Sunday, March 13, 2016

Beethoven, Romberg & the Cello Concerto That Didn't Happen

By Andy Fein, luthier at Fein Violins
 and Miranda Crawford

Beethoven wrote a beautiful Concerto for Violin, a wonderful Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano, nine great Symphonies, five superb Cello Sonatas, plus a bunch of Concertos for lots of other instruments. But we don't have a Beethoven Cello Concerto. Why?

Bernhard Romberg, the guy that nixed Beethoven's Cello Concerto
Bernhard Romberg was a great cellist of Beethoven's era. Maybe even the greatest! And Beethoven greatly admired him. But when Beethoven asked Romberg if he could write a cello concerto for him, Romberg politely declined and told Beethoven that he preferred to perform his own compositions. And so there you have it, a polite decline and cellists lose out for posterity.

It's also possible that Beethoven's gargantuan ego was a bit crushed by Romberg's decline. It's obvious from the following letter that Beethoven greatly admired Romberg,
"My dear Romberg, this night I had terrible pains in my ears, as often happens at this time of the year. Even the sounds of your music would have caused me only suffering. That is why you will not see me today. In several days, it might be better and I will be able to bid you farewell. I have not visited you yet -excuse me. It is because my lodgings are too far away, and I have too much work. I have been ill for the entire year, you know, and a lot of new compositions were put aside. Well, why all these ceremonies between the two of us. I wish you financial recognition, to make the success of your brilliant art complete, which happens so rarely nowadays. If there is an opportunity, I hope to see you and your wife and the children, to whom I send my sincere regards. Good-bye, great artist. Truly yours, Beethoven ." Dated February 12, 1822.

Video of Georg Mertens playing Romberg's Sonata op. 38 for cello and piano.

In Romberg's defense, it's important to realize that Beethoven's compositions were much more complicated and progressive than the compositions Romberg wrote for himself. It's hard to think about now, but to his contemporaries Beethoven was a really "out there" composer of noisy, dissonant, modern pieces.

Beethoven was also good friends with the great French cellists Jean-Pierre and Jean-Louis Duport, but it seems that their playing didn't inspire Beethoven to write a concerto for them.
Mstislav Rostropovich, playing the Stradivarius 'Duport' cello, made in 1711. 

Romberg, although today not nearly as well known as Beethoven, wrote some beautiful pieces for cello and was considered the "Paganini" of the cello. In the same way as Paganini, his virtuosity pushed for technical developments in the cello itself.

Romberg is credited with suggesting the following innovations: a flat bevel on the C string side of the fingerboard coupled with a sight hollow along the length so that the C string wouldn't rattle on the fingerboard, a thinner neck, a longer neck and fingerboard to enable playing in upper positions,  and a higher neck angle to increase projection. Internal changes in the cello have not been attributed to Romberg, but I would conjecture that the longer fingerboard and higher neck angle necessitated a longer and stronger bass bar as well. Also, during this time period (early 1800s) cello music might be written in as many as six clefs. Romberg simplified cello music into three clefs- bass, tenor, and treble.

Stephane Tetreault playing the Stradivarius Boccherini/Romberg cello.  

So a Beethoven Cello Concerto has been lost to all future generations simply because the guy Beethoven wanted to write for didn't want to have a piece written for him (hmmm, the old breakup line? "It's not you, it's me"?). We're not that much poorer. Consider the beautiful Beethoven Cello Sonatas-

Audio recording of Steven Isserlis, playing excerpts from Beethoven's cello Sonatas.

Are you a cellist or interested in becoming one? Take a look at our Fein Cellos!

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