Robert Hausmann’s Piano Trio with his Hochschule colleagues Heinrich Barth (piano) and Heinrich de Ahna (violin) started a subscription series in 1878. They lasted for thirty years, with only one change in personnel, when Emanuel Wirth took over after de Ahna died in 1892.
In contrast to the Joachim Quartet concerts, the Trio mixed up the program of piano trios with solo piano works and other combinations of instruments. In their first decade there could be singers on the program and short virtuosic pieces. For instance, at a concert in 1884 in Neubrandenburg, in addition to Trios by Beethoven and Brahms, the soprano Therese Zerbst sang some Lieder and Hausmann played Popper’s “Elfentanz” and Moszkowski’s “Tarantelle.”1Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (1884): 72. Zerbst married Carl Halir, who played in the Joachim Quartet from 1897-1907, in 1888.
One particularly enthusiastic review of the Trio in its first year referred to them as the “demigods of the Hochschule,” who together formed a chemical reaction that transformed the different qualities of the individual players (Barth’s “somewhat dry approach,” De Ahna’s “tender sensitivity,” and Hausmann’s “youthful enthusiasm”) into a trinity.2Barth “(Mit seinen Triogenossen zu den “Halbgöttern” des Olymps unserer musikalischen Hochschule gehört) hat sich mit den H. H. DeAhna und Hausmann zu einer Trias vereinigt, die trotz der sehr abweichenden Individualitäten der einzelnen Künstler in den von ihnen vorgetragenen Trio´s einer Dreieinigkeit nahe kommt. Barth´s etwas trockener Art weiß mit de Ahna´s zarten Empfinden und Hausmann´s jugendlicher Begeisterung eine so “chemsche” Verbindung einzugehen, daß wir die Trio´s Op. 18 von Saint Saens, in Es dur von Schubert und in Es Dur von Brahms mit großem Genuss gehört haben.” Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (1878):10. Around the same time another critic described Barth as “cool and clear as water,” while Hausmann was “soulful and warmed us up.”3Der Klavierlehrer (1878): 47.“It was if they wanted to make it hard for us to leave,” wrote a reviewer after a Trio concert in 1882 comprised of the Beethoven Piano Trio Op. 1, no. 3, the Brahms E minor Cello Sonata Op. 38, and the Schumann Piano Quartet.4“Es war, als wollten uns die Herren den Abschied von diesen Soireen recht schwer machen.” Max Goldstein, “Kammermusik,” Musik-Welt II, no. 9 (1882): 81.
These concerts were made “popular” (meaning cheaper) in 1889. They were frequently mentioned in the papers as being sold out up to their end in 1907. As the Musikalisches Wochenblatt acknowledged, the full house (the Philharmonie had over 2000 seats) indicated that despite Berlin having so much music to offer, there was a need for these cheap concerts of chamber masterworks. A Berlin newspaper concurred:
It enables a wider circle of our public to get to know the most valued pieces of the German chamber music literature (except the string quartet)–a pleasure that up till now has not been granted. The extraordinary interest found in the first popular chamber music evening in the Philharmonie is proof of the thankfulness of the music-loving lay public for this new scheme.5“Durch Einrichtung von sogenannten ‘populären Kammermusik-Abenden’ eine sehr Rühmenswerthe Neuerung getreffen, durch welche es auch den weiteren Kreisen unseres Publikums ermöglicht wird, die werthvollsten Producte der Deutschen kammer-musikalischen Literatur, (freilich mit Ausschluß der Quartette, kennen zu lernen), ein Genuß, der bisher vergönnt gewesen ist. Wie dankbar diese neue Einrichtung von dem musikliebenden Laienpublicum unserer Residenz aufgenommen ist, bewies die außerordentliche Betheiligung, welche der vorgestrige erste populäre Kammermusik-Abend in der Philharmonie gefunden hatten.” Berliner Börsen Zeitung 1889.
The Musical Courier compared the Joachim Quartet and the Piano Trio:
While the former play to a select congregation at the comparatively small Sing Akademie and at rather high prices of admission, the latter hold forth at the vast Philharmonie, and at popular prices from 2 marks down to 50 pfennigs. I am glad to say that the Berliners avail themselves of this opportunity to such an extent that usually the vast hall is filled to overflowing.6Musical Courier (1891): 541.
Their first offering to the “lay public” was an all-Beethoven concert consisting of six (!) works: the Piano Trio Op. 70, no. 1, the Piano Sonata Op. 57, the Cello Sonata Op. 69, two Violin Sonatas, in F major and G major, and the Piano Trio Op. 97. Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and Brahms became the main composers on these concerts; before going “popular,” they also played contemporary works, mostly by their colleagues at the Hochschule (Kiel, Herzogenberg, Bargiel).
By selling tickets for 1 Mark rather than the usual 3-5 Marks, they attracted an audience made up of the best of Berlin, which, as one reviewer put it, “we know is not the same as the richest.” In this sense, the “popular concerts” were paradoxically more elite. As one reviewer remarked in 1889, they were more “classy” (vornehmer) than “many a showy musical event with higher prices…. Also, they have the advantage that the audience of these concerts enter the hall only by their own will, instead of being dragged there by force or trickery, which is what happens with most other concerts.”7Der Klavierlehrer 12 (1889): 257.
One reviewer even tried to argue that a poor turnout was a good sign. After a concert the Trio gave in Danzig in 1881 that apparently had been put up against competing events, the writer claimed:
But this is also the ideal, exceptional position of chamber music concerts, that they only attract a small public, who, however, are filled with an exquisite and real enthusiasm for the music.8“…wenngleich das Publikum nicht gerade zu zahlreich war. Es ist dies der materielle Nachteil, zugleich aber auch die ideelle Ausnahmestellung der Kammermusikconcerte, dass sie nur ein kleines, aber dafür auserlesenes und von wirklicher Begeisterung für die Musik erfülltes Publikum anziehen.” “Bericht. Danzig, 23. Nov.,” Musikalisches Wochenblatt (1882): 6.
Too much of a good thing?
By the end of the century, critics had changed their tune. In their view, the number of chamber music groups now giving popular concerts was alarming because it ran counter to the elite nature of chamber music. In 1899 the Neue Zeitschrift reported that the Duesberg Quartet offered a season of twenty “popular” concerts (four to six concerts was the normal season).9Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (1899): 377.
The Bohemian Quartet (“die Böhmen”) began visiting Berlin regularly in 1896. The Leipzig Gewandhaus quartet and three Viennese quartets, the Hellmesberger, the Rosé, and the Prill Quartets, all visited. An article in the Signale in 1902 added the quartets led by the Frenchman Henri Marteau and Belgian Schörg to the list.
In 1906 even more quartet groups visited Berlin: the Hayot Quartet, the Hilf Quartet, the Sevčík Quartet, and the Hösl Quartet. Just twenty years earlier, the Joachim Quartet had been giving concerts that had virtually no competition.
In 1906 the critic Karl Storck objected to the Halir Quartet’s complete Beethoven cycle as part of their “so-called ‘popular’ Sunday concerts” because the late Quartets were never intended to become “volkstümlich” and never would be. These concerts needed accompanying programs or lectures if their audience was going to grow.10Der Klavierlehrer (1906): 101. But the audience did grow. The following year another critic complained specifically about too many quartets playing the late Beethoven works: it used to just be the Joachim Quartet, but now the Böhmen, Brüsseler, Münchner, and others were all finding audiences for these works, and that was not a good thing.11Neue Musik-Zeitung (1907): 250.
In this case, there was no need to worry. The Beethoven’s late quartets remain the gold standard of great and difficult art music that continues to draw an audience.