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  • Writer's pictureGeoffrey Dean

19th Century Cellists in the US: George Knoop (1797-1849)

Updated: Jan 13, 2023

“If you would hear the very soul tell all its deepest, most inner feeling, if you would listen to language as from another world and from some matured spirit in a more exalted

and perfect state than here below, go to hear Knoop. You will feel as if

he were drawing out of you your very soul.”

C. P. Cranch to Miss Julia Myers, April 11, 1842

in The Life and Letters of Christopher Pearse Cranch

Johann Georg Knoop (sometimes spelled Knop, 1797-1849) was a celebrated German cellist who spent the last decade of his life as one of the most highly regarded instrumental performers in the United States. Because his name was commonly abbreviated as G. Knoop, he is often confused with his younger brother Gustav Knoop (1805-?), also a cellist. Georg was born in Gottingen, may have studied with Romberg, and made his concert debut at the age of eight. in 1816 he succeeded Dotzauer’s teacher Johann Jakob Kriegk as first cellist in the Meiningen court orchestra. His first wife was Kriegk’s daughter Louise, and their cellist son Huldreich (1820-1898) played alongside Carl Ludwig Dotzauer in Spohr’s orchestra in Cassel. Georg and Gustav had six other siblings, including the Basel music publisher Ernest Knoop and Wilhelm Knoop, a violinist in the Meiningen orchestra. Their father Conrad Knoop was a Gottingen music dealer and teacher. (letter from Conrad Knop to Louis Spohr, March 28, 1822)

In addition to his Meiningen duties, Georg Knoop toured as a soloist in Europe, performing to acclaim in Paris and London from 1833. He seems to have made regular appearances in England for several years, performing concertos at the Philharmonic concerts and earning the epithet “violoncellist to her Majesty.” (London Morning Post, July 14, 1835, p. 3) In the spring of 1835 Knoop was in direct competition with other leading cellists of the day, performing solos on the same concerts as A. F. Servais and Carl Schuberth. Of the Knoop/Schuberth play-off, the Morning Post wrote, “…both the violoncellists displayed great talent, particularly Mr. Knoop, in a Swiss divertimento, in which he introduced the harmonics with excellent effect.” (May 30, 1835, p. 3) Georg’s solos on another London concert were described as “both beautiful in style and extraordinary in execution.” Both Knoop and Servais were found “wanting that body of tone which no one except [London cellist Robert] Lindley has yet acquired, and which is necessary to fill a large space.” (Court Magazine and Belle Assemblee, October, 1835, p. 176) Knoop himself confided to Spohr that “My stay in London was not particularly pleasant, as the artists there placed many obstacles in my way… if I had not been fortunate enough to be received so well by the queen, I might have left there with some debts…” (Georg Knoop to Louis Spohr, Sept. 25, 1833)

From 1840 Georg was in Hamburg, his son Huldreich playing in his place in Meiningen. Schuberth’s older brother Julius, a Hamburg music publisher, wrote to Spohr that “Herr Konzertmeister Knoop, who is currently staying here, is an able virtuoso; he almost makes impossibilities possible; his specialty is [your] world-famous Gesangscene [violin concerto No. 8], which he plays to perfection.” (J. Schuberth to Spohr, March 25, 1840) In Hamburg Georg also introduced two of his own cello pieces, “which, though he comes out with them late in life, yet show him a good composer.” It was predicted that “his compositions, when published, will soon enough be favorites of all violoncello players.” (“From Hamburg. Concerts and Virtuosos,” in The Music Magazine, Boston, Nov. 6, 1841) One of Knoop’s cello works was a “dramatic, lively” Concerto fantastique that he later performed in the United States. In spite of the interest then taken in Knoop’s music, and his brother Ernest’s stated intention to publish the concerto, no Knoop cello music has surfaced to date.

Georg Knoop crossed the Atlantic in September 1841, disembarking on September 20th. He does not seem to have looked back. A letter from a mutual acquaintance to Spohr accuses Georg of having “completely abandoned” his son, and his wife Louise laments from Meiningen in early 1842 that she has not heard from her husband since he arrived in the US. (Louise Knoop to Spohr, Jan. 14, 1842) This impression is supported by cello historian Wasielewski, who claims that Knoop’s original motive for marrying Louise was to acquire her father’s valuable cello. (The Violoncello and its History, p. 162; Wasielewski conflates Georg and Gustav Knoop)

Following his November 1841 US debut concerts in New York City, the press lead-up to his first Philadelphia concert emphasizes Knoop’s specialty of performing violin pieces on the cello and praises the “elevated” character of his repertoire. Knoop was astonishing US audiences with works originally written for the smaller instrument, such as Paganini’s “Nor cor piu” variations, replete with a “truly magnificent” rendition of the variation in thirds

with a pizzicato bass, and Spohr’s eighth concerto, in which he was said to rival Ole Bull’s recent performances. His appropriation of violin music is described in almost Herculean terms, as “an apparently incredible feat, the difference of the relative structure and capabilities of the two instruments considered. But by virtue of musical aptitude and perseverance, [Knoop] has abolished every impediment that lay in the way of such an achievement, and stands confessedly unapproached on the Violoncello. No limits can be assigned to his power.” (Philadelphia National Gazette, Nov. 30, 1841, p. 2)

Accounts of Knoop’s demeanor in performance, and its impact on the experience of hearing him play, differ. One describes it as an almost jarring juxtaposition with the expressiveness of his cello playing: “Indeed it is almost ludicrous to see him with his staid countenance, producing upon an instrument devoted usually to the most solemn themes sounds to awaken pleasure and gladness in the heart.” (New Orleans Times-Picayune, Feb. 17, 1844) Another notes a similar contrast: “I could scarce believe him all I had heard, when he first appeared, a quiet, respectable-looking, stout, oldish gentleman, in spectacles. But no sooner had he drawn the first soft, bewildering tones from his magnificent instrument, than my heart lay hushed within me... Rapt and apart, he sat, bending over his beloved violoncello, and they two seemed, like old friends, hold sweet and beautiful communion together.” (Grace Greenwood, letter from Philadelphia, April 1847) A third account, while also personifying Knoop's cello, treats it not as an old friend, but as a blushing bride: “Knoop is a zealot, and you cannot but observe his zeal. He is a dogged adorer of his instrument, and he clings to it with ungainly gesture, but with fervid love; onward he careers, in zephyr and in tempest, and rising into ecstasy himself, seems unconscious of the ecstasy he has created. [He] … clasped his bride and kissed her, and cared not who was present.” (Henry Giles, Lectures and Essays (1850), p. 243)

Despite the influx of visiting European instrumentalists in the early 1840s, Georg’s playing stands apart as being on a higher scientific and spiritual plane. His older cellist contemporary Max Bohrer, who toured the US for a season or two just following Knoop’s arrival, suffers by comparison as a shallow virtuoso who serves “the almighty dollar” rather than Art. Commenting on the “perverse separation of the art and the science” in the then-current musical “gymnastics,” George William Curtis contrasts Bohrer and Knoop: “[Bohrer has] such profound knowledge of the power of the instrument, [and yet] such utter ignorance of its intention. It seemed to groan in despair, that he, who knew its changes so well, could not awaken it to melody, but, with solemn conceit, show that he did know them, and gain approbation for that knowledge. … Knoop, with the same exact science, showed a hearty reverence for art, and reverently withdraws himself and his violoncello. ...Yet…such artists have no permanent hold of the heart here… Max Bohrer takes, generally, a higher rank than Knoop.” (Curtis to J. S. Dwight, 1843) The correlation between Knoop’s “reverence for art” and a corresponding lack of enduring appreciation on the part of the public is confirmed by Dwight, who criticized virtuoso soloists for using “their divine art to attract attention to themselves. The music was made subordinate to their performing of it. Honorable exceptions to this, like Knoop the violoncellist, have had to play to bare walls.” (Boston Daily Advertiser and Patriot, Dec. 22, 1843, reprinted in DJM, Oct. 17, 1857, pp. 227-8) Another sign of this impermanence may be the fact that Knoop was compelled to sell at least two cellos while continuing to concertize during the last year of his life.

In December 1841, at the time of “The Grand Complimental Benefit Concert to Mr. Knoop… a spontaneous tribute to the talent of Mr. Knoop,” a guitarist from Spain is also concertizing in Philadelphia. Senora Maria Dolores De Goni and Knoop soon begin giving concerts together. These joint concerts are, by all appearances, very successful, showcasing both artists as performers and composers. An 1843 review revels in the Senora’s “peculiar art of drawing from her instrument the tones of the human voice. Her playing is a song of continuous sweetness, and executed in a style at once exquisite and dramatic. This lady indeed succeeds in what guitarists generally are almost afraid to attempt. …” (NY review quoted in Times-Picayune, Feb. 15, 1844, p. 2) De Goni at times raises her voice in song, performing Spanish songs to her own guitar accompaniment on their programs. An 1842 Washington DC review praises a new composition for cello and guitar, crediting it to Knoop, though it is more likely a collaborative effort between cellist and guitarist: “The Duo…has been very recently composed by Mr. Knoop, and is intended to give full effect to the guitar, in the hands of Madame de Goni; and if it could be in better hands, it is not believed that they can be found in the United States. J.” (Daily Madisonian, May 17, 1842, p. 3) Advertisements for their concerts sometimes describe them, in the prevailing manner of the time, as Grand Vocal and Instrumental Concerts. The one below, from their first Boston concert (January 22, 1842) lists only the solo guitar and cello selections, but promise that “overtures, etc.” will also be performed:

The week before this concert Knoop had made the acquaintance of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who entertained him for an hour with “Johannisberg, coffee and cigars.” (Longfellow to Samuel Ward, Jan. 14, 1842)

By March 1845 Knoop and De Goni are husband and wife; following Knoop's death De Goni continued to perform and publish as Mrs. Knoop. The couple’s artistic excellence and modesty distinguish them from other touring performers then active: “There are many humbug performers of all kinds, floating about the country, who are imposed upon the public by extravagant and undeserved eulogiums as worthy of its patronage. This is undeniable. But Madame and Mons. Knoop are not of this class. Without ostentatious pretension, they possess sterling merit...” (Louisville Daily Courier, April 4, 1845, p. 2) In Louisville, “Madame and Mr. Knoop” are rewarded with “well and fashionably attended” concerts, at which they “seemed to excel themselves, and produced effects almost electrical upon their delighted audience.” (Louisville Daily Courier, April 18, 1845, p. 3)

The Knoops continued to perform as a cello and guitar duo, possibly with a home base of Cincinnati, where their concerts were also said to have “electrified” local audiences. In August of 1847 they gave the “great Concert of the Season” at Pittsburgh’s new Athenaeum and were reported to be about to depart for Europe to fulfill festival engagements.” On this occasion Madam Knoop was billed as “Guitarist and Vocalist.” (Pittsburgh Daily Post, Aug. 16, 1847, p. 3) If the Knoops did perform that year in Europe, their stay was brief, for Knoop was back in the US from as early as October of that year. He had been invited to perform with visiting celebrity instrumentalists Henri Herz and Camillo Sivori, the latter attracting an additional measure of attention as one of Paganini’s only violin students.

The Herz/Sivori/Knoop concerts occasioned comparison of the Italian violinist and Knoop in part because of an overlap of repertoire: several of Sivori’s selections were known

to US audiences through Knoop’s earlier performances of them on the cello. Belgian violinist Francois Prume’s Opus 1 was a case in point: “We have now heard for the first time the violin performance of “La Melancolie by Prume;” we had previously heard Knoop’s performance of in on the violincello [sic], and we were delighted with both. …We think that the third variation of this piece was given with more depth and feeling by Knoop, while Sivori evidently was superior in the finale.” A “Grand Duet Concertante from Wm. Tell” for violin and piano (likely by De Beriot/Osborne) was another: “we should probably have better liked it had we not been familiar with Knoop’s masterly performance of in upon the violoncello, to which it is so well adapted.” (B. C. in Louisville Daily Courier, June 26, 1847)

The trio’s New York concerts at the 3000-seat Taberacle on Broadway featured a “Grand Orchestra,” and the November 4 program opened with Knoop playing the solo in the actual William Tell overture, “accompanied by five distinguished Violoncellists, as in the Grand Opera of Paris.” (New York Evening Post, Nov. 3, 1847, p. 3) A duet by Sivori and Knoop “called forth demonstrations of enthusiasm which were positively boisterous.” Sivori played “Yankee Doodle” “with a prodigious number of variations.” (Evening Post, Nov. 5, 1847, p. 2) The three closed the concert together with a trio by Meyseder, applying their “best science” in its performance. (New York Daily Herald. Nov. 5, 1847, p. 2) One commentator asserted that Knoop’s performance of a potpourri (said to be Knoop’s own composition, but it may have been the Kummer Potpourri on Weber’s Preciosa) was alone worth the price of admission: Knoop “astonished the audience by the delicious notes he produced from that most difficult of all stringed instruments. The sweet notes were well worth the notes we gave in exchange.” (Correspondence from NY in Lancaster Examiner, Nov. 10, 1847, p. 2) The trio performed to similar acclaim in Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, and other cities through the end of 1847. Fresh from the publication of his epic poem Evangeline, Longfellow came in from the Salem Custom House to hear their November 9 concert, writing “[n]ever before has Cambridge heard such a concert" in his journal entry for that day. (Samuel Longfellow, Life of Longfellow, vol. 2, (1854) p. 98)

Later in the 1847-8 season Knoop concertizes in various Pennsylvania cities with another guitarist, Vincent Schmitt. Meanwhile Mrs. Knoop is performing separately in Cincinnati. By October 1848, when a “Grand Concert of George Knoop” is presented at the Musical Fund Hall in Philadelphia, Knoop is being referred to as a citizen of that city. The Philadelphia Public Ledger announcement for this concert includes the program of some of Knoop’s “greatest hits”— Knoop’s Le Carnival de Venise Variations, Burlesques por la Canzonetta “Cara mamma mia,” Kummer’s “Robert le Diable” Grand Fantasie, and the pieces that prompted the Knoop/Sivori comparison: the C. De Beriot/C. A. Osborne Fantasie Brilliante sur des motifs de Guillaume Tell and Prume's La Melancolie Pastorale. Mrs. Knoop is absent from the list of assisting artists. The concert announcement further states that “The Violoncello on which Mr. Knoop executes is for sale.” (October 2, 1848) In January 1849 a notice from the Philadelphia instrument dealer Joseph J. Mickley states that two “superior Violoncellos, which have been used by Mr. G. Knoop, the celebrated Violoncellist, at his Concerts in this country” are being sold. (Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan. 2, 1849, p. 4)

Knoop continues to appear on concerts of Philadelphia’s Musical Fund Society, performing solos and in collaborations with visiting artists such as soprano Anna Bishop [sp?] and harpist Charles Bochsa, who composed his Triple Fantaisie “expressly for this occasion.” (Public Ledger, Nov. 22, 1848, p. 2) In a series of at least three Philadelphia concerts with the newly-arrived Germania Musical Society in early 1849, Knoop performs a concerto of his own composition, possibly the Concerto Fantastique; the advance press declares him “the greatest master of the Violoncello in both hemispheres” (Public Ledger, Jan. 1, 1849, p. 1) In April a George Knoop Farewell Concert (i.e., his final Philadelphia concert of the season) is postponed several times before his “Positively Last” concert takes place on May 16, 1849 at Musical Fund Hall. He performs again in Philadelphia in September 1849, as a soloist on a benefit concert for German refugees.

After a brief, unspecified illness, George Knoop died on Christmas day at his Philadelphia residence on Walnut Street, below Fifth. Described at the time of his death as “unquestionably the best performer on the violoncello in America,” Knoop remained for many years the gold standard against which new cello soloists were judged. Indeed it was likely considered an honor to merit any cellistic comparison with Knoop, even if the verdict was unfavorable. Consider these examples from the Louisville Daily Courier:

Henry M. Jungnickel, the “admirable violincellist [sic] of the Steyermarker band,

...proved himself then second only to Knoop.” (April 10, 1849)

“Signor Biscaccianti is something more than a respectable violoncellist. He does

not by any means equal Knoop, but there are occasional tones in the Signor’s

playing, that remind one strongly of that artist.” (April 24, 1849)

19-year-old cellist Mr. Ehrich “has acquired a proficiency on the violoncello that is

really astonishing. … with the exception of Knoop, Mr. Ehrich is the best violoncello

player we have ever heard in Louisville.” (July 14, 1849)

Mr. Knoop’s playing took American audiences of the 1840s by surprise, revealing new aspects of an instrument “scarcely known in this country.” In light of the revelations of his performances, the Boston Post went so far as to declare the cello superior to the violin: “Those who judge of its capabilities from its performance in our orchestras, can have little idea of the effect produced by it when in the hands of a musician like the present. The violincello [sic] surpasses even the violin in power and general effect, and we know not how to account for the little attention it has received in America. …Mr Knoop…gives to his instrument an expression as wonderful to excite admiration, and as tender to touch the heart, as that of the violin or the piano.” (Jan. 21, 1842, p. 2)

Image citation:

Music Division, The New York Public Library. "G. Knoop." New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed January 8, 2023.

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2 commenti

15 gen 2023

Geoffrey, the depth and thoroughness of your Alwinac posts are simply astounding. Have you seen any evidence yet that music-history scholars are beginning to take note and starting to mine the Alwinac for their own researches? Have you been invited anywhere yet to go deliver a lecture? Maybe there'll be a commencement-speaker invitation....

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12 gen 2023

Whew! This is a long post! Though swept away in gladness during my reading of the first third, I had to take a break to breathe. I‘ll come back later, for more, for the finale rest. Thank you, Maestro, for your dedication to rendering these cello stories, and for the quotable opening quote in today’s post!

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