About an Empire for Absolute Music

This project is an exploration of a music-historical moment when Berlin, the capital of the German Empire, could be called the “Capital of Absolute Music”–that is, instrumental music, and in particular, chamber music. The term “absolute music” was rarely used in this context, meaning in German-language music criticism around 1900. However, if there was something that could be said to embody the idea of absolute music, this “moment” would be the performances by the Joachim Quartet of the late Beethoven quartets in the Singakademie during its subscription concert series from 1869 to 1907. Again, though, the idea of absolute music was not a stable concept and it can be misleading to speak of “it.” So what I more precisely am interested in doing is documenting one idea of absolute music, as manifested in Berlin’s chamber music concerts, in context of an overwhelming array of other musical activities on offer. I see this as the other side of the coin of my previous work that focused on abstract philosophical aesthetics as opposed to actual music.

The main stories

Joseph Joachim

The pages on this website relate the history of the Joachim Quartet, its leader Joseph Joachim, and the Quartet’s cellist, Robert Hausmann (1852-1909). Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) was a violinist who had a career lasting over sixty years. He is most famous to non-violinists as the friend of Johannes Brahms. Joachim played an important role in the development of musical life, much more than I realized. My interest was brought on by Beatrix Borchard’s rich and inspiring book Stimme und Geige, about Joachim and his wife, the singer Amalie Joachim.1Stimme und Geige: Amalie und Joseph Joachim – Frau und Mann. Biographie und Interpretationsgeschichte. Böhlau Verlag, Wien 2005, 2. Aufl. 2007 (= Wiener Veröffentlichungen zur Musikgeschichte, Band 5), ISBN 978-3-205-77629-1 Robert Eshbach’s Joseph Joachim website has also been an important impetus for this project.

Robert Hausmann

I have always been curious about Robert Hausmann, for whom Brahms wrote the second Cello Sonata, Op. 99, and the Double Concerto, Op. 102. Why was nothing known about him? Researching his life led me to the history of his relative from an earlier generation, Georg Hausmann (1813-1860). Georg was also a cellist who played a part in one of the most celebrated events of Joachim’s career, when he first came to London in 1844. The 13-year old Joachim performed Mendelssohn’s D minor Piano Trio with the composer at the piano and Hausmann playing cello. Georg and Joachim also played together that year in a concert of two late Beethoven quartets, Op. 130 and Op. 131. Taking a look at Georg’s career shows how much chamber music concerts developed during Joachim’s lifetime.

Joachim’s violin students

Joachim’s long career resulted in a long list of students, over 300!. None became virtuoso celebrities– although a few of his women students were successful as soloists. Some moved on, becoming conductors, composers, critics, and administrators. A great many filled orchestra positions, including as concertmasters in Germany and abroad. They founded string quartets and other chamber ensembles, and taught in conservatories. Studying this group of musicians who all had some contact with Joachim as a student makes for an interesting picture of the music profession towards the end of the nineteenth century.


Reading obituaries of Joachim and accounts of his funeral on August 18, 1907 raised my interest further. There was such an outpouring of loss that I wondered if the historical context would make better sense of it. (Short answer: yes!) A compilation of other musical events in Berlin in 1907, and then other cultural and political developments going on at the same time make up several webpages of what I consider incredible riches. They document the anxieties of the modern age about the future of art music, such as the fear about how far “maximalism” (to use Taruskin’s term, or as one British writer in 1901 put it, “jumbomania”) could go. I wondered if maximalism could also be thought of in terms of a saturation of the market for performances, and set to documenting all the 1000 or so performances at the main concert halls in Berlin for the year 1907. Since so many newspapers, periodicals, and concert programs are being put online, this is a good time to look at artistic quandaries in an empirical way.

There is no doubt about it, the Joachim Quartet was something special, and I wish so much I could travel back in time to attend a concert. This project is the next best thing.

The Joachim Quartet in the Singakademie.

What people were saying about music in Berlin, “the musical capital of the world.” in English language sources:


The recently endowed Königliche Hochschule für Musik, over which Herr Joachim presides, is famous for its concerts and exercises great influence upon musical opinion in the most cultivated circles of Berlin society. It is here that symphony and quartet, Germany’s uncontested property, are in their highest perfection. Joachim’s chamber concerts are in fact beyond all praise.

Henry Vizetelly, Berlin under the New Empire, vol. 2, 1879.


I am about giving the readers of the Courier a summary of Berlin’s musical life, and to omit the Joachim Quartet concerts would be equal to a description of Venice without mention of the Grand Canal, or a visit to Yellowstone Park without a view of the geysers; for, despite the brilliancy of the Bülow concerts and the innumerable artist recitals of the highest order, the Joachim Quartet concerts stand foremost in the estimation of musical Berlin.

F.X. Arens, “Music in Berlin,” The Musical Courier, 1891.


The concerts in Berlin form alone a liberal education. There are first and foremost the subscription concerts of the magnificent Philharmonic Orchestra, until last winter under the batôn of Hans von Bülow, next season under that of Dr. Richter and Herrn Weingartner. No student in Berlin misses these concerts, or at least the general rehearsal which always takes place on the Sunday morning before, and is open to the public. Perhaps even a greater treat are the Quartet Evenings of Messrs. Joachim, De Ahna, Wirth, and Hausmann, of which there are generally five in the season.

E. Siepen, “Musical Life in Berlin,” The Musical Herald, September 1, 1892.


On the whole this city is an excellent place for the general development of the musical student, and although other countries and cities, may boast of celebrated composers, teachers, and performers yet it is a hard matter to find a city other than that of Berlin that may more justly be called the musical capital of the world.

F. W. Merriman, “A Berlin Letter,” Music  1895.


“There is, perhaps, no city in the world which enjoys such a high reputation for classical concerts as Berlin.”

Edith Lynwood Winn, “Glimpses of Berlin Concert Life,” The Musician vol. 2 (1897).


Better than beer!

Musical News July 29, 1905.


I could go on ad bilitum or multilib and register German events of vast importance by the hundred that took place during the past two weeks, but the above examples give an idea of the tremendous musical life that is keeping Germany to the fore as the greatest of musical nations.  The object lesson is of consequence if it can be instilled. All these thousands and millions of Germans are attaining a higher culture through this practice of making classical music the chief living art among themselves.

News and comments by the editor. Paris, December 28, 1906. The Musical Courier, 1907.


Walter Dellers, “Berlin as a Music Certer,” The Violinist 6-7 (April 1909): 26-27.


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  1. Dear Professor Pederson,

    This is a wonderful project! As a reader of your works on the intellectual history of ‘absolute’ music and your critical insights on the concept, and as a PhD student who is working on a similar topic (history of musical autonomy and its itersection with the emergence of human autonomy), it is really fascinating to see how this “other side of the coin”, that is the practical aspect of this history evolved and how it responded to or rather reflected the idea through institutional and societal means.

    I’m so glad I saw your website and really look forward to reading more from your insightful writings!

    Kind Regards,

    Morteza Abedinifard
    PhD candidate, Musicology,
    University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada

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