Joachim as Keeper of the Quartet

In 1908The Musical Courier declared:

“When Joachim died there was virtually an end to the string quartet, confessedly the highest form of abstract music.”

The issue of the “death” of the string quartet had been raised before by the English press. In 1902 the Musical News had fretted:

Is the interest in chamber music really declining? Considerable fear has been expressed lately that the public, accustomed to the modern orchestra with its immense masses of sound and ever varying nuances and colour effects, are no longer attracted in the same numbers by the more sober delights of Quartet and Sonata music. Moreover, the orchestra has become the favorite medium of the composers who are now making their bid for fame, and the scarcity of good chamber music now being produced is not of course a favorable sign. No art form is likely to remain popular for long when nearly all the works performed are by composers long since dead.

Musical News XXII (May 24, 1902): 493.

–Mr. W.W. Cobbett’s letter to the Daily Telegraph was quoted:

“I can assure you that there has been no want of appreciation of the very noble playing of Dr. Joachim and his colleagues. On the contrary there is evidence of an analytic spirit, of an appreciation of the various subtleties of interpretation, of such happy augury for the future, that I venture today to express the opinion that the much talked about ‘decadence of interest in chamber music’ is purely mystical.

(However, Mr. W.W. C. himself would write about Joachim in 1905: “The longer the leader is spared the better for one of the best and truest forms of art, menaced, as some think, with decadence.”)

At the end of the 1898 season of the Popular Concerts, the Monthly Musical Record noted the poor attendance that year and blamed it on chamber music losing its audiences to orchestral music:

No doubt the growing favour in which orchestral works are held does to some extent injure concerts of chamber music, but the latter have had such an important influence in the past, that we should deeply regret the loss of such an interesting feature of the musical season.”

The Musical Standard took the occasion of Joachim’s death to remind readers that audiences were “straying” away from chamber music:

“Many are doing so already in their enthusiasm for what is new and strange. The vogue of ‘programme music’ is much to be regretted. It is becoming extravagant….We need surely to return to music, in its purity, for its own sake. This can best be done by a more earnest study of the great works of the masters of pure music and especially of their chamber music, where we find in the pouring out of their souls, the inner life of music itself; that individualistic expression of the beautiful, arousing thoughts and feelings which, in reality, lie too deep for words: which words cannot adequately express!”

Back in the 1870s, the composer and critic Louis Ehlert had made the argument that the orchestra was “the natural element of public music life,” while chamber music (except for the string quartet) belonged in the home. In fact:

“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.”

From this perspective, those critics who believed program music was encroaching on the absolute music of chamber music actually had it backwards: it was chamber music that had recently claimed part of the public musical life characterized by orchestral music.

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