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Classical music: The forgotten master of the cello who said no to his own Beethoven concerto

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It’s easy to forget that the instruments that make the music we so enjoy weren’t always the exact specimens we see now on the concert stage.

ake the piano, for instance, has its roots the harpsichord, where pressing the keys plucked the strings. This evolved into the fortepiano of Mozart and Beethoven’s time.

The name came from the Italian for loud and soft, because with the deployment of little hammers to strike those strings, you could vary the intensity of the sound as you played.

From here it was a short 19th- century step to the concert grand that we know today.

The clarinet, a relative newcomer that so took Mozart’s fancy he created an absolutely gorgeous concerto and quintet for it, evolved from a rather more basic horn that lacked the woodwind’s subtlety, sounding much more like a trumpet.

Then there’s the cello, which began as a sort of a bass violin that was too big to go under the chin. So it was played in a vertical position, clamped between the legs.

A similar variant is still around, retaining the original name, viola da gamba. Gamba is the Italian for leg. Playing the original cello put quite a strain on the thighs.

Bernhard Romberg was a master of the instrument, a virtuoso who also composed extensively for it. He published a paper on technique, with emphasis on how exactly to sit while playing, how to hold the cello, how to hold the bow.

The object of the exercise was to distribute the weight of the instrument evenly, to avoid tension in the cellist’s body. How much more simple it all is now. The modern cello has an endpin, a spike to support it.

Romberg and his cousin Andreas, a violinist, were touring musicians in Mozart’s time. They ended up in the Rhineland, where they joined the court orchestra of the Archbishop of Cologne in Bonn.

The viola section featured a young man by the name of Ludwig van Beethoven, then just turning 20, the brightest of musical stars in the making.

Bernhard and Andreas were on a par with him as players. Beethoven reckoned Bernhard was the best cellist he had ever heard, and he had a huge regard for his music.

In a letter, he wrote: “I wish you financial recognition, to make the success of your brilliant art complete, which happens so rarely nowadays.”

Beethoven wrote five concertos for the piano, one for the violin, and a triple concerto for violin, piano and cello, but never for the cello itself. The story goes that he offered to write one for Bernhard Romberg to play, but the offer was politely declined. Romberg, it seems, did not much like what Beethoven wrote. Though its magnificence is acknowledged now, back then it was really “out there”, way ahead of its time. Romberg hadn’t the heart to tell him. He just said he preferred to play music he wrote himself.

He did so, to rave reviews. “The most excellent of all living cellists,” wrote one critic. “The pre-eminent virtuoso”, “a most significant composer” figured, too, in accounts of his concerts.

Romberg had a key part to play in the development of the instrument, introducing several innovations in cello design. He specified a thinner and longer neck, with an extended fingerboard. He increased the distance between the fingerboard and the soundboard.

He created a little hollow on the fingerboard to prevent vibration when the string was being pressed. In addition, he clarified and standardised the way the music was written.

His own output was extensive: 10 symphonies, and 10 concertos for his instrument, as well as a host of chamber music, and five operas, though not all of them made it to the stage. There’s much to enjoy, summed up by his genially sparkling Concertino for Two Cellos.

George Hamilton presents ‘The Hamilton Scores’ on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

Indo Review