Joseph Joachim

(28 June 1831 - 15 August 1907)

Joseph Joachim was an Austro-Hungarian violinist, composer, conductor and teacher who greatly influenced the modern generation of violinists and the popularity of the string quartet in the 19th century.

Joachim was born in Kitsee, near Pressburg (now Bratislava) in 1831 to a Jewish family as the seventh of eight children. As a young boy he received a small toy violin from his father as a gift; he received so much joy from the toy violin that he was allowed the opportunity to study violin. His talent was immediately apparent and he was brought to Serwaczyński, the leader of the Pest Opera Orchestra, for lessons.

Together with Serwaczyński, Joachim made his first public début at the Adelskasino in Pest in 1839, where they performed the Double Concerto by Eck. Joachim also studied with Joseph Böhm, who could be traced back to Rode and Viotti, of the classical French school. He also played in Vienna for Hauser and Georg Hellmesberger the elder. By the age of 12 Joachim’s talent was fully developed. In 1843 he became acquainted with Felix Mendelssohn in Leipzig who informed him that he didn’t need conservatory training. Instead, he studied composition with Hauptmann and played together with Mendelssohn and received a general education, while occasionally playing for Ferdinand David. Greatly influenced by Mendelssohn, Joachim’s lifelong mission became to promote the music of Mendelssohn.


In 1843, Joachim made his début at the Leipzig Gewandhaus performing Bériot’s Adagio and Rondo. Other notable concerts include his performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in 1844 in London and again in Düsseldorf, under Robert Schumann, as part of the Rhenish Music Festival. Clara Schumann later wrote that she considered Joachim a great triumph and that his virtuosity was beyond any she had ever heard. The concerto became forever linked with Joachim’s name and is the one of the most performed works for violin, second only to Bach’s D minor Chaconne.

Robert Schumann composed several works in the later years of his life for Joachim, such as the Fantasy for violin and orchestra and the Violin Concerto. The Violin Concerto, however, remained unperformed and unpublished due to Schumann’s tragic mental illness which prevented his revisions of the work. Clara Schumann, Joachim and Brahms decided together to omit the concerto from his collected works, as it was a dishonour to his memory. Later, in 1937, the concerto was performed by Georg Kulenkampff, and considered a great masterpiece linking the concerti of Beethoven and Brahms.

After Mendelssohn’s death in 1847, Joachim experienced a deep crisis and though he was already the deputy leader of the Gewandhaus Orchestra and a teacher at the Leipzig Conservatory, he pursued further studies with Liszt in Weimar. Liszt spent much time making music together with Joachim, just as Mendelssohn had done. He also encouraged his pursuit of composition, prompting Joachim to dedicate both the Violin Concerto in G minor Op. 3 (1854) and the overture to Demetrius to him. It was also in Weimar that Joachim participated in his first chamber concerts, which included a performance in 1852 with Hans von Bülow of Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata.

Between 1853 and 1868 Joachim performed as the principal violinist at the Hanover Court and in his own string quartet from 1855. He toured regularly throughout Europe, especially in England, Belgium and the Netherlands. While in Hanover, his compositional output increased; 56 of his works date from this period. This period also contained his baptism as a Lutheran, a period of close friendship with Brahms and Clara and Robert Schumann and his rejection of Liszt and the New German School, followed by his abandonment of composition. He also married mezzo-soprano Amalie Schneeweiss during this period.

In 1868, together with his wife, he moved to Berlin where he started the Königliche Akademie der Künste for instrumental music, which later became the Königliche Hochschule für Musik. His time in Berlin was very influential, both as a teacher and through his series of quartet recitals, which went on for 40 years. During these recitals, he presented music from Haydn to Brahms. As the school grew, an orchestra was added, which Joachim conducted. The school had an unfortunate reputation as being “rigid and reactionary”, which was gained through Joachim’s opposition to the New German School, including Liszt and Wagner.

Joachim did, however, highly value Brahms’ work, and likewise. The two also enjoyed a friendship until Joachim’s divorce in 1884, when Brahms chose the friendship of Amalie. Though the friendship had waned, Joachim continued to promote Brahms’ music and premiered many of his chamber works.

As a performer, Joachim was one of the most important interpreters of music in the second half of the 19th century. His close contact with many top composers and his willingness to put the composer’s intentions above his own virtuosity, a similarity he shared with Clara Schumann, contributed to his success. It was this subordination to the composer that led him to chamber music.

As a soloist, Joachim performed primarily Bach's solo sonatas along with the concertos of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Viotti and Spohr. In addition, many works were written for him, in addition to those from Schumann, Brahms wrote both a Violin Concerto (with Joachim’s help) and a Double Concerto. He also performed his own works, especially the Konzert in ungarischer Weise Op. 11.

Joachim’s own compositions, of a generally somber mood, were greatly admired by Liszt, Schumann and Brahms. His works, especially the overtures, show off his mastery of orchestration while his style lies somewhere between Schumann and Liszt. Joachim, himself, described his music as “psychological music”. Though many of his violin concertos were artistically valuable, their difficulty has resulted in their disappearance from the repertoire.

The Germans have four violin concertos... the most inward, the heart’s jewel, is Mendelssohn’s.

His technique was very unique, and could not be passed down as it resulted in very tense and cramped positioning. His style of playing, as can be heard on some recordings from 1903, features long phrases and a very sparse and controlled vibrato. This manner of playing has greatly influenced modern players, especially through “his pioneer performances and editions of the great violin works and the cadenzas he wrote for them, as opposed to any technical influence.” His commitment to the composer and degree of musicianship, combined with the virtuoso styles of Sarasate and Vieuxtemps, created the generation of great violinists including Eugene Ysaÿe, Fritz Kreisler, and others.

Joachim died in Berlin in August 1907.

Images courtesy of Fein Violins, BBC and public domain

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