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Bernard Romberg, Duos for Violoncellos: Historical Context

by Jo Arnold and Markko Markko

Context on Romberg

Bernhard Romberg was born in Dinklage, Germany, in 1767 and died in Hamburg, Germany, in 1841. He was the son and pupil of his father, Anton Romberg (cellist and bassoonist), and cousin of equally accomplished violinist and composer Andreas Romberg. Andreas also studied with his own father and debuted in Munster with Bernhard. In 1782, 1784, and 1785, the two cousins toured and accompanied their fathers in Holland and Germany and performed at the Concert Spirituel in Paris. The cousins (sometimes making themselves out to be brothers) had nearly parallel trajectories for the majority of their careers. With the opportunities provided by his family's reputation, Romberg had the opportunity to interact with a number of notable musical figures. Alongside his cousin, Romberg performed with and befriended Beethoven, who played viola in an orchestra and a chamber quartet at Bonn from 1790 to 1792. The cousins were sponsored by Christian Gottlob Neefe (1748-1798), with whom both Romberg and Beethoven studied composition. In 1793, the Romberg cousins escaped to Hamburg when the French invaded Rhineland. There, they performed in Schröder's Ackermannsches Komödienhaus. In 1796, the two cousins visited Vienna and Hamburg as well as locations in Italy, Spain, England, and Portugal. On their visit to Vienna, they developed a friendship with Haydn, and Romberg debuted Beethoven’s two op.5 cello sonatas with the composer as the pianist.

The Romberg cousins split ways around 1800 when Andreas settled down in Hamburg and turned towards composition. Andreas passed away in 1815. Bernhard continued his career as a solo virtuoso, cultivating an impressive set of connections. For instance, he visited renowned cellist Luigi Boccherini (1742-1085) in Madrid. Romberg taught at the Paris Conservatory from 1801 through 1803, where he published many works and taught with the likes of Baudiot, Kreutzer, and Baillot. His time in Paris made him very popular in the musical world. For a reason unknown, Romberg left Paris and traveled to Berlin. From 1804 through 1806, he played in the Berlin Kapelle Court Orchestra while continuing to publish and teach. Romberg held the position of first violoncello with Jean-Louis Duport in Berlin’s opera orchestra. The two were familiar with each other from Romberg’s visit to Paris in 1785.

 After he left Berlin in 1806, he continued his tour (as he was in popular demand as a soloist) in places like Russia and England. E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote a gushing review of Romberg’s playing during the tour, and he said that “Romberg possesses all the qualities one customarily extols in cellists to such a high degree that for the present at least he is unsurpassed.” From 1816 through 1819, Romberg returned to Berlin and was the court music director of the Berlin Kapelle Orchestra. During his employment, Bernhard was tasked with the production of E.T.A. Hoffmann's Undine. Hoffmann’s work would go on to inspire the likes of R. Schumann, Offenbach, and Tchaikovsky. Romberg would go on to produce his final opera, Rittertreue, in 1819. When Romberg retired in 1819 from his court position, he again resumed touring and composing with his children, as his father did. Romberg retired from touring in 1836 and spent his retirement finishing his Méthode de Violoncelle, which he completed in 1839. In the method book, a section focuses on the ideal dimensions of the cello, with Romberg suggesting to make it smaller and easier to play; elsewhere in the method book, Romberg discusses extended technique and comments on his contemporaries' use of thumb position, block positions, and alto clef.

Romberg’s notable works include opera compositions such as Die wiedergefundene Statue (after Gozzi, composed 1792) and Der Schiffbruch, Alma, Ulysses und Circe (1807). His orchestral and chamber works span a greater variety, including ten solo cello concertos, a concerto for two cellos, eleven string quartets, piano quartets, and other chamber pieces. In addition, he also composed a funeral symphony for the queen of Prussia, Queen Louise, and other cello pieces including his Duos for Violoncello that can be found in the Freedman Collection.

Libretto of Romberg's Ulysses und Circe (1810). Library of Congress, Music Division. Public Domain.