The Classical Romantic

Remembering Joseph Joachim

Moody oil painting of an older man with a gray beard, wearing a fancy suit
Joseph Joachim (1904), John Singer Sargent (Art Gallery of Ontario/Wikimedia Commons)

Joseph Joachim, who was born in 1831 and who died on this date in 1907, was a titan among 19th-century violinists, adored in equal measure by the public and his fellow musicians. Along with Ferdinand David, he pioneered the art of modern violin playing, while also, through his considerable influence, helping to establish what we now think of as the instrument’s canonical repertoire.

He was a specialist in the unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas of Bach (doing so much to rescue them from their bewildering, if temporary, obscurity) and just as thoughtful an interpreter of Mozart. His name will also be forever associated with the music of Beethoven and Brahms. With his eponymous quartet, Joachim specialized in Beethoven’s monumental Late String Quartets; as a soloist, he was arguably the first true master of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, which he initially performed in England at the age of 12, with no less an eminence than Felix Mendelssohn conducting the London Philharmonic. He got to know Brahms via mutual friends the Schumanns—Robert and Clara—and when Brahms commenced working on his own violin concerto, he consulted Joachim extensively, eventually dedicating the work to him. Premiering it in 1879, Joachim also composed a first-movement cadenza for it that remains popular with violinists of our time.

Unlike Niccolò Paganini and Pablo de Sarasate—virtuosos whose artistry was in large part based on brazen displays of almost superhuman technique—Joachim had little appetite for showing off. In a 1905 monograph, the critic John Alexander Fuller-Maitland wrote that Joachim had “the power of making music seem like the natural spontaneous utterance of his inmost feelings, as well as a faithful reproduction of the thoughts of whatever master he may be interpreting.” Not that Joachim wasn’t capable of thrilling an audience. According to Fuller-Maitland, the violinist, had he so wished, may well have surpassed Paganini as an exponent of the virtuosic arts, so dexterous and nimble were his fingers. But Joachim’s approach demanded fidelity to the score and sympathy for the composer, and perhaps as a result, he was occasionally viewed as an anachronism: the cool Apollonian in a red-blooded Dionysian age. More perceptive observers, like the renowned violinist and pedagogue Carl Flesch, knew better. “One could not but be deeply impressed,” he wrote,

by his genius for shaping his phrases, by the somnambulistic certainty of his intuitions which always seemed to find the only true violinistic expression for the inner significance of the music. Unjustly, he used to be known as a “classical” violinist in the slightly suspicious sense which the adjective had acquired in the course of time, and which always made one think of respectable dullness. In actual fact, he was a romantic through and through—uninhibited, even somewhat gipsy-like by nature, and he always retained these traits.

To get some idea of what a 19th-century artist sounded like, we must necessarily rely on such accounts. Joachim, however, did live long enough to set down a small number of recordings, becoming one of the first violinists to do so. In 1903, he recorded two of his own transcriptions of the Brahms Hungarian Dances, one of his own compositions (the Romance in C major), and two excerpts from the Bach Sonatas and Partitas. Having first encountered these performances on CD more than 20 years ago, I initially found them difficult to listen to, mainly due to the intense scratching and shrill hissing of that ancient record, though I soon realized that once you got through the outer extremes of that noisy storm, you could behold great beauty in its eye.

It’s true that people accustomed to 20th-century instrumental practices might be surprised, maybe even perplexed, by what they hear in Joachim’s playing. Listen to his interpretation of the Adagio from Bach’s Sonata in G minor, for example, and you will notice imperfections. Some of the chords are a little muddy. There’s a stray note here, a string inadvertently plucked there. And some of the notes sound slightly out of tune. Of course, Joachim was, at the time, 72 years old, hardly a violinist in his prime. Besides, 1903 was an eternity away from our present age, when any mistake can be scrubbed out of a recording, when endless takes in the studio can result in an artificial—and sterile—musical perfection.

But it’s also important to keep in mind just how different our conception of intonation is from the standards of the 19th century. When Joachim was training as a violinist, back in the 1830s, normalized keyboard temperament—which today determines the “correctness” of intonation and of any musical interval—was not yet a universal standard. The relationship between pitches was therefore more fluid. What sounds vaguely out of tune to us did not sound that way to audiences of Joachim’s time. The sound he produced also has an earthier, less brilliant quality than what we are accustomed to, though this has much to do with the gut strings used at the time (made from the innards of sheep). Not until the second decade of the 20th century did metal and nylon begin to replace gut, meaning that violinists could now produce a silvery sheen previously absent from their palettes.

Do not let the vicissitudes of historical sound and practice distract you for too long, because Joachim’s playing—for example, in his Bach Adagio—has the power to beguile and bewitch. That “gipsy-like” quality that Flesch invoked is everywhere apparent in these magical few minutes. Although Joachim had a keen sense of rhythm and pulse, there’s nothing metronomic or rigid here. Rather, the lines are supple, the tempo is elastic—sometimes slowing down by almost a half, it seems—with a generous amount of rubato in the phrasing. Fuller-Maitland had a lovely metaphor for this last quality: “there is a feeling of resilience, of rebound,” he wrote, “in the sequence of the notes, a constant and perfect restoration of balance between pressure and resistance taking place, as an indiarubber ball resumes its original shape after being pressed.” Joel Lester, in his book Bach’s Works for Solo Violin, has a more prosaic, but perhaps more helpful, explanation. What we hear as “rushing,” he argues, would once have been perfectly acceptable:

[I]t is highly likely that in the ages before metronomes were common there was more flexibility of tempo than we are used to today, both on the beat level and on the measure level. …

Joachim’s recording is considerably freer in tempo than any other commercial recording I know—taking a faster tempo for entire passages and pushing ahead or pulling back at various points. I do not recommend copying his individual approach any more than I recommend adopting a strictly metronomic approach. But it seems to me that the satisfying qualities of Joachim’s performance indicate that it by no means stands at the limit of tasteful renditions.

You could learn many a lesson on the judicious use of vibrato or on how to shape a musical phrase by carefully studying Joachim’s Bach, but I’ll take only the last line of the piece, in which the violinist produces an incredible diminuendo over the course of just a few bars—the music growing hushed precisely when it’s at its most intense, so that the final G minor chord, a bookend to the same chord that begins the piece, comes as a shock, like something primal, from a world beyond. In our time, when musicological research informs just about every interpretation of Baroque music, Joachim’s approach may not sound authentic, but unlike the recordings of many seemingly more perfect or historically accurate artists, he gives the impression of creating on the spot—acting out the roles of instrumentalist and bard, singing out those sacred lines of Bach as if they were both improvisation and dream.

Listen to Joseph Joachim play the Adagio from Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G minor:

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Sudip Bose is the editor of the Scholar. He wrote the weekly classical music column “Measure by Measure” on this website for three years.


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