This month we celebrate the birthday of the great Bernhard Heinrich Romberg.
Hero of Cellists
Bernhard Romberg (11 November 1767 – 13 August 1841) was a famous, touring virtuoso cellist. Critics called him the “Hero of all Violoncellists, the King of All Virtuosos.”
Many of us are familiar with the name Romberg from our student days, learning his sonatas, concertos, and other cello pieces. What might be surprising to some is the lasting impact Romberg has had on both instruments and players.
Here are seven ways Romberg influences the cello world today.
1. Romberg played a key role in modernizing the cello.
To avoid the string buzzing, Romberg advised cellists to have a luthier make a groove in the fingerboard under the C string. This groove evolved into our modern bevel, now named after Romberg. Even though our modern version is flatter, it serves the same purpose as the original. Here is how Romberg illustrated it in his method book:
Now it is rare to find old cellos with original necks. Why? The original necks did not meet modern specifications. Romberg was an early advocate of modernizing cellos.
He recommended that cellists replace the shorter, thicker necks on older cellos with longer necks and fingerboards. He gave measurements and drawings in his method book as you can see here:
2. We can thank Romberg for our modern cello music notation.
Today we use Romberg’s thumb symbol in our music. We also use his fingering, his designation of 0 for an open string, and his string numbering. He defined his symbols in notes in the score of his Concerto No. 1, Op. 2:
In addition, he helped standardize the use of only three clefs – bass, tenor, and treble.
For those who only have to read one or two clefs, three might seem difficult. (How many cello teachers have had complaints from students learning tenor clef?) However, three seems manageable when compared with Boccherini’s six! In his earlier work, Boccherini used clef changes to signify position changes.
Also, at the time it was common to use treble clef to designate music that should be played an octave lower than it was written. To avoid confusion, Romberg published his own compositions so that the cello parts were written at pitch (vs. being written an octave up from what was played).
3. Romberg influenced how we hold the bow today.
The cello bow was modernized during Romberg’s career, and there was a wide variety of both bows and bow holds at the time. Romberg had the latest in bow technology – two beautiful bows made by François Xavier Tourte. Read more about them and see photos of them here.
During his career, many other players held their bows above the frog. However, with his more modern bows, Romberg was able to adopt a grip very close to what we use today – at the frog.
4. Romberg helped pave the way for future soloists.
At Romberg’s time, many critics still needed to be convinced that the cello was a viable solo instrument, like the violin and the piano. This is not to say that Romberg was the only soloist of his time or the first – but he did tour extensively, and he toured regularly for decades.
Through his many travels, Romberg
- helped convince critics and audiences that the cello is a solo instrument
- influenced the technique, cello set-up, and repertoire, of cellists across Europe
- collected regional folk tunes to use in his compositions
Today when we go to hear a cello soloist – or train to become one – we have Romberg to thank for helping pave the way.
5. Romberg was a prolific composer of cello music.
“[Romberg’s] celebrated concertos may be said to contain implicitly a complete theory of cello playing, and there are few passages known to modern players the type of which may not be found there. Probably no better knowledge of the fingerboard could be gained than by studying these concertos.” – Grove Dictionary, Vol. III (1883)
“the best teaching exercise, especially for the left hand.”
To showcase his own technique, Romberg wrote 10 cello concertos. Not wanting to leave anything to chance in publishing his works, he wrote out all of his cadenzas. He also composed a concerto for two cellos as well as six concertinos, sonatas, duets, fantasias, divertimentos, and variations.
6. Romberg’s e minor sonata might have inspired Brahms’ e minor sonata.
That means it’s possible that without Romberg’s work, although not often played today, we would not have had that staple of cello and piano repertoire – Brahms’ Cello Sonata No. 1 in e minor, Op. 38.
(Note: This piece, although known as a Romberg sonata, is actually an arrangement of a trio by Romberg, possibly by Friedrich Jansen.)
7. Romberg might be the reason we don’t have a cello concerto by Beethoven.
Three years older than Beethoven, Romberg seems to have been on friendly terms with him, and Beethoven thought highly of Romberg’s playing.
They played chamber music together in Bonn. When the French invaded in 1782, they are said to have escaped together on a Rhine riverboat, working as kitchen boys. These shared experiences of youth might seem enough to form a strong bond. However, in modern terms, one might say their relationship was – complicated.
According to Louis Spohr, Romberg called Beethoven’s Op. 18 quartets “absurd stuff.” He’s also said to have thrown down one of the Razumovsky quartet cello parts and trampled it, saying
“That is a cello part? No one can play that music!”
More disappointing to modern cellists and audiences is the story that when Beethoven offered to write Romberg a cello concerto – Romberg declined! He is supposed to have made the excuse that he only performed his own works.
If only Romberg had said, “Yes!”
For some, this makes Romberg an exceptionally problematic figure in cello history – quite the opposite of the “Hero of all Violoncellists.”
However, keep in mind this story might be that – just a story. Either way, Romberg made cello advancements that are still felt over 250 years after his birth.
Where to Find Romberg Sheet Music Online
- Sheet music on IMSLP
- Romberg’s method book (in English, French, and German) on IMSLP
- Sheet music and his method book on archive.org
What is your favorite Romberg piece? Tell us in the comments below.
Don’t miss a thing – be sure to sign up for our weekly newsletter.