Concert Notes

Joseph Joachim’s Variations for Violin and Orchestra

Notes by TŌN violist Tania Ladino Ramírez

At the height of Romanticism, Joseph Joachim stood out as a virtuoso and versatile musician. His talent and impeccable training took him on a journey that linked his life with some of the most eminent composers of his era, including the Schumanns and Brahms, not to mention his renowned teachers, Mendelssohn and Liszt. 

His connection with Brahms was quite remarkable. Their mutual admiration often led them to turn to each other for advice and to exchange compositional exercises to refine their skills. Joachim had already dedicated his second Violin Concerto to Brahms, and in 1878 Brahms started his iconic Violin Concerto, written for and dedicated to Joachim, while Joachim began working on his Variations for Violin and Orchestra. Despite that closeness, each of these pieces displays its own characteristics. While the Variations highlight the technical possibilities and leading capacity of the violin, Brahms’ concerto features the soloist interacting with and supporting other prominent voices. Although we do not have concrete correspondence about the Variations between them, Joachim’s suggestions to make Brahms’ concerto more “violinistic” reveals they may not have seen eye-to-eye about certain stylistic and compositional choices. Furthermore, Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate, to whom Joachim’s variations are dedicated, expressed some opinions about Brahms’ concerto which suggests a desire for a more prominent and virtuosic role for the violin soloist as well.

Structured around a melancholic theme, the variations slide between lyricism and drama, evoking the contrasts of the human experience. Joachim, however, publicly opposed the growing tendency of literary-orientated music, arguing that music needs to speak freely as a language beyond words. And so with Joachim’s meticulous artistry, his powerful violin solo and rich orchestral accompaniment will fill the hall with music that asks each listener to find their own meaning. 

This piece reminds us of other technically demanding violin concertos like Tchaikovsky’s or Mendelssohn’s, with their lyrical melodies, dramatic contrasts, and brilliant virtuosity. They have become iconic pieces that showcase the violin’s versatility and expressiveness, just as Joachim’s does. Joachim’s masterful Variations deserves the same spotlight.