• Geoffrey Dean

19th Century Cellists in the US: Frederick Bergner

Updated: Mar 25

Listen to my performance of Bergner's Reverie

Best known as the first cellist of the New Philharmonic Society for 47 seasons, Frederick (Frederic, Fred) Bergner was born in Donaueschingen, near Baden in the Black Forest region of Germany, on January 31, 1827./1/ He studied with C. L. Böhm and Johann Kalliwoda (Jan Kalivoda)./2/ Bergner joined the New York Philharmonic as first cellist in the fall of 1850, taking over from the orchestra’s founding first cellist (and occasional conductor), Alfred Boucher. After his 70th birthday in 1897, Bergner stepped down from the principal position, playing in the section for another four seasons (usually fourth or fifth chair) before his final retirement./3/ From the 1860s he also served on the orchestra’s board of directors, with responsibilities that included deciding what works would be performed and negotiating with guest soloists./4/

The earliest documented Bergner solo performances in the US were on miscellaneous concerts with various individual vocal and instrumental soloists. His early US solos included fantasies by Kummer and Servais, and he may have played similar works of his own composition./5/ His first solo performances on Philharmonic concerts appear to have been in 1860, when he played Kummer’s Grande Fantaisie Russe in New York, and Servais’s Souvenir de Spa in Brooklyn. Of Bergner’s Souvenir de Spa performance, a reviewer commented, “the power this gentleman wields over a somewhat unwieldy instrument is wonderful, and was very much relished by the audience.”/6/

Bergner was heard on later Philharmonic programs in concertos by Servais, Molique, Goltermann, and F. L. Ritter, whose then-new concerto was “composed for and dedicated to Mr. F. Bergner.”/7/ He introduced his Reverie for cello and piano, his only published composition, on the March subscription concert of the Philharmonic's 1862-3 season. Bergner had been the scheduled soloist for the US premiere of the Beethoven Triple Concerto on a February 1865 Thomas Orchestra concert, but due to an undefined indisposition he did not participate in the performance./8/ In 1872 the New York Philharmonic board proposed that Bergner play the Schumann concerto; he opted for Goltermann's first concerto instead./9/ For about twenty years running, Bergner gave an annual “Bergner Concert,” performing solo numbers and collaborating with invited colleagues in chamber works such as the Mendelssohn Octet or the Lachner Serenade for four cellos./10/

Ad for Bergner's 1864 Grand Concert at Dodworth's Hall (NY Times, April 25, 1864, p. 7)

From 1855 Bergner was also a pillar of the New York chamber music scene. One reviewer later noted that Bergner's “presence is almost a necessary thing when chamber-music is to be played here.”/11/ He took over from Louis Eichhorn as cellist of Theodore Eisfeld’s quartet (1855-1858), then in January 1861 he took Carl Bergmann’s place as cellist of the Mason-Thomas Quartet, performing in both string quartets led by violinist Theodore Thomas and in combinations featuring pianist William Mason. The Mason & Thomas concert series continued through the 1867-8 season; on it Bergner participated in early US performances of late Beethoven quartets and of newer chamber works by Mendelssohn and Schumann./12/ With Mason as duo partner he performed sonatas by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Chopin, and Mason dedicated his cello-and-piano Serenata, Op. 39 to Bergner./13/

During the 1870s Bergner collaborated on chamber music programs with such visiting luminaries as violinists Sarasate, Wieniawski, and Wilhelmj, and pianists von Bulow and Rubinstein, garnering praise as “a sturdy, uncompromising artist, whose high reputation is based on the strongest grounds… [He] played with the most consummate skill …”/14/ He also performed in sonatas and trios with other important New York artists such as pianists S. B. Mills and Richard Hoffman, and violinist (like Eisfeld and especially Thomas, better known as a conductor) Leopold Damrosch. From around 1875 Bergner was the cellist of the New York Quartet, and from the 1878-9 season until about 1890, of the Standard Quartet./15/

Whatever nostalgia Bergner might have harbored for “the old world,” he seems to have been content, or at least resolved, to pursue his life’s work in the United States. It is said that Russian pianist-composer Anton Rubinstein was so impressed with Bergner that he tried to convince the cellist to return to Europe. Bergner reportedly told Rubinstein that he believed there was important work to be done in US in educating people in music and he felt it his duty to remain in the US./16/ Bergner's musical mission in the metropolis received this endorsement in the New York Times: “Mr. F. Bergner has for many years been regarded by the public and by his fellow-artists as the best violoncellist in the country. As an interpreter of classic music he has no equal, hardly a competitor, and his absence from the Philharmonic orchestra would be considered a fatal mistake. He has done much for the advancement of his art among us…”/17/

Later testaments to Fred Bergner’s untiring commitment to music, and especially to the New York Philharmonic Society, came from other Philharmonic Society members. Remembering Bergner’s half-century of service in the orchestra and thirty years on the board of directors, they made statements to the effect that “the very existence of the organization had several times seemed to depend on Bergner alone and it was he who when its fortunes were low always succeeded in bringing fresh support.”/18/ The posthumous tribute accorded “Der alte Bergner,” as he was affectionately known in musical circles, illustrates just how highly esteemed the veteran musician was. At Bergner’s public funeral at Carnegie Hall, the New York Philharmonic repeated the same expression of grief and respect that it had made when it learned of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination: the orchestra performed the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. It was the first time this honor had been bestowed on a member of the Philharmonic Society./19/

Bergner and his wife Maria (Mary, 1829-1902) are buried together at the Old Beaver Falls cemetery in Croghan, NY./20/ The Bergners, who were married before 1850 and had four children, had spent their summers in Beaver Falls for over 50 years./21/


1. Baptismal record for Friedrich Karl Ludwig Bergner seen on ancestry.com, Jan. 29, 2022. Biographical entries and obituaries for Bergner state that he was born a day later, on Feb. 1, 1827; this same obituary gives an erroneous timeline of Bergner's arrival in the US (1847, should be 1849) and year of joining the New York Philharmonic Society (1853, should be 1850) (New York Times, April 4, 1907, p. 9). He died on March 31, 1907

2. F. O. Jones, Handbook of American Music and Musicians (1886), p. 13. At least one source claims that Bergner was “among the first old Germania which came from Germany to star in this country" (Report from New York in Philadelphia Inquirer, May 9, 1881, p. 1), but this appears to be inaccurate. Bergner is not listed among the Germania Musical Society personnel in Nancy Newman's excellent history of the ensemble, Good Music for a Free People: The Germania Musical Society in Nineteenth-Century America (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2010). It seems likely that Bergner was sometimes confused with cellist-conductor Carl Bergmann, who also came to the US in 1849 to play with the Germania Musical Society, an orchestra formed in Berlin that had begun touring the US during the 1848-9 season. Bergmann went on to conduct the Germania orchestra and later (1866-76) was the sole conductor the New York Philharmonic

3. Per orchestra personnel rosters in programs of the New York Philharmonic Society, 1850-1901, in the New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives, https://archives.nyphil.org/

4. Board of Directors Meeting Minutes, 6 Jun 1871 - 28 Sep 1877, Folder 498-01-17, Board of Directors Records, New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives. https://archives.nyphil.org/index.php/artifact/879ab53a-6cd0-42f9-ac28-e93b3f4390f6-0.1

5. The omission of composers’ names in certain advertisements and other newspaper notices makes it difficult to determine in those cases whether Bergner was in fact the composer as well as the performer

6. Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov. 19, 1860

7. See digitized programs in the New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

8. Heinrich (Henry) Mollenhauer replaced Bergner for the performance: "...his intonation was true and his execution clear and brilliant. If Mr. H. Mollenhauer read his part a prima vista, acquitting himself as well as he did is an achievement of which he may be proud." (New-York Daily Tribune, February 21, 1865, p. 8). His brother Edward played the solo violin part. The concert program in Theodore Thomas's Autobiography, vol. 2, incorrectly lists Bergner as the cello soloist

9. “Resolved that Mr F. Bergner is respectfully requested to play the Concerto, for Cello, by Schumann. Resolved that Mr Bergner will be paid for his services as soloist, one hundred dollars [the standard NY Phil soloist fee at the time]." Board of Directors Meeting Minutes, 6 Jun 1871 - 28 Sep 1877, Folder 498-01-17, Board of Directors Records, New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives, p. 26 (Feb. 27, 1872 meeting)

10. The Lachner cello quartet also appeared occasionally on New York Philharmonic programs of this period. The other cellists in the line-up varied, with Bergner invariably on the first cello part

11. Dwight's Journal of Music (DJM), Dec. 14, 1872, p. 349

12. Bergner performed in “Theodore Eisfelad’s Quartet Party” until Eisfeld’s quartet soirees ended in 1858. During this period Eisfeld was also the regular conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Mason & Thomas concert programs listed chronologically in Theodore Thomas, Autobiography, vol. 2, pp. 44 and following. Some sources erroneously describe Bergner as a founding member of the Mason & Thomas ensemble. The photo of the Mason-Thomas Quartet appears in William H. Mason, Memories of a Musical Life (New York: The Century Company, 1902), following p. 196

13. https://imslp.org/wiki/Serenata_for_Cello_and_Piano,_Op.39_(Mason,_William)

14. New York Daily Herald, Dec. 2, 1875, p. 10, in reference to Bergner's collaboration with Hans von Bulow

15. New York Daily Herald, Oct. 10, 1875, p. 12; New York Times, Nov. 19, 1884, p. 4; Poughkeepsie Eagle-News, Feb. 28, 1890, p. 5

16. Tribute to Frederick Bergner: NYP Cello c. 1904, 1 Jan 1904 - 1 Jan 1904, Folder 020-02-43, Communications/Public Relations Records, New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives. https://archives.nyphil.org/index.php/artifact/67331f64-12da-4446-aec4-2096a3dca3d9-0.1 This text would have been prepared following Bergner's death in late March, 1907

17. New York Times, Feb. 27, 1867, p. 5

18. See note 16

19. New York Tribune, April 4, 1907, p. 7

20. https://sites.rootsweb.com/~nylewis/beaverfallsoldcem.htm

21. Per 1870 census, the Bergners were married in 1850 (i.e, after coming to the US), but an 1849 passenger list shows that M. Bergner traveled to the US together with Fred. On their summers in Beaver Falls, see note 16

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