The Second Violinist
In her book Muss es sein?: Leben im Quartett, Sonia Simmenauer, a concert agent who managed many famous quartet ensembles, described the second violinist as the most problematic of the four players: three–a triangle–is more stable. With two violinists, the relationship between the two is always in question.1Sonia Simmenauer, Muss es sein?: Leben im Quartett
(C Berenberg Verlag, 2016), 41.
Karl Halir (1859-1909) was fated to have the epitaph of “the second violinist.” Even though he had his own successful Halir Quartet, he joined the Joachim Quartet in 1897. From that time until Joachim’s death in 1907 the Quartet enjoyed unheard of prestige and popularity for a chamber ensemble. But Halir was “only” the second violinist in that group.
If he had not died prematurely at age 51, he might have emerged from his role in the Joachim Quartet. According to Andreas Moser, in 1907 Halir told Joachim that he intended to move to southern Germany and establish an independent presence there.2Andreas Moser, Joseph Joachim: Ein Lebensbild, rev. ed., vol. 2 (Berlin: Verlag der deutschen Brahms Gesellschaft, 1910), 328. But then Joachim died, and Halir stayed in Berlin. He continued with his own quartet, which had been giving a regular series of concerts since 1893. He and the quartet’s cellist, Hugo Dechert, also played in a piano trio with the pianist and composer Georg Schumann.
Halir was an extremely busy man. As the Musical Courier noted in 1901:
He teaches violin at the Hochschule, has a large private class, is assistant conductor to Joachim, trains a quartet class, belongs to the Joachim Quartet, gives concerts here, all over Germany and in England, heads the Halir Quartet, belongs to the Schumann Trio and is concertmaster at the Berlin Royal Opera! —Musical Courier (Nov 27, 1901).
Halir also had a very successful solo career. He played both the Brahms and the Tchaikovsky Concertos on a single concert with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1888. (Both concertos were a hard sell at that stage and got a very unenthusiastic response.) He premiered Danish composer Eduard Lassen’s Violin Concerto, which was dedicated to him, in Frankfurt in 1889. In 1893 in Leipzig he pulled off the feat of playing three concertos on a concert, then played a second concert with three different concertos.3Announcement that Halir of Weimar will put on two concerts in the old Gewandhaus in Leipzig with a total of six concertos over two evenings (Beethoven, Brahms, Paganini; and Spohr, Tschaikowsky and Lalo), in Musikalisches Wochenblatt (1893): 522. In 1896 he played the Beethoven Violin Concerto at Carnegie Hall in New York to great acclaim. He gave the first European performance of Amy Beach’s Violin Sonata, op. 34 with Teresa Carreño on 28 October 1899, and was part of many more premieres of chamber works in Berlin.
Halir’s status as a footnote most often appears in accounts of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. The genesis and premiere(s) of this work are complicated. Sibelius intended his old friend, the German virtuoso Willy Burmester, to play the premiere. However, there was a last-minute scramble to bring off the first performance in Helsinki, and there wasn’t time to get Burmester involved. Directly after the performance, Sibelius started on revisions. Then in 1905, he again had to rush to get it to his new Berlin publisher Lienau, who helped arrange a performance that fall, conducted by Richard Strauss.
One gets the mistaken impression from most accounts that Halir was just filling in for the intended soloist Burmester because he was concertmaster of the Königliche Kapelle, which was the orchestra of the Royal Opera.4See, for instance, Jukka Tiilikainen,”The genesis of the violin concerto,” in the Cambridge Companion to Sibelius ed. Daniel Grimley (Cambridge University Press, 2004), 67. Erik Tawastsjerna writes that the publisher Lienau chose Halir specifically, but he calls Halir “the leader of the Berlin Orchestra.” Erik Tawaststjerna, Sibelius: 1865-1905 (University of California Press, 1976), 278. Tomi Mäkelä writes that the performance took place in the Philharmonie but with the Königlich-Preussische Hofkapelle and that “Halir was the leader of the Berlin orchestra and an active chamber musician.” Mäkelä, Sibelius (Boydell & Brewer, 2011), 286. But this is incorrect. Halir had stepped down as the Kapelle’s concertmaster more than a year before this. Besides, it was the Philharmonic playing, not the Kapelle. Furthermore, Halir was named as the concert giver in the advertisements and the reviews (see below). It was the first of two concerts he presented at the Singakademie with the Philharmonic that October.
Review of the 19 October concert by W. Altmann
Karl Halir gave two concerts with Philharmonic Orchestra; in the first Richard Strauss conducted, and the concert giver played with glorious tone and effortless technique a new, uncommonly difficult concerto in d minor by Sibelius. The first movement seemed to me to be wanting; there were very many beautiful things in the Adagio, but the most interesting was the Finale, which is held to be Finnish in harmony and rhythm, and offered the soloist some rewarding challenges.5“Karl Halir gab zwei Konzerte mit dem philharmonischen Orchester; im ersten dirigierte Richard Strauss, und der Konzertgeber spielte u.a. mit herrlichem Ton und müheloser Technik ein neues, ungemein schwieriges Konzert in d-moll von Sibelius. Der erste Satz kam mir recht gesucht vor; sehr viel Schönes enthielt das Adagio, am interessantesten aber war das Finale, das in Harmonie und Rhythmus finnisch gehalten ist und dem Solisten dankbare Aufgaben bietet.” Wilhelm Altmann, Die Musik vol. V.17 (1906), 295.
Leopold Schmidt’s review in the Tageblatt
The names of Richard Strauss and Karl Halir filled the hall of the Singakademie to the last place on Thursday. This concert was about two things: first, to break a lance for a few new works, and second, to again recall the eminent violinist of the Joachim Quartet as a soloist. Since the “Eclogue” and “Carnaval des morts” by Ch. M. Löffler had their premiere in Richard Strauss’s “modern concerts” and”La villanelle du Diable” by the same composer was cancelled, the new works shrank to one, the Violin Concerto in D minor, op. 47 by J. Sibelius. And this also shrank a lot for the listener in terms of the question of its inner value. The Finnish composer has in fact done much better in other works, in form and content. The form of the first movement of the Violin Concerto completely falls apart; besides, the national character loses effect from the peculiar instrumentation that contrasts the most extreme ranges without middle voices in between. The second slow movement is better constructed, but not very idiosyncratic in invention; at least it gave Herr Halir the opportunity to show off the beauty of his tone, which could not be said at all of the other, wallowing-in-cacophony movements, including the last, whose obsessive rhythm very quickly caused interest to weaken.6“Die Namen Richard Strauß und Karl Halir hatten am Donnerstag den Saal der Singakademie bis auf den letzten Platz gefüllt. Es handelte sich in diesem Konzert um zweierlei Dinge: erstens darum, für einige Novitäten eine Lonze zu brechen, und zweitens, die eminenten Geiger des Joachim-Quartetts wieder einmal als Solisten in Erinnerung zu bringen. Die Novitäten schrumpften, da “Eclogue” und”Carnaval des morts” von Ch. M. Löffler ihre Ersteaufführung in den “modernen Konzerten” von Richard Strauß bereits erlebt hatten und “La villanelle du Diable” derselben Komponisten ausfiel, auf eine einzige, das Violinkonzert D moll, op. 47 von J. Sibelius, zusammen. Und auch dieses schrumpfte vor dem Hörer sehr stark ein, wenn man nach dem inneren Werk fragte. Tatsächlich hat der finnish Komponist in anderen Werken nach Form und Inhalt viel Besseres gegeben. Der erste Satz des Violinkonzert fällt aber auch in der Form vollkommen auseinander; der national Charakter verliert überdies noch am Wirkung durch die seltsamen Instrumentation, die die höchsten Lagenohne Mittelstimmen miteinander kontrastieren läßt. Der zweite langsame Satz ist in der Anlage besser, aber in der Erfindung wenig eigenartig; wenigstens gab es Herrn Halir Gelegenheit, die Schönheit seines Tones zur Geltung zu bringen, was man von den anderen in Kakophonien schwelgende Sätzen nicht eben behaupten kann, auch nicht von dem letzten, dessen eigensinniger Rhythmus das Interesse sehr bald erlahmen läßt.”
Berliner Tageblatt, 21 October 1905.
Halir played two other works on this concert: the Beethoven Violin Concerto, and “Ecólogue et carnaval des morts a. d. Divertiss. f. Viol. und Orch.” by the eccentric decadent Charles M. Loeffler, advertised as a “first repeat” of the work. The premiere had taken place in 1902, also with Halir and Strauss; this time the first of the three movements was omitted.7On the premiere of the Lœffler work, see The Violin Times 9 (March 15, 1902), 52. This obscure work is variously referred to as the “Divertimento” and “Divertissement,” op. 1, from 1894; it was said to have been so difficult that Fritz Kreisler and Eugène Ysaÿe passed up the opportunity to perform the premiere.8See Carl Engel, “Charles Martin Lœffler,” The Musical Quarterly 11, no. 3 (1925): 311-30. http://www.jstor.org/stable/738622.