Biographical / Historical
Joseph Joachim was born on the 28th of June 1831 in Kittsee (Kopčany/Köpcsény), Hungary (now in Austria), to Franziska Figdor Joachim and Julius Friedrich Joachim, a wool merchant. The family moved in Pest (now Budapest) two years later, in 1833. Joseph’s talent for the violin was recognised very early on and despite their modest means his parents made sure to hire the best violin teacher in the city: Stanislaw Serwaczynski, the concertmaster and conductor of the opera of Pest.
In 1839, Joachim went to live and study in Vienna. He studied privately with Joseph Böhm for more than two years before enrolling at the Vienna Conservatory, where he only stayed one year. His talent was recognised anywhere he went and soon after moving to Leipzig in 1843 he became a protégé of Felix Mendelssohn, who arranged for him to study with Moritz Hauptmann at the Leipzig Conservatory. During this time, Joachim also played in the Gewandhaus Orchestra, which Mendelssohn was conducting, and did a number of public appearances. One of the most important events for Joachim’s early career was certainly his first visit to England on 27th of May 1844, where he played the solo part in Beethoven's violin concerto at the London Philharmonic. It was a tremendous success: his skilful and soulful performance greatly impressed both the audience and reviewers. Joachim played for the English public very regularly throughout his life: after 1866 he visited the country annually and his name appears many times in programmes of popular concerts of chamber music in St James’s Hall in London.
Following Mendelssohn’s death in 1847, Joachim stayed briefly in Leipzig, teaching at the Conservatory and playing first desk at the Gewandhaus Orchestra with Ferdinand David. He soon moved to Weimar where he met Franz Liszt, a Hungarian piano virtuoso and composer who was then one of the principal animators of the 'New German School' along with Richard Wagner. Joachim became one of his avant-garde disciples and served him as concertmaster. However, four years later he dissociated himself from this movement and went on to become the leader and Kapellmeister of the orchestra court in Hanover. He stayed in the service of King George V until 1865; during this time Joachim enjoyed a good salary and considerable freedom, and he took advantage of his five summer months off to make concert tours around Europe.
It’s during this period that Joachim met Robert and Clara Schumann: invited to perform at the Lower Rhine Music Festival in 1853, he deeply impressed the couple when he played the solo part again in Beethoven’s violin concerto. Joachim also met Johannes Brahms shortly after, and introduced him to the Schumanns after being in turn greatly impressed by the talent of the young pianist. Robert Schumann died soon after in 1856, but Joachim, Clara Schumann and Brahms remained lifelong friends: Joachim would often perform with Clara, with him on the violin and her on the piano, and train and exchange musical views with Brahms.
In 1863, Joseph Joachim married the contralto Amalie Schneiweiss, whom he had met during a concert in Hanover in 1862 where she sang Leonore’s aria from Beethoven’s opera Fidelio and he played the Beethoven violin concerto. Amalie had to give up her career as an opera singer to raise their six children, however she was able to keep performing in recital and oratorio settings. The couple divorced in 1884.
In 1865, Joachim quit the service of the King of Hanover and moved to Berlin. There he founded the new Department of Royal Academy of Music (Hochschule für Ausübende Tonkunst) and soon became director. However he did not stop playing for the public, and in 1869 the Joachim String Quartet was formed. It was composed of Karel Halíř (2nd violin) from 1897 on, Emanuel Wirth (viola) from 1877 on, and Robert Hausmann (cello) from 1879 on. The quartet soon came to be known as one of the finest in Europe, and performed in various settings. They toured the continent to give concerts, and gave rehearsals in the Hochschule hall, which students could attend for free. It was also common for the Joachim String Quartet to participate in ‘musical gatherings’ in private homes in Berlin, including the house of Joachim’s own brother Henry.
Joachim maintained close ties with his family, and one of his closest friends and confidents was his nephew Harold Henry Joachim. Harold was a prominent philosopher who taught at St Andrews and Oxford, and also a talented violinist. Joseph and Harold exchanged numerous letters in which they discussed family matters as well as professional and artistic subjects. Joseph kept contact with his nephew during his tours around Europe, and made sure to visit him whenever he was in London or Oxford. Joachim was very pleased when Harold married his daughter Elizabeth in 1907. In a letter recounting the last days of Joseph Joachim, Winifred Holidays recalled that ‘the close of his life was greatly brightened by his delight at the engagement of his daughter Lisel to his nephew Harold, to whom, as you no doubt have seen, he has bequeathed his English “Strad”. Harold is such a delightful violinist himself as to be fully worthy of this priceless possession’ (Coll-1711/2/2). The ‘Strad’ in question was a Stradivarius gifted to Joseph Joachim in 1899 on the occasion of the Jubilee celebration for the 50th anniversary of his debut recital in London. This exceptional violin had been made in 1715 by Antonio Stradivari and was called ‘Il Cremonese’.
This type of celebration and gifts is not uncommon in Joachim’s career, which reflects his immense popularity and the admiration he drew. On the 4th of May 1904, a ‘Diamond Jubilee’ was organised in his honour to celebrate the 60th anniversary of his first appearance in London, once again showing his close ties with England. Joachim was presented with an address and a portrait of himself executed by John Singer Sargent, and the Prime Minister himself attended the event. In 1931, that is to say twenty-five years after Joachim’s death, a commemorative centenary concert was given in Berlin in his honour, with compositions from Joachim himself but also Brahms, Schuman and Mendelssohn. The celebration was opened by a commemorative speech by Joseph’s grandson, Dr Hans Joachim Moser. Another centenary concert was given on the same year in the Queen’s Hall, London. Three members of his family performed for the occasion: his great-nieces Adila Fachiri and Jelly d’Aranyi, and his granddaughter Gabriele Joachim. Donald Francis Tovey, Professor of Music at the University of Edinburgh’s Reid School of Music and Joachim’s friend, conducted the orchestra along with Henry J. Wood.
The strong reaction prompted by Joachim’s death on 15 August 1907 can be noted in very numerous obituaries, eulogies, newspapers articles, and letters from friends mourning the loss of a great man. Joachim was recognised not only for his musical talent, but also for his great human qualities: in a letter recounting a visit by Joseph to his family at Heslemere in August 1889, it is said that ‘the secret of [Joachim’s] greatness … is “the listening soul” which has given him such power over the hearts of his fellow men” (Coll-1711/3/6).