Joachim’s student Johann Kruse, Part 2: Nellie Melba
“Do you hear anything of Kruse? He never writes, and I long to know something about him.”–11 June 1900
In Joachim’s letters to his London brother Henry and his wife Ellen, Johann Kruse comes up over twenty times, far more than any other former student. (These letters are transcribed and available online on the Brahms Institut Lübeck website.) From 1888 to 1902, Joachim plaintively asks for news and sends his greetings for Ellen to convey. He may well have been justified in expecting regular reports, since he seems to have drawn on all his considerable resources in order to further Kruse’s career.
It makes sense that these inquiries began in 1888, since this was when Kruse first went to London. But it started to make more sense when I realized that this was also the year Joachim met Nellie Melba, Kruse’s friend and fellow Australian. What if Joachim’s solicitousness was motivated by the desire to stay also in touch with Melba?1There is no reason to think that Joachim needed an ulterior reason in order to favor Kruse, who seems to have been widely liked by Joachim’s friends and family. When he was giving concerts in his home country in 1895, Kruse was interviewed by the Sydney Morning Herald. As part of his story about knowing Melba before she was famous, he mentioned Joachim’s special interest:
Yes, I remember that she made her first appearance in Sydney at my concerts as a shy, unknown debutante. If Sydney amateurs heard her now they would identify the voice at once, for it is not radically altered, though it is much richer than it was…. When I returned to Berlin Dr. Joachim quizzed me about the Australian press notices on Mrs. Armstrong saying, ‘But, my dear fellow, those ecstatic critics seem to think her a great singer, though they hesitate to say so. And I replied, ‘And she is a great singer.’ Well, the subject was forgotten by him until 1889, when, whilst rehearsing for a concert at Liège, he was introduced to Madame Melba.2Their first encounter was actually in 1888 and in Antwerp. See Joachim’s letter to Ellen of 8.4.1888. Her name was still unknown, as she had not appeared out of Brussels: but she sang so as to completely captivate the veteran, who pronounced her the greatest singer he had heard since Jenny Lind. He returned to Berlin delighted with his ‘discovery,’ and having completely forgotten our friendly dispute about her challenged my judgment for not recognizing the talent of my country woman earlier.3“Arrival of Johann Kruse,” The Sydney Morning Herald 31.8.1895
Joachim must have been thrilled to find out that Kruse was still in touch with the diva. According to Melba’s biographer Ann Blainey, “Over the years he had applauded her success from afar, occasionally meeting her in London, more often gleaning news of her from their joint friend Johann Kruse.”4Ann Blainey, I am Melba (Melbourne: Black, Inc., 2009), 172-73.But in 1897, Joachim and Melba spent enough time together for a relationship to develop. There is no doubt that Joachim was besotted with the much younger and much more frivolous musical celebrity.5Blainey cites the memoirs of Sir Ronald Landon, who was Melba’s accompanist for a time. I am Melba, pp. 179-80. And even if Melba always kept her options open, she must have returned some of Joachim’s feelings: the Berlin Staatsbibliothek has 150 letters from Melba to Joachim, and most of them date from this period.6Borchard’s view is that these letters are not conclusive as to the nature of their relationship. See Beatrix Borchard, Stimme und Geige. Amalie und Joseph Joachim. Biographie und Interpretationsgeschichte (Wien: Böhlau, 2007), note 272, p. 565.
When she gave a private performance for sixty people at his home in Berlin in May 1897, he wrote to his sister-in-law Ellen that “Indeed more I know her, more I appreciate her goodness and sincerity as a friend.”7Letter to Ellen Joachim, 16.5.1897. In June he was insisting that he could not give Nellie up, despite an indiscretion that led to a letter to her being published in the papers.8Letter to Ellen Joachim, 29.6.1897. Perhaps the item was the momento pictured below, in which Joachim pays tribute to her with Goethe’s poem “Philomela,” (see the translation here), and with the incipit of Schumann’s Quartet in a minor, signed by the Quartet members.
The idyll continued in August when Joachim visited her in Paris, and then in September, when they met up for a festival in Bergamo. Joachim brought one of his daughters with him, who, he wrote, was also enchanted with Melba, “whose lovely, pure singing made Josepha cry with delight…. I know what you will think, dear Elly, when you read this; but you need not be uneasy about ‘poor Jo!’”9Letter to Ellen Joachim, 22 September 1897.
I doubt Elly felt easy, however, when she saw that they had gone to a professional studio for a picture together.10I first came across this extraordinary photo on Robert Eshbach’s website.
In the following summer of 1898 they were both on the same benefit concert in London, and Joachim took the opportunity to request that Elly invite Nellie over for lunch at her Haslemere country house.11Letters of 11 and 14 June 1898 to Ellen Joachim. Presumably it was a very civilized affair.
Johann Kruse was also spending time with Nellie. He appeared on one of Melba’s concerts in London on 2 November 1898, and assisted the singer Blanche Marchesi, the daughter of Nellie’s teacher, on three concerts. He got some encouraging reviews his first year in London, and Joachim wrote to Ellen, “I’m glad to hear of Kruse’s successes; may it continue in this way! He wrote to me himself, and also gave me good news about Mrs. Melba, whose concert tour seems to be going well.”12“Es ist mir lieb von den Erfolgen Kruses zu hören; möchte es so weiter gehen! Er hat mir selbst geschrieben, und auch von Frau Melba gute Nachrichten gegeben deren Concerttour ja glänzend zu verlaufen scheint.” Letter to Ellen Joachim, 30.10.1897. Melba’s tour of America was going very well this time, and Joachim was also in as much demand as ever. It was inevitable that the two busy artists would drift apart.
If Joachim went love crazy for a while, it is understandable in context of the successive losses of Clara Schumann in 1896, Brahms the following April, and his brother Henry in July. Joachim seems to have met the prospect of his own death with fierce denial, taking on even more engagements and obligations, never stopping or even slowing down until his final illness.
Nellie Melba was in an entirely different place in her life and career. She was still working her way to being known as the highest paid singer in the world and having her name become a brand. It would be some years before she visited Downtown Abbey.13The fourth season, to be exact. https://downtonabbey.fandom.com/wiki/Nellie_Melba
Communication with Melba became sporadic. In the summer of 1899 Joachim related to Ellen: “I have not heard from her for 6 weeks: La donna e mobile!”14Letter to Ellen Joachim, 6.9.1899. It’s probably not a coincidence that Kruse was also “ghosting” him at the time and Joachim fretted about his silence as well.15The citation at the beginning of this post comes from this time.
In 1900 the papers reported Melba as announcing that, even though her divorce was being finalized, she would certainly not be marrying Joachim, who was eighty years old.16I am Melba, p. 190-91. He was only 69. That unfortunate piece of publicity, regardless of whether she said it, must have altered the relationship.
By the end of that year Joachim was also losing enthusiasm for Kruse, and confided to Ellen:
…but to you I can say candidly that his technic has been anything but satisfactory. Of course he is intelligent & musician-like but the uncertainty of his intonation & the want of clearness are too perspicuous to make his playing enjoyable & the most is: that he does not seem to realise it himself – poor dear Kruse! The public, consisting of his friends, were very kind to him, but he was much abused in the papers. To be just, I must say, that the ensemble of his quartett was very good.17Letter to Ellen Joachim, 20.12.1900.
It would be useful to know how long Joachim had held this opinion. He probably was able to minimize his awareness of the problem while he was so predisposed towards Kruse. In any case, he did not bring up the topic again, and indeed did not mention Kruse’s playing again in his letters to Ellen.18At least in this collection in Lübeck. In the collection of letters to Joachim at the Berlin Staatsbibliothek, there are no more letters from Kruse until 1907.
Joachim and Melba had put on a wildly successful concert together in Berlin in 1900, and they repeated their joint appearance in 1902. The Musical Courier marveled how after so many years Joachim’s popularity was undiminished. However, his playing was judged just as candidly as Joachim judged Kruse’s.
You have no idea what a popular favorite, nay, perfect idol, the old lion still is in Berlin, and perhaps in all Germany. It is wonderful how he was received before and more wonderful still how he was applauded after his appearance as soloist on this occasion. For, to tell you the truth, and the absolutely candid truth, he played execrably that evening. He was very nervous, and his bow arm trembled so that a long held out high A at the end of his Nocturne came out piecemeal. The intonation was frequently faulty, and altogether it was a performance that made one regret that so great an artist should not know when to stop appearing in public as soloist.19Musical Courier, March 24 1902, p. 17.
The issue of Joachim’s playing will come up again in the third installment of the profile of Johann Kruse, which deals with the final years of the Monday and Saturday Popular Concerts in London.