He’s the missing link of musical Romanticism: a man of uncompromising ideals, the greatest violinist of his day and an accomplished composer. Yet today Joseph Joachim is barely remembered. Because he was more famous as a performer than as a creator, he has slipped behind his closest friends in terms of repute. And since those friends included Robert and Clara Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Felix Mendelssohn and -- for a while -- Franz Liszt, perhaps it’s no wonder.
Now, though, the British violinist Daniel Hope (right) is setting out to restore Joachim to his rightful place as the lynchpin of music-making in the Romantic era, with a new CD entitled The Romantic Violin. And it’s not a moment too soon, for some of the 19th century’s crucial musical developments revolved around this extraordinary, and extraordinarily cantankerous, artist.
The idea, Hope says, has been bubbling away for years. Joachim (1831-1907) lived long enough to make a few gramophone records towards the end of his life; Hope’s fascination began when he heard those recordings as a child. “By then he wasn’t in his heyday, but there was something very distinct about his sound,” says Hope. “His exceptionally pure tone always intrigued me.”
He found that Joachim’s name “just kept popping up” as dedicatee of countless works, including the Brahms Violin Concerto and pieces by both the Schumanns. As he learned more, Hope was “amazed by the breadth of talent Joachim had, not just in playing the violin but in forging new approaches in musical expression, making new programmes, rediscovering the Beethoven Violin Concerto. He was tremendously interested in poetry, the arts, humanity in general, and he embodied the Romantic spirit more than any other violinist.”
As a child prodigy, the young Joachim was dandled, metaphorically, on the musical lap of Mendelssohn, who was not only his mentor but conducted a performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto in which Joachim, aged 13, was the soloist. “Without that performance, the concerto might have disappeared,” says Hope. “Until then, violinists had treated it as little more than an exercise. But Joachim played the music as he felt it. It must have been a complete revelation.”
Liszt, then honorary kapellmeister to the court in Weimar, persuaded the still teenaged violinist to become leader of his orchestra in 1848. There Joachim joined Liszt’s group of young disciples for several years. But another friendship soon came about which altered matters considerably: that with Johannes Brahms, two years Joachim’s junior.
It was Joachim who famously provided the 20-year-old Brahms with a letter of introduction to Robert and Clara Schumann, a meeting that profoundly affected the course of Brahms’s life and music. But just before that, Brahms went to see Joachim and Liszt in Weimar. This had a different result, equally lasting. When Liszt played his B minor Sonata to his assembled students, Brahms made a crucial faux pas: he fell asleep. His lack of sympathy with Liszt’s style was a sign of things to come.
What ensued later was the so-called ‘War of the Romantics’, which split the aesthetic of new music in Europe into two separate directions. In one camp were Liszt, Wagner and their followers, determined to create “the music of the future”, shaking up old preconceptions about style, harmony and structure; in the other camp, Brahms, Joachim and Clara Schumann, among others, deplored such iconoclasm and showiness.
But it was largely due to Joachim that the split became unreasonably vitriolic. A letter he wrote to the generous Liszt in 1857, refusing his invitation to perform in a festival in Weimar, simply beggars belief:
“Your music is entirely antagonistic to me,” he wrote. “It contradicts everything with which the spirits of our great ones have nourished my mind from my earliest youth. If it were thinkable that…I should ever have to renounce all that I learnt to love and honour in their creations, all that I feel music to be, your strains would not fill one corner of the vast waste of nothingness…”
Joachim thus ratched up the heat of the ongoing arguments and set the tone for much of what followed from the likes of Wagner himself and (on the side of Joachim and Brahms) the notorious critic Eduard Hanslick. But why was he so bitter?
It could be that the crux was Joachim’s own longing to be a finer composer than he was. Two of his most beautiful works feature on Hope’s CD, but alongside his friends, his music pales by comparison and he would have been the first to admit it. Perhaps because of that inward disappointment, he was a tortured soul.
His letters often reflect the dark side of his nature: he possessed the capacity for hyper-criticism of his nearest and dearest that often goes with great sensitivity and perceptiveness. For instance, despite his closeness to Brahms he would not demur from describing him as ‘egotism itself’ to a friend. His marriage to the singer Amalie Schneeweiss ended in acrimonious divorce (a rare decision in those times); that in turn sparked a serious fallout with Brahms.
But it was the Liszt incident that changed the future of music. “If Joachim had not split with Liszt,” says Hope, “the Liszt Violin Concerto would not have been forgotten; and there might have been one by Wagner. Instead, we have Brahms, Schumann, Dvorák, Bruch…”
Nothing wrong with those, of course; and Joachim’s input requires attention, especially for Bruch’s Concerto No.1, which opens Hope’s CD. “In its first version the concerto wasn’t a success,” Hope says. “Bruch then enlisted Joachim’s help, because with his fame and his ability he could save pieces. Sure enough, he revised it radically.” The concerto partly owes its popularity to Joachim’s rewrites. “And in terms of German Romantic sensibility, it reaches a zone beyond any of the others.”
Joachim’s attitude to Romanticism was quite unlike our general notion of it today, which is closer to that of Liszt and Wagner. “It’s interesting that Joachim was the violinist whose tone was the purest,” says Hope. “It’s like listening pure emotion. Other violinists who recorded around the same time couldn’t sound more different -- perfumed, beautiful, fantastic playing, but showy. That is how Romanticism, as we define it, happened; but it has little to do with what the Romantic movement was really about.”
The CD, Hope says, is the starting point for many of his concert programmes and projects this year. He is never less than snowed under: shortly his third book, Toi Toi Toi, is being released -- “a chronicle of musical superstitions and disasters, including my own,” he says -- and he’s about to assume a new festival directorship in Mecklenburg, Germany. That makes it all the more impressive that he’s spending so much time and effort focusing attention on Joachim. Stand by for some seriously amazing music-making. The CD is out tomorrow.
Here is Joachim himself in the Bach G minor Adagio, recorded in 1904. An ultimate Friday Historical.