The Berlin audience for the Joachim Quartet Concerts

The importance of the particular makeup of the audience at the Singakademie sometimes seemed to overcome the importance of the music for these concerts. This was a contradiction in that the distinguishing characteristic was the audience’s dedication to the music above all. Writers who described the concerts over the years emphasized how the audience was there only for the music’s sake, but it was the experience of being part of that audience, who gathered together as friends at Joachim’s “home,” that made the concerts so special.

In 1878 it was reported that “These quartet evenings brought the cream of Berlin society together, and deservedly so, for it evidently appears a duty of the highest ten to be seen at these concerts.”1Xaver Scharwenka, Monthly Musical Record (December 1878): 182. (“Ten” might be a typo for “Ton.”) See also Borchard, Stimme und Geige, 525-31. But in 1890 the Quartet’s concert series was described as “not being sought out because it is fashionable; rather, the true and dedicated friends of classical music listen devoutly to the glorious sounds of the four masters.”

In his 1911 history of music in Berlin, Adolf Weissmann was still marveling over how, amidst all the restless hustle and bustle of the city, the piousness and love for art could still bind its audience together at a concert of the Joachim Quartet.2Weissmann, Berlin als Musikstadt, 376. In 1891 the Musical Courier had reported:

It is at these concerts where you may see all of Berlin’s musical celebrities—Wagnerites and anti-Wagnerites, Liszt adorers and anti-Lisztianer. They all assemble peacefully in the venerable hall of the Sing Akademie, where these evenings are held. The wolf and the lamb quietly graze side by side, and the golden millennium apparently has arrived. Even the criticisms, usually as widely divergent as doctors’ diagnoses, here meet in sweetest concord.

As part of “Some Glimpses of Berlin Concert Life” in 1897, the Joachim Quartet concerts were described as having an relaxed, informal atmosphere:

There is a genial air of pleasant expectation, an informal drawing-room air that reminds one that all chamber music belongs to the drawing-room rather than to the concert halls …There is nothing frosty about the atmosphere when Professor Joachim appears. During the intervals between the numbers the great violinist and his colleagues Wirth, Kruse, and Hausmann, accept proffered seats among the audience, converse with their friends, and after a time, continue their quartets much as ordinary men resume their work after some recreation. There is a dignity, a refinement and a simplicity about the man of Professor Joachim that is the attribute of genius. He is so far above others that one might imagine him isolated, but it is not so. The perfect “Innigkeit” of his expression while playing, the gracious dignity of his manner toward all persons, are both impressive and charming.3Edith Lynwood Winn, “Glimpses of Berlin Concert Life,” The Musician vol. 2 (1897): 296.

Joachim’s acting as the “host” of the event was also described by Hans Joachim Moser:

When you arrived at the Berlin Singakademie for a Joachim Quartet evening, everyone greeted each other familiarly, joyfully; everyone knew each other–and indeed knew that they had all gathered together here for the same purpose: to pay homage to beauty. Violin under his arm, Joachim stood in a corner of the crowded stage and carried on with one or another; he chatted and joked like he was at home, and when he reached his stand, it was if he only wanted to continue the conversation with his guests.4“Wenn man in die Berliner Singakademie zu einem Joachim-Quartettabend kam, so begrüßten der alle freudig und vertraut; man kannte sich gegenseitig–wüsste man doch, dass alle der gleiche Zweck hier zusammengeführt: der Schönheit zu huldigen. Joachim stand, die Geige unterm Arm, in einer Ecke des dicht besetzten Podiums und unterhielt sich mit diesem und jenem; er plauderte und scherzte wie zuhaus, und wenn er an der Pult trat, wars, als wollte er nur die Unterhaltung mit seinen Gästen fortsetzen.” Quoted in Carla Höcker, Hauskonzerte in Berlin (Rembrandt-Verlag Berlin, 1970): 46.

The longterm subscribers who held most of the tickets to any given concert were made up of musical celebrities, intellectual leaders, and the aristocratic social elite of Berlin. Nevertheless, multiple reminiscences emphasized that somehow there was always something very personal about these evenings. In 1905 a critic went so far as to claim the Joachim Quartet experience wasn’t even in the same category as a concert and shouldn’t be judged from an artistic point of view:

They always play as if among a small circle of friends, whose warm joyful sympathy they feel and for whom they gladly give their best. That is real chamber music, that is far from anything concert-like, and there is nothing comparable to the immediacy and depth of its effect. Any criticism that is only directed at the artistic aspect fades away before the force with which this music controls the mood of an entire group of listeners.5“Joachim und seine Quartettgenossen, die in Bonn eine grosse Zahl getreuer Anhänger haben, spielen hier immer wie im kleinen Kreise unter Freunden, deren warme, freudige Anteilnahme sie fühlen und denen sie gern ihr Bestes geben. Das ist echte Kammermusik, der alles Konzerthafte fern ist, und die in der Unmittelbarkeit und Tiefe ihrer Wirkung nichts hat, was ihr gleicht. Vor der Gewalt, mit welcher diese Musik das Gemüt einer ganzen Zuhörerschaft beherrscht, vergeht jede Kritik, die nur auf das Artistische gerichtet ist.” Dr. Klepzig reports, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (1905): 565.

As the critic Louis Ehlert observed in the 1870s:

The orchestra is the natural element of public music life, all else being but a makeshift. If we except the string-quartet, all chamber-music belongs rather to the home then to the concert hall, and even the quartets appears strange and frosty in a large hall. Orchestra and chamber music bear about the same relations to each other as public and private life. All the mezza voce of emotional life, a purely personal experience, and the separate circumstances of each existence are not adapted to publicity.6Louis Ehlert, From the Tone World, translated by Helen D. Tretbar (New York, 1885), 160.

In one obituary of Joachim, the writer declared that even more than the concerts, the rehearsals formed the most perfect experience for the audience:

The focus of his artistry, especially in his last years, was laid out in chamber music, in his unsurpassed and unsurpassable quartet playing. In particular, it was the rehearsals of his quartet evenings that took place in an intimate circle at the Hochschule in the mornings, unforgettable to all who ever took part in them. They were solemn, holy and yet cosy hours, like those experienced among people who are aware they are connected by a common spiritual bond. There was never the sound of applause, never the noisy coming and going that otherwise happens in concerts. It was a speaking from man to man, an unmediated communication of the highest art, of the highest life experience, whereby one no longer sensed the borderlines that separate art and living language.  His Bayreuth was here, his greatest deeds took place here; here he taught us to know and love the old Beethoven and the young Brahms.7Neue Musik-Zeitung

From another 1907 obituary of Joachim:

From the outset, the whole audience was in a solemn, one could almost say religious mood. Everyone knew each other, greeted each other; most of the seats had been in the same hands for years. Berlin’s intellectual leaders came together here, and for years one could see the old man Menzel in the first row, even when from time to time he dozed off in the middle of a performance. One could hear his peaceful snoring during a quiet place; but what of it? One was among friends after all. Joachim basically ruled this assembly. For every person who attended one of his quartet evenings, it was a personal pleasure when the wonderful, dignified old figure appeared on the podium and when, with the marvelous calm and the innate grace that were particular to him, he then set the bow in motion. During these evenings there were often moments where the perfect, spiritualized beauty that Joachim and his companions coaxed out of their instruments took the audience’s breath away, so to speak. Then everyone had the feeling: something like this will never happen again.8Die ganze Zuhörerschaft befand sich von vornherein in einer feierlichen, fast möchte man sagen: religiösen Stimmung. Alles kannte sich, alles begrüßte sich: waren doch die meisten Plätzte jahreweise in festen Händen.  Die Spitzen des geistigen Berlins trafen hier zusammen, und in der ersten Reihe konnte man jahrelang den griesen Menzel sehen –selbst dann noch, als es ihm von Zeit zu Zeit widerfuhr, daß er mitten währen der Aufführung in ein kurzes Nickerchen verfiel.  Während einer Pianostelle konnte man dann sogar wohl mal sein geruhiges Sägen hören; aber was tat’s?  Man war ja unter sich.  Joachim beherrschte gleichsam diese Versammlung. Es war jedem Besucher seiner Quartettabende eine persönliche Freude, wenn die schöne würdige Greisengestalt auf dem Podium erschien und wenn er dann mit der herrlichen Ruhe und der gehaltenen Anmut, die ihm eigen waren, den Bogen zu führen begann. Es hat an diesen Abenden oft Augenblicke gegeben, wo die völlig vergeistigte Schönheit der von Joachim und seinen Gefährten den Instrumenten entlockten Töne den Zuhörern gleichsam den Atem benahmen.  Dann hatten alle das Gefühl: so etwas kehrt niemals wieder.” Berliner Börsenzeitung (16 August 1907): 5.

For an excellent article on this topic, see Eshbach, Robert G. “The Joachim Quartets at the Berlin Singakademie: Mendelssohnian Geselligkeit in Wilhelmine Germany.” In Brahms in the Home and the Concert Hall, edited by Katy Hamilton and Natasha Loges, 22–42. Cambridge University Press, 2014.
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