The Athenæum, No. 1471 (5 January 1856), p. 18.
Hebrew Melodies — Impressions of Byron’s Poems, for Tenor and Pianoforte, Op. 9. — Variations on and Original Air, for Tenor and Pianoforte, Op. 10. By Joseph Joachim. (Ewer Co.) — We are disconcerted, rather than surprised, by the quality of these compositions. We know that creative power is not ensured by the possession of science or executive facility; but the absence of originality is here accompanied by a prominent uncouthness and eccentricity, to be regretted in one who commenced his artistic career so well (because so reverentially) as Herr Joachim. Yet however sorry we may be, we are not astonished. The school to which Herr Joachim has notoriously devoted himself on his arrival at years of discretion can only produce fruits like these. Critics who find that Dr. Schumann is deep while Haydn is shallow, — that Herr Wagner is poetical while Mendelssohn is mechanical, — may possibly recognize beauty, significance, idea, where we are merely aware of darkness, ambition, and unloveliness; but those with whom free judgment does not mean fanaticism, — who fancy that the Art of the Future must complete and carry out, not contradict, the Art of the Past, — will not receive these things as music. How curious is the choice which has made Herr Joachim write for pianoforte and tenor! That low-voiced “viol” has charming and effective qualities of its own, but these are not developed when it is used as a solo instrument, still less in combination with the pianoforte. There is more of whimsy than of wit in thus giving prominent employment to an instrument which is, and must be to the end of time, a secondary — nay, a ternary — instrument: — it being recollected that the instrumental is not like the vocal tenor, a reflection — or reproduction — with the new characteristics and new brilliancies — of the soprano. — Then, the subjects of these compositions may be described by the language employed by Olaus Magnus, in his chapter on ‘Snakes in Iceland.’ “Snakes in Iceland” (says the historian) “there be none.” A group of notes tumbled together does not make it either a “Hebrew melody” or an “Original air.” The first condition of a theme for variations is, that it should fix itself on the ear. It is true with that in his ‘Eroica’ and Choral Symphonies, and still more in his Posthumous Quartetts, the endeavour of Beethoven seems to have been to gratify the hearer by puzzling him; but it is no less true, that though Beethoven sometimes thought it fit to confuse his composition, by mixing up adjuncts and essentials, ritornels and melodies, his themes when reached, or however set, were in themselves distinct, symmetrical, seizing. This cannot be said, by the most exercised listener, of Herr Joachim’s “original air,” — which appears as if it had been expressly constructed to avoid beauty, and to throw out memory. The ‘Hebrew Melodies’ are still more mysterious, one phrase excepted, — the episode in A flat, p. 7, which must be noticed as almost the solitary example of form in these strange rhapsodies. Of which among Byron’s Hebrew Melodies are they impressions? — ‘The wild gazelle on Judah’s hills’? — ‘The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold’? — ‘Oh, Mariamne’? They might, for any pertinence or propriety that we can discern, be “impressions” of the ‘Hydrotaphia,’ or the Funeral Sermon for the Countess of Carbery, or Johnson’s Preface to his Dictionary. — The name of Poetry is invoked, but the nature of Music is absent.