string quartet concerts

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.

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