Looking Backward (and at the fine print)

My knowledge of the last years of the Joachim Quartet is much more extensive than of their first concerts. When I think of the year of their first season, 1869, images of Berlin in an impoverished state came to mind. For instance, when Amy Fay arrived that year from Boston to study piano, she pronounced the city fifty years behind the times: people subsisted on bread rolls because there was no meat and they hung their clothes on pegs because they had no furniture.1Amy Fay, Music Study in Germany, 3-5, usedhttps://archive.org/details/musicstudyinger00faygoog. Henry Vizetelly’s Berlin under the new Empire opens in 1872 with his rail journey from Paris. He exits the train station and after much confusion, secures a ramshackle cab with a broken down horse, driven by a shabby, uncouth cabbie. During his ride he notes the overpowering stink of the water and observes a child playing in the open sewer of the street.2Henry Vizetelly, Berlin under the new Empire, vol. 1 (1879), 12-17. https://archive.org/details/berlinundernewe01vizegoog I imagined the first seasons of the Joachim Quartet against the backdrop of the old city, and assumed they must have been correspondingly sketchy; that the process of becoming a fixture of musical life took time. However, going through music journals from that period has shown me that there was already a quartet tradition in Berlin to draw upon.

To give one instance, the late Beethoven quartets have been described as neglected until the Joachim Quartet’s performances. But I came across a concert from 1853 made up of a Haydn Quartet, a Mendelssohn Quartet, and Beethoven’s Op. 132 Quartet. The report in the Neue Berliner Musik-Zeitung commented that “Beethoven’s work offered its special challenges and even if not exactly grasped in every aspect and in its deepest meaning, it was understood to an extent that the audience present had the liveliest involvement in its performance.”3“Das Beethoven’sche Werk bot seine besonderen Schwierigkeiten und es ist, wenn auch nicht gerade nach allen Seiten und in seiner tiefinnerlichsten Bedeutung erfasst, so doch so weit verstanden worden, dass an seiner Ausführung das anwesende Publikum die lebhafteste Theilnahme hatte.” Neue Berliner Musik-Zeitung (1853): 76. This concert was given by August Zimmermann (1810-91), who started concerts in 1834 that continued those of his teacher Carl Möser, which went back to 1813.

One way of documenting concerts is to use the chronicles of recent performances that are given in tiny, dense print towards the end of some journal issues. I now regard these lists (that I used to skip over with a shudder) as valuable data that can be analyzed and used to correct long-held assumptions. For me, the most important finding has been that as the Joachim Quartet was getting underway in Berlin, there were already numerous cities with chamber ensembles giving regular concerts. In Germany, the members came from the orchestra of a court or city, with the concert master also leading the quartet. This was the case with Joachim’s previous positions at Hanover and Weimar. In these early instances the quartet organization did not have a strong identity because its members could change frequently and the works performed were not exclusively quartets. But the quartet concert was a common occurrence.

My stumbling upon the remarkable phenomenon of the Sondershausen Court Orchestra (discussed in my last post) led to my looking for more of these court ensembles that included a quartet.4This information comes from the Musiker-Kalendar für das Jahr 1877, ed. Hermann Krigar (Leipzig: Nauck’schen Buchhandlung, 1877), part of the Digitale Bibliothek of the Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek. The map below shows thirteen court quartets, as well as fifteen cities that had a civic or independent quartet in 1877. (Clicking on the top left corner of the map below gives the names of the places. Clicking on those gives additional information.) Quartet groups with regular public concerts in Germany were far more numerous than I assumed.

These were the famous Germanic quartet organizations that came before the Joachim Quartet:

1. Vienna and Leipzig during Beethoven’s lifetime

In Vienna, the Schuppanzigh Quartet started giving public concerts in 1804. The Gewandhaus Orchestra was a famous Leipzig institution and its quartet, which gave its first concert on 20 December 1809, shared that name recognition and continuous existence since then.5See Ludwig Finscher, „Streichquartett-Ensemble,“ in MGG Online, ed. Laurenz Lütteken https://www.mgg-online.com/article?id=mgg16105&version=1.1

2. The Hellmesberger Quartet in Vienna

The Hellmesberger Quartet was a longstanding Viennese tradition from 1849-1901. Hanslick followed their concerts and his reviews document their repertoire.

3. Traveling Quartets

The Müller Brothers Quartet represented a different concept. They had been members of the Braunschweig court capelle, but gave up their stable position in favor of making a living as traveling artists from 1831 to 1855. Their cohesion as a family and an ensemble was strong enough to extend to a second generation of brothers, ending only in 1873. In 1853 Hanslick compared them to the Müller Quartet, calling the latter more manly, classical, and more of an ensemble than the Hellmesberger Quartet, where the first violin predominated, as well as a more romantic, expressive approach.6Dated 29 November 1853; in the Sämtliche Schriften Band I, 2, ed. Dietmar Strauß (Wien, Köln, Weimar: Böhlau Verlag, 1994), pp. 276-9. It is also to be found in the Geschichte des Concertwesens in Wien, pp. 50-52.

The Florentiner Quartet (1865-1880)

The head of the “Florentiner,” Jean Becker from Mannheim, also had musical children who eventually were incorporated into his group. His son Hugo Becker went on to be the cellist of numerous prestigious quartets. Jean Becker must have had limitless energy and endurance; his idea of a tour was to play in a different city every other day. His quartet began in 1865, while the railway infrastructure of Europe was still being built. Here is their schedule at the beginning of 1878 (click on top left corner to see the names).

Conclusion: Building up a historical context of the genre, the organization, and the institution of the concert series will lead to a better understanding of the Joachim Quartet’s significance.

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