The Joachim Quartet and the British musical press

By Leslie Ward - Published in Vanity Fair, 5 January 1905, as "Men of the Day" Number 945.This version from Victoria & Albert Museum collection :, Public Domain,
Joseph Joachim in Vanity Fair, 5 January 1905


The Joachim Quartet did not present a series of concerts in London until 1897. This was the year that two of Joachim’s regular London collaborators, the cellist Alfredo Piatti and the violinist Ludwig Ries, retired. Thereafter Joachim’s Berlin group visited every year (except for the year 1900). There was some confusion in the press about the existence of a “Joachim Quartet” they had never heard, since Joachim had played quartets regularly with London-based players at the Popular Concerts since their beginning in 1859. In 1901 someone settled on calling the German group the “original” Joachim Quartet.

When the Popular Concerts ended in 1900, the banker and music enthusiast Edward Speyer founded “the Joachim Quartet Concert Society,” which sponsored the Quartet’s visits from 1901 until 1906.

The English worship of Joachim had been continuous since his first appearance with Mendelssohn in 1844. This attitude made Joachim an iconic figure even for those with no interest in music. In 1892 The Strad claimed that the arrival of Joachim “is by frequenters of these concerts almost as much looked forward to as is Christmas by the average school-boy.” In 1902 The Times described him as possessing “all those greater qualities which have raised his name to the solemn dignity of a household word.”

Therefore it wasn’t surprising when the Joachim Quartet was well received. The music critic of the Times of London, John Fuller Maitland, could not praise them highly enough. The following year (1898), when they performed again, the Times raved about how well the group played together, declaring that

[not even Joachim] is heard to such advantage as when taking part in its ensemble, the absolute perfection of which may be held to consist in the union of an accuracy beyond compare in minuteness of detail, and an accord so complete that the players are literally ‘as one man,’ with a quite untrammeled freedom of individual expression.1The Times, March 15 1898.
John Alexander Fuller Maitland (1856-1936) was an extremely influential music critic and music historian. His interests and opinions on music were made manifest through his position of music critic for the Times from 1889-1911; and, in a more long term way, through his involvement with the original Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, for which he wrote many important entries. He was the chief editor for the vastly enlarged second edition of the Dictionary, which began appearing in 1904. He wrote a short book on Joachim that was published in 1905, and also wrote similar books on Brahms (1911) and Schumann (1895).

The hyperbole that undermines Fuller Maitland’s judgments was also a weakness in the British musical press in general; their tendency was to be positive to a superlative degree. But even the British papers started objecting after the Times reviewed an all-Beethoven concert in May 1901 with the final pronouncement: “the calmest and most judicious criticism must be summed up in the words: here is perfection.”

“To go stark, staring mad over the man and his quartet, in the delightful manner of our dear friend of the ‘Times,’ is quite beyond me,” declared Fuller Maitland’s nemesis, John Runciman of The Saturday Review. The Musical Standard also reproved The Times for its partisanship: “The arch-priest of Joachim in the Times does not count. Forgetting his position as critic he has been largely instrumental in bringing over the quartet. One admires his enthusiasm; it is magnificent but it is not criticism.”2Musical Standard May 18, 1901: 305.

As the controversy itself became the subject of columns in various papers, it emerged that this criticism of the Times’s “Joachim Fetish” had been sparked by the previous musical season, when the Joachim Quartet had not even played in London. In 1900 the Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaye had played some London concerts: as soloist, first violinist in a quartet, and orchestra conductor. The Times had gone against the general opinion and compared Ysaye unfavorably to Joachim.3Comments and opinions. (1901). Musical Standard, 15 (383), 271-272.

As Runciman still raged a year later: “When fanaticism reaches such a pitch that Beethoven is spoken of as though he was honoured by being included in a Joachim programme, and when such a splendid artist as Ysaye is put far down beneath Joachim, it is time to make a protest.” In Runciman’s review of Fuller Maitland’s second edition of Grove’s Dictionary, he summed up his view of the critic: “He tends always to the namby-pamby.”4 Runciman, J. F. (1904). GROVE AND HIS DICTIONARY. Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art 9, 641-642.

In 1897, the Joachim Quartet was just one of many quartets to visit London; the Times listed seven other Quartets that had given concerts that year: the Frankfort, Gompertz, Bohemian, Gürzenich, Fitzner, Kneisel, Crimson, and Carrodus Quartets. In 1899 the Bohemian Quartet was in London at the same time as the Joachim Quartet, making comparisons inevitable and highlighting the greater vitality of the younger group. Descriptions of the 1901 concerts overall indicate that at 70 years old, Joachim could no longer produce a sound that was consistently strong and in tune. “Feeble” and “mechanical” were among the harshest judgements of the performances. Despite the many accusations in 1901, the Times continued to insist during the 1902 visit of Joachim’s superior playing. “They are all there–all the qualities which have made the Joachim quartet world-famous–some, perhaps, suggested rather than actual, still, strongly suggested.” The Musical Standard, however, concluded in devastating review of a 1902 concert: “Dr. Joachim’s admirers are doing him a grave disservice in encouraging him to continue as a public performer. His work even as a leader of a quartet is done.”5“R. Peggio,” Concert Room Impressions, The Musical Standard, May 3, 1902: 278.

For what turned out to be Joachim’s last performance in London, during the 1906 festival of all of Brahms’s chamber works, the Times made no pretense of objectivity:

There was, of course, a huge audience, for the general public, outside the number of the subscribers, was evidently anxious not to miss the wonderful opportunity of listening to the most authoritative performance possible of works that are ever more and more widely recognized as belonging to the music that is surely divine, if any product of man’s brain has ever deserved that epithet.The Times, Dec. 6, 1906, p. 7, issue 38196.

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