Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) is one of the iconic figures in the history of violin playing. A much admired friend and younger colleague of such great musical figures as Mendelssohn, Schumann and Liszt, he enjoyed a particularly close relationship with Johannes Brahms, who often sought Joachim’s advice.
Joachim, moreover, was not only an artist beloved by musicians and audiences alike for his performances of solo repertoire, chamber music, and concertos. Through his teaching, editions and compositions, he also became an essential embodiment and custodian of the “German spirit” in music, the almost religious devotion to “classical” values and fealty to the written text, this even though he was born not in Germany or Austria but in Hungary to Jewish parents.
A full assessment of Joachim has been long overdue, and a conference for this purpose was held at the Goethe-Institut June 16-18. Titled “Joseph Joachim at 185” and co-directed by Robert Whitehouse Eshbach and Valerie Woodring Goertzen, the three days were filled with 21 scholarly papers and two lecture recitals that examined just about every aspect of Joachim’s life and career as a violinist, teacher, composer, and mentor.
It is not possible to describe each of these events in detail [full list here], but all them added to our knowledge and appreciation of the art of Joseph Joachim. The opening address by Eshbach, a leading Joachim scholar, reminded us that Joachim “was a beloved, avuncular eminence … a virtuoso performer who stressed the importance of interpretation over virtuosity,” and who was seen as a sage and “musical priest” throughout the Western musical world. Eshbach also lamented, justly, that “… musicology has not kept up with Joachim” and that “much about his life and legacy remains to be re-evaluated or explored.” The conference was a great step forward.
The first paper, by Japanese musicologist Mineo Ota, explored Hungarian and Gypsy connections to Joachim’s music. Ota posed the question: “How much and in what sense did the performance style of Gypsy musicians affect Joachim’s style?” and answered it convincingly: “…Joachim liked this music not simply from nationalistic enthusiasm but also for aesthetic reasons” and imitated the “performance style of prímások [concertmasters] of Gypsy bands.”
New York-based musicologist Styra Avins spoke about Joachim’s baptism into Lutheranism in 1854, placing it within the context of “the cultural climate in German-speaking lands in which that decision was made,” including the Haskalah, “the German-Jewish Enlightenment movement that first found its voice in Moses Mendelssohn.” An added benefit from this paper was Avins’s reference to first BSO conductor George Henschel, another German Jew who had been baptized and lived his public life as a Christian. Nevertheless, in a visit to Henschel’s music studio in Scotland, Avins discovered a menorah over the doorway, and four stained-glass windows inside, each emblazoned by a Star of David, with the words “Until the Very End” running throughout.
In his keynote address, Eshbach noted that a set of the works of Goethe was an “obligatory bar mitzvah present” during Joachim’s lifetime, underscoring that Jews in the German-speaking world felt their first allegiance was not to religion but to German culture. This apparent acceptance of Joachim as representative of the German spirit was not to last. In 1935, only 28 years after his death, Hannover’s Nazi police commissioner received a request from Berlin to give a new name to the beautiful street Joachimstrasse. One word was sufficient for the reason: “Jew.”
The distinguished Mendelssohn scholar R. Larry Todd examined Joachim’s use of the musical cipher F-A-E (“frei aber einsam,” free but lonely), his personal motto, and how its “mirror inversion, Gis [G#]-e-la represented Gisela von Arnim, daughter of Betting von Arnim, with whom he was on close terms between 1852 and 1857.” In her paper, Katherine Uhde described Joachim’s relationship to Gisela as “complex.”
Joachim achieved renown for his performances of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Violin. Austrian/Canadian scholar Walter Kreyszig focused on the 1908 Joachim edition of the works, which he based on careful examination of the autograph owned by the widow of the Thomaskantor Wilhelm Rust. Kreyszig showed how the edition “provides a vivid testimony to Joachim’s profound knowledge of Bach’s solo violin repertory gained from his experience as a performer and teacher of this repertory.”
Several papers dealt with Joachim’s compositions connected to the works of Shakespeare, such as the Overture to Shakespeare’s Henry IV (Woodring-Goertzen) and the Overture to Hamlet (Jacquelyn Sholes). There were multiple discussions about Joachim’s violin concertos. Robert Riggs pointed out that Donald Francis Tovey, who held Joachim in such reverence that he always called him the “Great Man,” considered the Concerto in D minor (in the Hungarian Manner) “one of the most important documents of the middle of the 19th century.” Riggs directed our attention to the possible influences of this concerto on Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Vasiliki Papadopoulou also examined a Brahms connection with Joachim’s Violin Concerto in G minor, op. 3.
Despite Joachim’s impeccable reputation as an artist, several aspects of his personal life are less attractive. Hamburg scholar Beatrix Borchard, who has published a joint biography of Joachim and his wife, the great singer Amalie Schneeweiss (Stimme und Geige [Voice and Violin]: Amalie und Joseph Joachim), documented that Joachim treated his wife with unjustified suspicion and disrespect, and ultimately divorced her. In her conference paper, Borchard discussed Amalie’s groundbreaking series of performances tracing the history of the German Lied, which she presented to great success in Europe, Russia, and the United States.
Two lecture-recitals focused on the recorded legacy of Joachim and his contemporaries. Australian harpsichordist / fortepianist and musicologist Neal Peres Da Costa gave a fascinating presentation of particular interest to practitioners of “historical performance.” Using recordings of Joachim and his favorite student, Marie Soldat-Roeger, as well as of pianists associated with Brahms, Da Costa demonstrated that “By studying closely the performances of these ‘old-timers’ which preserve, at the very least, remnants of performing practices from previous generations that are described in historical written texts (pedagogical writings, letters, reminiscences, scores and the like), we can gain a clearer understanding of the sound world of 100-150 years ago.”
The lecture-recital by Swiss scholar/performers Kai Köpp, Johannes Gebauer, and Sebastian Bausch (“Der Klassikervortrag—Re-enacting the Art of Joseph Joachim”) offered results from their four-year research project in which they used analysis of “instructive texts and editions of the Joachim school,” methods of “embodiment” and “re-enactment,” and some high-tech graphs and images to add insights into performance practices of the time.
A paper given by Ian Maxwell (Cambridge UK) described the newly formed Joachim archives at the University of Edinburgh, something that will be of great interest to scholars. The closing paper, by Arthur Kaptainis, was quite touching. The legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who as a young prodigy was mentored by Joachim, recalled “sitting on a windowsill in Germany listening to the Joachim Quartet play Op. 18 no. 2.” Kaptainis told us that when members of the Juilliard Quartet visited Rubinstein in 1982 less than seven months before his death, they played at his request that same quartet, as well as Beethoven’s Opus 59 no. 1 and three movements from Opus 95.
Such were the importance and influence of Joseph Joachim both during his lifetime and for future generations.