions still awaiting me here!’ He finally quieted down, however, and remarked: ‘Well, if it’s Joachim, I must do it.” I suggested a three-quarter portrait, but he insisted that he could do better with a kit-cat. [5]” [vi]

Speyer’s “committee of friends” included the preternaturally gifted young pianist and musicologist Donald Francis Tovey. Tovey had known Joachim since he was a boy, and had become a special protégé of Joachim’s late years. Tovey’s guardian and mentor, Miss Sophia Weisse, [6] had introduced them. She later recalled how, when Tovey was seven years old, Joachim would “strum out” fugue themes from Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier on her sitting-room table at Eton, and have Donald identify them by rhythm. “When Donald was twelve he played a violin sonata of his own with Joachim,” she wrote, “and I remember how carefully and tenderly dear Jo played it.” [vii] That same year, a meeting between Joachim and Tovey’s father helped secure parental approval for the boy’s chosen career: “My father was for a long time convinced that no musician but a Church organist could have any social status at all. He was enlightened by a visit to Eton of Joachim, whose ambassadorial presence, perfect command of English and obviously profound general culture completely changed his ideas of what a musician might be. He never forgot how when Joachim was told of my progress in Latin and Euclid he asked, ‘And does he know it gründlich? (thoroughly)’” [viii] Joachim and Tovey gave their first public concert together in March of 1894, in the Albert Institute at Windsor, just before 18-year-old Donald “went up to Balliol” to further his studies. [ix] Now, a decade later, Joachim seldom gave recitals in England with anyone else. The Manchester Guardian reported: “The combination of this young and interesting musician with an older and so well-founded an artist was in its essence extremely pathetic [touching]. One travelled back in memory to the days when Joachim himself was consorting with the great musicians of his day, himself a lad praised and encouraged, and one felt how beautifully he had read the lesson of his youth in returning the example to a young man of the present generation who is, we are certain, destined to be worthy of his beginning.” [x] Joachim admired Tovey unreservedly, and was astonished by his almost freakish abilities. “After an hour with Donald, I feel as if my head were on fire,” he said. “I have never seen his equal for knowledge and memory.” [7] And elsewhere, he declared: “Of all the musicians of the younger generation that I know, Tovey is assuredly the one that would most have interested Brahms.” [xi]

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Several weeks prior to the Jubilee celebration, a musical party was held for the Joachim Quartet in the elegant music room of Miss Weisse’s Northlands School at Englefield Green near Windsor. Among the attendees was Poet Laureate Robert Bridges, who captured the sentiments of the hour in a sonnet: [8]

To Joseph Joachim

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elov’d of all to whom that Muse is dear
Who hid her spirit of rapture from the Greek,
Whereby our art excelleth the antique,
Perfecting formal beauty to the ear;
Thou that hast been in England many a year
The interpreter who left us nought to seek,
Making Beethoven’s inmost passion speak,
Bringing the soul of great Sebastian near.
Their music liveth ever, and ’tis just
That thou, good Joachim, so high thy skill,
Rank (as thou shalt upon the heavenly hill)
Laurel’d with them, for thy ennobling trust
Remember’d when thy loving hand is still
And every ear that heard thee stopt with dust.

Robert Bridges, May 2, 1904[xii]

The poem seemed appropriate for the Queen’s Hall gala, and Bridges granted his permission to print it in the program. When Tovey wrote to thank him on behalf of the committee, Bridges replied: “I knew nothing of the Jubilee. I was merely prompted to write because there seemed an opportunity, when I met him among his friends, of my expressing my lifelong admiration and gratitude. […] I wish the sonnet was better, but it contains what, or some of what, I wished to say.” [xiii]

Joachim spent the weekend before the Queen’s Hall fête in Woking, at the residence of Gerald Balfour, the Prime Minister’s brother and the President of the Board of Trade. Among the other guests were the Prime Minister and his wife, Liberal MP John Morley and Donald Tovey. For Joachim and Tovey, it was a weekend of music making. On the morning of the event, Joachim and Morley rode to London together. “Joachim told Morley with much emotion how proud and happy he felt at the idea of the Prime Minister presiding at his Jubilee,” Speyer relates. “Morley replied: ‘Don’t you be so sure of that, my friend. I am going to attack the Government to-night in the House on a subject which will undoubtedly lead to a long debate, during which the Prime Minister may have to remain in his place.’” Joachim, crestfallen, went on to rehearse for the evening’s concert.


As he entered his seventies, Joachim’s best performing years were behind him. He hadn’t his accustomed energy, and his arthritic fingers no longer automatically obeyed the letter of his desires. “I am happy if I can still play chamber music to my satisfaction,” he told Speyer; “I am reluctant to think about solo playing in the long term.” [xiv] As his technique began to decline and his execution failed to live up to his eminence, Joachim’s detractors found him an easy mark. George Bernard Shaw’s classic barb has stuck in the mind of posterity as effectively as any jibe ever penned by Mark Twain: “Joachim scraped away frantically, making a sound after which an attempt to grate a nutmeg effectively on a boot sole would have been as the strain of an Aeolian harp. The notes which were musical enough to have any discernable pitch were mostly out of tune. It was horrible – damnable! Had he been an unknown player, . . . he would not have escaped with his life.” Shaw notwithstanding, the wisdom of experience and the inspiration of occasion could still be counted upon to elicit a memorable performance from the veteran violinist. Care had to be taken, though — this was not an occasion on which one could afford to have a bad night. After the morning rehearsal, Speyer urged his friend to get some rest. Returning home, however, Joachim found a note from Queen Alexandra, Edward’s queen, asking him to go to Buckingham Palace to “do some music for her.” The Queen had mistaken the day of the celebration, and was unaware of the inconvenience she was causing. It was a Royal command, nevertheless, and Joachim felt unable to refuse.[xv]

That afternoon, as Joachim was “doing music” for the Queen, the Prime Minister adroitly deflected Morley’s challenge, and adjourned the debate in time to arrive at Queen’s Hall before the overture. 

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Sir Henry Wood conducting the Queen’s Hall Orchestra

Dedicated with a children’s party in 1893, Queen’s Hall [9] was famed equally for its perfect acoustics and its short leg-room (“it appeared to be the understanding that legs were to be left in the cloakroom” sniped the Musical Times on one occasion) [xvi]. To E. M. Forster, it was “the dreariest music-room in London.” [xvii] No wonder: it was said that “the predominant colour” of the cavernous space “was that of the belly of a London mouse,” and that the hall’s architect, T. E. Knightley, kept a string of dead mice in his paint shop “to make sure that this was no idle boast.” [xviii] Be that as it may, with its large capacity, its curved splays at the orchestra end for the diffusion of sound and its free-standing wooden walls (“as the body of a violin — resonant”), Queen’s Hall was the place to go in London for orchestral music or political speech, and the most appropriate place for friends and admirers to honor the reigning musician of the day: Dr. Joachim, the “Violin King,” the “Last of a Classic School.”

The Jubilee festivities began with a performance of the Hebrides Overture — Mendelssohn’s great “train oil, sea gulls and salted cod” evocation of the voyage he made in 1829 with his friend Klingemann to Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa off the west coast of Scotland. At the conclusion of the piece — a final, tempestuous episode, followed by a single flute reminiscence punctuated by a few quiet string pizzicati — a storm of applause greeted the great violinist, “the entire audience rising and cheering vociferously” [xix] as he made his way to the stage, accompanied by Prime Minister Balfour and Sir Hubert Parry. [10] “When Balfour and Parry led me on to the platform I was terribly anxious,” Joachim said afterward. “I was thinking of the speech I had to make.” But Balfour made him laugh, and prevailed upon him, over his earnest objections, to sit. Sir Hubert then read from an illuminated address, which Balfour afterwards presented to him, written for the occasion by Sir Frederick Pollock: [11]

“At a time known only by hearsay to most of us, you first brought before an English audience the promise of that performance which has been eminent among two generations of men… It was under the auspices of Mendelssohn that you played Beethoven’s Violin Concerto at the Philharmonic Society’s concert of May 27th, 1844. No combination could have been more prophetic of your career, though neither its duration in time nor the singular quality of its achievement was then within any probable foresight.

At that day the fine arts, and music among them, languished in this country. It was not understood that the function of art is to be not merely the recreation of a privileged class, but an integral element of national life. We have now learnt to know and to do better. Opportunities of becoming acquainted with the music of the great masters have been multiplied tenfold, and the general competence of both execution and criticism has been raised beyond comparison. This great and salutary change which we have witnessed in the course of the last generation is largely due to your exertions. Learning from Mendelssohn and Schumann, and working with Brahms in the comradeship of life-long friends, you have devoted your whole energies, as executant and as composer, to continuing the tradition and maintaining the ideal of classic music.

We now hold it fitting that the sixtieth anniversary of your first appearance here should not pass without a special greeting. The welcome we offer you is alike for the artist who commands every power of the trained hand, and for the musician whose consummate knowledge and profound reverence for his art have uniformly guided his execution in the path of the sincerest interpretation. Your first thoughts as a performer have ever been for the composer and not for yourself. In no hour have you yielded to the temptation of mere personal display, and the weight of your precepts in one of the greatest musical schools of Europe [12] is augmented by the absolute fidelity with which your example illustrates them….” [xx]

The next to speak was Prime Minister Balfour, who was to present Sargent’s portrait. Balfour spoke touchingly of Joachim as a friend, both to himself and to the nation. “I think that the great and beneficent influence which you have had on British music is due not merely to those high artistic qualities of which the Address gives a worthy description, but also to that human affection which it is your peculiar and supreme gift to elicit, and which so many of us have enjoyed through longer years than I care now to enumerate. For it is as the friend as much as the musician, as the musician as much as the friend, that we now desire to pay all the honour which it is within our power to give you; and, as some simple memorial, some permanent monument of this memorable night, I now beg to present you on behalf of this assembly with a portrait which will, I hope, serve to remind you of the many friends whom… you have in England, and will keep in England…” [xxi] “Joachim, rising amidst tumultuous cheers which were long continued, acknowledged the compliment in a speech of faultless English,” recalled Speyer. “He said he was sure that the object of the audience was not only to show sympathy towards himself but to honour the great composers with whom it had been his happy lot to be connected. It was a great joy to him to think that Mendelssohn was not only an artistic father to him, but was the means of bringing him to this country, which for many years had been his second home. The gift of oratory was not in him, but he would try to give his hearers pleasure by playing the piece he had first performed with Mendelssohn in this country. If he did not do justice to the work he hoped that his hearers would be indulgent, for he could not help feeling emotion on such an occasion as this.” [xxii]

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Joseph Joachim and Franz von Vecsey

 Following the presentation of the portrait, the 11-year-old Hungarian violin prodigy Franz von Vecsey appeared onstage with a huge crown-shaped wreath of flowers. Vecsey had studied with Joachim’s former pupil Jenö Hubay, and then with Joachim himself. “I am seventy-two years of age, yet never in my life have I heard the like; never believed it possible,” Joachim had said of Vecsey’s playing. Only days earlier, Vecsey had given his own English début, in St. James’s Hall. In a few months, he would make his first Queen’s hall appearance, playing concerti by Mendelssohn and Paganini with the London Symphony Orchestra. [xxiii] 

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A Queen’s Hall Concert

In planning the Jubilee program, both Joachim and Speyer had been aware that, with speeches, presentations and performances, the evening promised to be long and emotionally taxing. Nevertheless, Speyer insisted, “in order to invest this Jubilee celebration with its truest significance it was really indispensable that he should play the Beethoven Violin Concerto, and thus recall the memorable event of sixty years ago.” Joachim protested, “declaring that he had persistently abstained from playing such large works in public of late years in consideration of his advanced age, and pleading that the emotional strain on him might prevent his acquitting himself of the task.” Speyer then proposed that the second number on the program be listed simply as: “Solo Violin … Dr. Joachim.” That way, if he felt unable to do justice to the concerto, he could perform one of Beethoven’s Romances instead. To this, Joachim agreed. [xxiv] In the event, Joachim played the concerto, the piece that, together with Bach’s magisterial Chaconne, stood at the heart of his repertoire and reputation. Henry Wood recalled: “…someone went into the artists’ room and brought Joachim’s fiddlecase which he opened amid tremendous applause and enthusiasm. I began the introduction to Beethoven’s violin concerto and Joachim gave a memorable performance of it with his own cadenza. This was followed by his arrangement of Schumann’s Abendlied for violin and orchestra. The musical part of the programme closed with Joachim conducting his own overture to Shakespeare’s King Henry IV (written in 1885) and also Brahms Academic Festival Overture.” [xxv]


Fêtes and funerals, recommendations and reviews, reveal a certain kind of truth, which is seldom fully objective. Rites and references tell as much about the deep wishes and normative values of the celebrators as about the virtues and accomplishments of the celebrated. For the Jubilee audience, Joachim was more than a great violinist. Now nearly 73 years of age, he had transcended his virtuoso youth to become an elder statesman of sorts, recognized in England not only as “the last of a classic school,” the iconic representative of “absolute” German instrumental music, but as classical music’s equivalent to the great Victorian literary sages — men [13] like Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Ruskin and Alfred Lord Tennyson — the great intuitive thinkers who gave elegant voice to the moral concerns of the era in such traditional forms as essay, novel, epic, lyric and drama. Like them, Joachim was recognized for his dignity, intellect and high-mindedness. “Of all violinists, Joachim… was the noblest of all in his aims, aspirations and ideals,” wrote W. W. Cobbett. “The litteræ scriptæ which remain testify to this, his published letters addressed to leading musicians telling in almost every line of his determination to live for his art as for a religion, to place artistic before commercial considerations and to familiarise his audiences with the music of the greater masters. The great technical difficulty of his own works, which he played so magnificently, is a measure of his powers as an executant. Yet it was not as virtuoso that he elected to make his appeal to musicians, and he was only faintly interested in music which, in his estimation, did not belong to the loftiest regions of his art.… His influence extends far beyond the admiration that he aroused among his contemporaries as an executant and has left a permanent mark on the development of music and musical taste in this country.” [xxvi]

His art had great aspirations. Like the Victorian literary sages, he sought to “express notions about the world, man’s situation in it, and how he should live.” [xxvii] At the same time, the appeal of the sage’s art — Joachim’s art — lay not so much in the realm of the objective as in the imaginative: in its capacity to expand horizons — to discover the extraordinary in the common — to open minds to a quality of experience to which they had previously been deaf and blind. And as with those sages, Joachim had been — continues to be — accused of a certain maddeningly conservative dogmatism. This characteristic, however, is the distinctive stance and attitude of the Victorian sage — as Emerson expressed it: “to believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius.” [xxviii]

One does not read the Victorians for the rigor of their logic or for solutions to modern dilemmas, but for the breadth, depth and sincerity of their concerns. For modern minds, used to more rigorous rational grounding and a greater consistency, Victorian attitudes can throw up barriers to understanding and appreciation. If this is true in literature, it is even more so in an art as ephemeral and prone to fashion as music. As early as 1930, Carl Flesch alluded to this difficulty when he wrote: “It is not surprising that Joachim’s musical and technical advantages are no longer entirely comprehensible to the youth of our day on the basis of mere description, for the very essence of Joachim’s playing eludes description, in as much as it was not purely technical, but lay in an indefinable charm, an immediacy of feeling which caused a work played by him to be haloed with immortality in the listener’s recollection. What our time fails to understand is not so much Joachim’s violin playing as Joachim’s spirit.” [14]

The cardinal virtues of a Victorian Englishman might be said to be sincerity, modesty and a capacity for friendship. Strike those words from a Victorian’s vocabulary, and he would have found little to praise in his fellow man. Among the great, as their contemporaries recognized the great, those virtues were not mere social niceties, but capacities of character, essential to the pursuit of truth, and the living of an engaged life.

The era named for a great queen was an era that celebrated Great Men. “The History of the world is but the Biography of great men,” [15] claimed Thomas Carlyle in his influential disquisition On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. In his series of six lectures, first published in 1841, Carlyle explores the hero as divinity, prophet, poet, priest, man of letters and king, articulating his vision of the Great Man — the “great soul, open to the Divine Significance of Life” — as the primary motive force in history. For Carlyle, the man who can bend the course of history is the man of sincerity — earnest, honest, great-hearted — who wrestles “with the truth of things.” “The great Fact of Existence is great to him,” he wrote. “Fly as he will, he cannot get out of the awful presence of this Reality.” “Such a man is what we call an original man; he comes to us at first-hand. A messenger he, sent from the Infinite Unknown with tidings to us. We may call him Poet, Prophet, God; — in one way or other, we all feel that the words he utters are as no other man’s words.” For Carlyle, steeped in German idealism, “a deep, great, genuine sincerity” was the true test of worth in a man. “Not the sincerity that calls itself sincere… a shallow braggart conscious sincerity; oftenest self-conceit mainly. The Great Man’s sincerity is of the kind he cannot speak of, is not conscious of,” he wrote. “Nay, I suppose he is conscious rather of insincerity; for what man can walk accurately by the law of truth for one day?”

Joachim was raised in the traditions of German idealism that Carlyle so cogently interpreted to the English people. It must have rankled him therefore, though he joked about it later, to find that the redoubtable father of the Great Man Theory, with all his admiration for prophets, poets and priests had little respect for men of his profession. Joachim and Carlyle were introduced one day by a friend of Thackeray, who, having another engagement, left them alone together. Carlyle, about to take his morning “constitutional,” asked Joachim to join him:

During a very long walk in Hyde Park the Chelsea sage talked incessantly about Germany — the kings of Prussia, Moltke, Bismarck, the war, &c. At last Joachim thought that he ought to say something, so he innocently asked his irascible companion: ‘Do you know Sterndale Bennett?’ ‘No,’ replied Carlyle — (pause) — ‘I don’t care generally for musicians. They are an empty, windbaggy sort of people.’ ‘This was not very complimentary to me,’ Dr. Joachim laughingly said. [xxix]

Had he known Joachim better, Carlyle might have recognized in him the very ideals that he attributes to his chosen Heroes of history. The great, sincere questions of Joachim’s life were the self-same quandaries that Carlyle ascribes to Mahomet: “What am I? What is this unfathomable Thing I live in, which men name Universe? What is Life; what is Death? What am I to believe? What am I to do?” — to which the hero as musician might have added two poignant, vexed questions of his own: “What is Friendship?” and “What is Love?”

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Sir Henry Wood

Joachim’s dignified presence among the Great and the Good of his time had an immeasurable, positive influence on the level of respect with which the art of music came to be regarded in England. His natural air of authority, as a man and a performer, instantly and everywhere commanded admiration. Church of England clergyman Hugh Reginald Haweis wrote of the forty-year-old: “M. Joachim is the greatest living violinist; no man is so nearly to the execution of music what Beethoven was to its composition. There is something massive, complete and unerring about M. Joachim that lifts him out of the list of great players, and places him on a pedestal apart. Other men have their specialities; he has none. Others rise above or fall below themselves; he is always himself, neither less nor more. He wields the sceptre of his bow with the easy royalty of one born to reign; he plays Beethoven’s concerto with the rapt infallible power of a seer delivering his oracle, and he takes his seat at a quartet very much like Apollo entering his chariot to drive the horses of the sun.” [xxxi]

“Joachim was always conscious of his dignity,” wrote Henry Wood, and as a member of a younger generation he probably meant it as a criticism. [xxx] One might say better that Joachim was always conscious of representing the dignity of his art in his person. (One of his favorite sayings was a quote from Schiller: “The dignity of man is given into your hand. Preserve it! It sinks with you, and with you it shall arise.”) Those who are among the first generation to labor for the recognition of a people or a principle often see things in this way — their decorum is an instrument of their struggle. Joachim’s dignity was hard won. It was not who he was born, but who he became — the skills he acquired and the values he embraced — that led him into the highest circles of culture and politics, and that determined his importance as a man and moral leader — that led to his public recognition as a Great Man.

NPG D36522; Joseph Joachim published by Berlin Photographic Co, after John Singer Sargent

Sargent’s kit-cat is a dignified affair. It is the classic image of a man of judgment: arms folded, the right hand protruding, the head erect, sober, distinguished, self-assured, the imperious glance turned toward the viewer — and yet the gaze is covered, inward, retrospective. Too inward for a statesman, surely — this is not a man of action like Roosevelt, hand on hip, assertive. A scholar, perhaps, or a philosopher — in any case, there is also no hint here of the virtuoso: the windbaggy sort who craves and courts approval and applause by means of his astonishing technique, his gobsmacking prowess. Though his arms may often enough have cradled a violin, they rest now upon his chest. There is no instrument, no score to indicate the practical musician, or to suggest the showman. What Sargent shows us instead is a sage, a man of mind and spirit, a mature guardian of timeless wisdom, a man of “deep, great, genuine sincerity.”

Joachim’s British friends included Tennyson, Browning, Thackeray, Dickens, Eliot, Landseer, Leighton, Alma-Tadema, Millais, Watts, Darwin, Gladstone, Jowett, Parry, Stanford and Grove.[xxxiv] In personal memoirs, we read of the countless small ways that Joachim interacted with the significant minds of his time, introducing them to great music — speaking to them, from personal acquaintance, of the great composers — ministering to their joys and sorrows, and sowing the seeds of understanding and acceptance for the art that he loved. These vignettes, as much as the numberless reviews of his appearances at public occasions, show the man, and give insight into the way in which he conceived his life’s work.

Rising above periods of intense personal and artistic struggle, Joachim became one of the most recognized and admired men of his time. Cambridge University bestowed doctoral degrees on him and Brahms on the same day, March 8, 1877 (Brahms did not attend).[18] The University of Glasgow awarded him an LLD in 1887, and Oxford University followed suit the following year. Never had a performing musician been so honored. In an age and a place that believed in the notion of edification through art, Joachim showed that the practicing musician, as well as the composer, the poet or the painter, could unite and embody the qualities of genius and character, and that Euterpe and Polyhymnia could take their rightful place among their sister muses “not merely as the recreation of a privileged class, but as an integral element of national life.”

Writing on the centennial of Joachim’s birth, A. H. Fox-Strangways, the founder and editor of Music and Letters, articulated what, among his English contemporaries, had come to be a widely held, sympathetic judgement of the man and the artist:

“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.” [xxxv]


Joseph Joachim

Etching by Ferdinand Schmutzer



[1] “The two frequently played Mozart’s Violin Sonatas together,” he recalls in his memoirs. “Carl Mozart on such occasions used his father’s clavier, under which a pair of Mozart’s neat little slippers had found a permanent home. He showed my father a number of interesting documents, amongst which was a series of letters written by Mozart in Mannheim in 1777 to his cousin in Augsburg, a young girl about his own age. These letters are full of an overflowing spirit of boyish freakishness and whimsicality, and Carl Mozart declared he was going to destroy them on account of frequent passages of a somewhat equivocal nature which in the eyes of the world might reflect unfavourably on Mozart. My father’s urgent pleading induced Carl to let him take copies of them before their destruction, but only on condition that he would never publish them. I remember showing the copies to Brahms one day and his going off into fits of laughter over them. [Speyer/LIFE, pp. 2-3].

[2] For many years, Joachim had led a second, “English” Joachim quartet at the “Pops” concerts in London. Members of that quartet included Louis Ries, 2nd violin, Ludwig Strauss, viola, and Alfredo Piatti, ‘cello.

[3] Like Mendelssohn before him, Joachim made England a second home. In his youth, he visited his uncle, Bernhard Figdor in Tulse Hill, near London, and in later years stayed with his brother Heinrich in London. Heinrich, a successful wool merchant, lived with his wife and children. Following his début with the London Philharmonic in 1844, Joachim returned to London in 1847, 1849, 1852, 1858, 1859, and 1862. After that, his annual six-week journey to England was looked upon as a matter of course.

[4] “Sargent found the President’s strong will daunting from the start. The choice of a suitable place to paint, where the lighting was good, tried Roosevelt’s patience. No room on the first floor agreed with the artist. When they began climbing the staircase, Roosevelt told Sargent he did not think the artist knew what he wanted. Sargent replied that he did not think Roosevelt knew what was involved in posing for a portrait. Roosevelt, who had just reached the landing, swung around, placing his hand on the newel and said, ‘Don’t I!’” This is the pose that Sargent adopted for his painting. The painting is the official White House Portrait. [see: National Portrait Gallery, http://www.npg.si.edu/exh/roosevelt/whtr.htm, from which this quote is taken.]

[5] The name derives from the 18th-century Kit-Cat Club in London, whose members included writers William Congreve, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele and a number of prominent Whig politicians. A kit-cat is a portrait of less than half-length, 36 x 28 inches, showing head and shoulders, and usually one hand, following the format of Sir Godfrey Kneller’s (Gottfried von Kniller, 1646-1723) series of 42 portraits of Kit-Cat members (National Portrait Gallery, London). Sargent’s portrait is 87.6 x 73.0 cm. (34 1/2 x 28 3/4 in.). It currently hangs in the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.

[6] Miss Weisse (as she was known), was the founder of the Northlands School, a boarding school for “young ladies” in a large house surrounded by gardens at Englefield Green near Windsor. “The school had a wide reputation, and no wonder,” wrote Speyer, “for Miss Weisse was a woman of strong character and great intelligence. Despite her other numerous activities and responsibilities, her care of Donald was the absorbing aim and interest of her existence. When he returned after his four years at Balliol, she made Northlands a centre of intellectual and artistic life. She built a large concert-room in which frequent performances of music and lectures on other subjects were given. Here Donald could display his gifts as pianist and composer with other prominent artists. For a number of years Joachim and his Quartet were habitual visitors. On several occasions London orchestras were engaged so that Donald might gain experience as a conductor. As a result, Northlands in course of time became a centre of intellectual and artistic activity….” [Speyer/LIFE, pp.168-169.]

[7] Speyer/LIFE, p. 167. As examples of Tovey’s memory, Speyer recalled how Tovey played the eight movements of Mozart’s Serenade for Thirteen Wind Instruments straight through on the piano, without notes, having only seen the score “once or twice,” and on a series of evenings at Speyer’s Ridgehurst home, played, without preparation, “the whole of Beethoven’s Pianoforte Sonatas in chronological order, without a note of printed music before him.”

[8] Bridges was not the only British poet to catch Joachim in verse. In his 1884 occasional poem, The Founder of the Feast, later worked up into a sonnet, the music-loving Robert Browning writes:

Sense has received the utmost Nature grants,
My cup was filled with rapture to the brim,
When, night by night — ah, memory, how it haunts! —
Music was poured by perfect ministrants,
By Hallé, Schumann, Piatti, Joachim.

And George Eliot, in her poem Stradivarius, speaks of “Joachim

Who holds the strain afresh incorporate
By inward hearing and notation strict
Of nerve and muscle…”

Some have seen Joachim in the figure of Eliot’s Klesmer in Daniel Deronda: “a felicitous combination of the German, the Sclave, and the Semite, with grand features, brown hair floating in artistic fashion, and brown eyes in spectacles. His English had little foreignness except its fluency; and his alarming cleverness was made less formidable just then by a certain softening air of silliness which will sometimes befall even Genius in the desire of being agreeable to Beauty;” and elsewhere: “as versatile and fascinating as a young Ulysses on a sufficient acquaintance — one whom nature seemed to have first made generously and then to have added music as a dominant power using all the abundant rest, and, as in Mendelssohn, finding expression for itself not only in the highest finish of execution, but in that fervour of creative work and theoretic belief which pierces the whole future of a life with the fight of congruous, devoted purpose.”

[9] The old Queen’s Hall was destroyed by an incendiary bomb during the night of May 10-11, 1941. With it, as with so much and so many, passed an era.

[10] Joachim’s friend, Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918) was a noted English composer and teacher. In 1904, he was director of the Royal College of Music and professor of music at Oxford University. He is well known today as the composer of the hymn Jerusalem (text by Blake).

[11] Noted English jurist Sir Frederick Pollock was a friend of Speyer’s and a member of the Joachim Concerts Committee, which organized and sponsored the performances of the Joachim Quartet in England.

[12] The Hochschule für ausübende Tonkunst in Berlin (currently the Universität der Künste), of which Joachim was the founding director.

[13] Mostly men: John Holloway, in his 1953 book The Victorian Sage: Studies in Argument, also lists George Eliot among his “sages,” and Thaïs E. Morgan, in her 1990 study Victorian Sages and Cultural Discourse: Renegotiating Gender and Power, tackles the question “Can a woman’s writing be sage writing?” with reference to a host of female “sages.”

[14] Carl Flesch, The Art of Violin Playing, New York: Carl Fischer, 1930, pp. 74-75.

[15] Perhaps the one place where the Great Man [Person] Theory retains a sense of validity is in the arts. The arts are a specifically created world, in which the artist plays the god-like role of creator. A musical style is not the creation of nature, or an anonymous collection of musicians, but of a handful of brilliant minds who understand how to draw the implications of their material in an original and cogent way. We are interested in Classical music because of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, not because of the subterranean churnings of Schroeter, Hoffmeister and Dussek. We are interested in Joachim, not for how he typified his age, but for how he transformed it.

[16] The son of violinist Ferdinand David, Paul David (b. Aug. 4, 1840) was head of music at Uppingham School since 1865, the first person to hold such a post in England. Uppingham School’s “new” concert room was dedicated on May 23, 1905, with a performance by Joseph Joachim of Beethoven’s violin concerto. [The Musical Times, Vol. 47, No. 761 (July 1, 1906), pp. 449-457.]

[17] Alluded to in Mendelssohn’s letter to Klingemann, above.

[18] “Men of all shades of opinion met in perfect amity; the lion of Wagnerism sitting down with the lamb of orthodoxy, or vice versa… as though the one had never shown a disposition to make a meal of the other” — a full description of the event can be found in The Musical Times, Vol. 18, No. 410 (April 1, 1877), pp. 170-172.

[i] May/BRAHMS, pp. 210-211.

[ii] Speyer/LIFE, p. 186.

[iii] http://www.royal.gov.uk/output/page929.asp, accessed 2/5/2007.

[iv] Mary H. Krout, A Looker-On in London, New York: Dodd, Mead, & Company, p. 304.

[v] Elizabeth Hammerton and David Cannadine, Conflict and Concensus on a Ceremonial Occasion: The Diamond Jubilee in Cambridge in 1897, The Historical Journal, Vol. 24, No. 1 (March, 1981), pp. 111-112, passim.

[vi] Speyer/LIFE, p. 191.

[vii] Grierson/TOVEY, p. 12.

[viii] Grierson/TOVEY, pp. 4-5.

[ix] Grierson/TOVEY, p. 31.

[x] Grierson/TOVEY, p. 95.

[xi] Grierson/TOVEY, p. 96.

[xii] Joachim/CENTENARY, p. 9.

[xiii] Grierson/TOVEY, p. 110.

[xiv] Joachim/BRIEFE III, p. 502.

[xv] Speyer/LIFE, pp. 188-189.

[xvi] The Musical Times, Vol. 54, No. 847 (September 1, 1913), p. 585.

[xvii] E[dward]. M[organ]. Forster, Howard’s End, Boston: Bedford Books, 1997, p. 44.

[xviii] The Musical Times, Vol. 85, No. 1218 (August, 1944), pp. 247-248.

[xix] The Musical Times, Vol. 45, No. 736 (June 1, 1904), p. 376.

[xx] Pollock/GRANDSON, pp. 127-128.

[xxi] The Musical Times, Vol. 45, No. 736 (June 1, 1904), p. 377.

[xxii] Speyer/LIFE, pp. 190-191.

[xxiii] Elkin/QUEEN’S, p. 30.

[xxiv] Speyer/LIFE, p. 188

[xxv] Wood/LIFE, p. 184.

[xxvi] Joachim/CENTENARY, p. 6.

[xxvii] Holloway/SAGE, p. 1.

[xxviii] Ralph Waldo Emerson essay: Self-Reliance.

[xxix] The Musical Times, Vol. 48, No. 775 (Sept. 1 1907), p. 577.

[xxx] Wood/LIFE, p. 184.

[xxxi] Rev. H. R. Haweis, Music and Morals, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1900, p. 504.

[xxxii] Speyer/LIFE, pp. 182-183.

[xxxiii] Charles Dickens, The Letters of Charles Dickens, Graham Storey (ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 103

[xxxiv] Stanford/MEMORIES, pp. 130-131.

[xxxv] Fox-Strangways/MUSIC, pp. 73-76.