Category: string quartet concerts

The “Conservative” Joachim Quartet


Reviews of the quartet’s performances in its first decade were almost always completely positive. The only complaints were about the conservative programming, with the prevalence of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, some Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn–and almost always Beethoven.

In 1878 a program of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven’s Op. 131 had a reviewer commenting that since the Joachim Quartet concerts were “the caviar of  musical delicacies,” the Singakademie was filled to the last place. Still, it “would be even better if still-living composers could be represented.”1Neue Berliner Musik-Zeitung, concert of 19.10.1878, signed –F.

The Berlin pianist and composer Xaver Scharwenka complained in 1879 that the only living composer represented was Brahms:

It is to be regretted that a quartet party like this should be so conservative and exclusive in their choice of pieces. If we except Brahms who is closely connected with Joachim through personal friendship no living composer is noticed. In no country in the world (I don’t know how they manage in China and thereabouts) are the living artists more ignored than in Germany and it is no exaggeration to say that the German artist only becomes famous by his obituary.

Scharwenka made an exception for Brahms because he was a friend, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Quartet performed five of his works before they were published (Op. 51 #2, 1873; Op. 67, 1876; Op. 111, 1890; Op. 114, 1891; and Op. 115, 1891). Furthermore, Brahms was not exactly a crowd-pleaser in the 1870s. Joachim’s persistence with Brahms was often a battle with the audience.

Furthermore, the Quartet did play and premiere works by other living composers. A total of twenty-three different living composers appeared on their quartet series over the years. Many of the composers they featured were on the faculty of the Berlin Hochschule (Kiel, Rudorff, Bargiel, Herzogenberg, Gernsheim, Kahn, Schrattenholz, Dohnányi). In the 1870s, Kiel, a highly respected composer at the time, was given five performances. This programming was in part due to the way the Quartet had been created as a part of the Hochschule for the purposes of teaching, so that students of Kiel would be able to hear their teacher’s latest work. Therefore, the accusation of conservative programming did not take into account the unique basis on which this ensemble operated. Additionally, these quartet concerts were meant to serve not only as “model for the students and for the enjoyment of the public…but also at the same time as a means for the shaping (Bildung) of the nation.”2“…Vorbild fur die Schüler und zum Genuss des Publicums…sondern gleichzeitig als Mittel zur Bildung der Nation (See Borchard, Stimme und Geige, 542.)

A look at the other chamber music concerts of the time indicates their programs were not substantially different than that of the Joachim Quartet. For instance, the Florentine Quartet gave a concert in Hamburg in February of 1870, playing three quartets: Haydn D minor (presumably op. 76 no. 2), Mozart C major (presumably K. 465 “Dissonant”), and Schumann’s A major quartet, Op. 41, no. 3.3Musikalisches Wochenblatt, 25 February 1870: 139.

Two programs from other quartets in 1878 indicate that when new music was played critics also complained about that; they could not be pleased either way, it seems. A concert on the Leipzig Gewandhaus chamber music series featured quartets by Haydn (Op. 33 #3), and Beethoven (Op. 59 #1), and a Piano Quintet in C minor, op. 16, by Hermann Goetz.4Signale 1878: 1048.The Goetz piece was criticized but the rest of the concert was praised. That same month, the Heckmann Quartet from Cologne played an all-Grieg concert at the Gewandhaus. The reviewer was indignant at being subjected to “a purely propagandistic concert” that advocated for this living composer.


Criticism of a narrow repertoire continued, but in 1880 a writer for the short-lived journal Musik-Welt argued that it was still the case that the late Beethoven Quartets were not sufficiently understood. The concert of 12 November had ended with Op. 127:

It is hard to believe there are four other men alive who could play this opus so poetically, without exaggeration and with such technical perfection. But the impression it made was very uneven. It takes a lot, an awful lot to be able to follow one of the last Beethoven Quartets with attention and to the purpose, and I fear even among the regulars in the audience–meaning among our most musical public–there are only a very few whose understanding would be developed enough to give an accounting of the impression such a work made on them, to say nothing of accounting for the value of it; certainly most would say a lot about how they had liked it. We say this not to make a joke, but rather in order to request the Joaquin Quartet bring these revelations of Beethoven before the public as often as possible. Only repeated hearing can awake in the truly educated listeners an intimation of understanding and with it the inclination to study.5“Wir glauben night, das in der Welt noch vier Männer leben, die dies Opus so ohne Uebertreibung poetisch und technisch so vollendet spielen könnten. Sehr ungleich war der Eindruck auf das Auditorium. Es gehört viel dazu, sehr viel, einem der letzten Quartette Beethoven’s mit Aufmerksamkeit und Nutzen folgen zu können; und ich fürchte, dass selbst unter den regelmässigen Besuchern unsere –also unter den musikalischsten Publikum–nur äusserst wenige sind, deren Musikverständniss so weit entwickelt wäre, dass sie sich Rechenschaft zu geben vermöchten über den Eindruck, den ein solches Werk auf sie macht, von einer Rechenschaft über den Werth ganz abgesehen; die Meisten gäben gewiss viel darum, wüssten sie, wie es ihnen gefallen hat. Wir sagen dies nicht, um einen Scherz zu machen, sondern um die Bitte an das Joachim-Quartett zu richten, mit diesen Beethoven’schen Offenbarungen so oft als möglich vor das Publikum zu treten. Nur wiederholtes Hören kann die Ahnung des Verständnisses und mit ihr die Neigung zum Studium bei den wirklich gebildeten Hörern erwecken.”  Signed “..x…n”

Nevertheless, critics continued to target the Joachim Quartet for its neglect of new music. A critic for the Musikalisches Wochenblatt claimed after the beginning of the 1881 season that “these downright show-stopping concerts no longer have the influx (Zufluss) of earlier,—a stagnation has crept in, which, inconceivably, has been felt even by the old timers and the elite of the public who have attending since before time began.”6“Auch diese geradezu sensationellen Concerte haben nicht mehr den Zufluss von früher, –es ist eine Stagnation eingetreten, welche sich unbegreiflicherweise selbst bei altbegründeten und von jeher von der Elite des Publicums besuchten Concertinstitutionen fühlbar macht.” MW (1881): 57. This mercifully unnamed critic could not have been more off the mark. Furthermore, the concert being reviewed did include a new work—a quartet by Dvořák!

The preconception that the Joachim Quartet was conservative and did not play new music persisted, with the press raising the issue periodically over their remaining decades. Someone did try to respond in writing to the criticism at least once: in 1889 there was a “Note from the editor” in the Musikalisches Wochenblatt:

With regard to the remark of our esteemed reporter about the Joachim Quartet, a correction has been written to us that they have given a new string quartet by R. Kahn in December and in January will play a new piece by Herzogenberg.7Musikalisches Wochenblatt (1889): 293.

The works mentioned were both unpublished at the time of performance: Kahn’s Quartet in A major became his op. 8, and Herzogenberg’s F minor Quartet was his op. 63, which the Quartet played two more times after the premiere.

I think the Joachim Quartet concerts seemed more conservative because occasional programs dispensed with the one relatively new piece. The traditional chamber music program typically began and ended with a “classic,” but made room for a chamber work by a regional and/or living composer. By occasionally omitting that work and sticking to a formula of three quartets per concert, the Joachim Quartet series acquired the reputation of the most conservative of chamber music organizations.

The Joachim Quartet Series in Berlin

Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) was the most important force in establishing the prominence and prestige of the Classical string quartet concert in modern concert life.

When Joachim formed a quartet in 1869 in Berlin, it was part of the plan for the new “Königlichen Akademie der Künste zu Berlin verbundene Lehr-Anstalten für Musik.” The main idea was to provide an opportunity for students to hear professional performances of the repertoire they were studying by giving them free access to the concerts and the dress rehearsal (Generalprobe) at the Hochschule. However, they were so successful that they were made into a regular concert series. Even the rehearsals had to be ticketed. Joachim’s Berlin Quartet gave subscription concerts made up of two series of four concerts each every year for thirty-eight years. They only ended with Joachim’s death in 1907.

The format of the concert was, from the beginning, a performance of three quartets. This was rare; the usual practice was to have some variety, and almost everywhere else there was usually an assisting artist, which most likely was a singer. Pianists also frequently joined in a quartet concert to expand the repertoire possibilities. But the Berlin quartet series at the Singakademie kept to the three quartets rule. The repertoire was “classical”: there was almost no chance of a concert with no Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven. The only times this happened were on three all-Brahms concerts, 22 April and 7 May 1897 (both in memoriam), and 15 March 1906. (Actually, there were probably a couple of aberrations in the early years as well, but these programs are hard to verify.)

The precedent for a quartet concert made up of the “classical” trio of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven goes as far back as to when Beethoven was still alive. Schuppanzigh’s public quartet series in Vienna, which premiered Beethoven’s late quartets from 1823-28, programmed mainly Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. These concerts were referred to in the press as “classical.”

Joachim had met the one surviving member of Schuppanzigh’s group, Karl Holz, and had studied with Joseph Böhm, who also performed the late quartets during Beethoven’s lifetime, so he had reason for considering himself the heir to this legacy.

This idea could very well have been in Joachim’s mind as far back as April 28, 1855, when he gave his first quartet concert as part of his new job at Hannover. His program was made up of three Beethoven quartets: Op. 18, no. 5, Op. 59, no.1, and Op. 131.

Even earlier than that, during his first visit to London in 1844, Joachim played in a concert that had two late Beethoven Quartets, Op. 130 and Op. 131, on the program. He was also part of a concert the following year, 1845, when two other late Quartets, Op. 132 and Op. 135, were performed. Thus Joachim had experience with Beethoven quartets, and especially the late quartets, from the very beginning of his career.