Romantic Period: Style and Interpretation

The Romantic Period in music can be considered as roughly starting with Chopin, Schumann and Mendelssohn, all born around 1810. In this article we will discuss Romantic Style and Interpretation. For a discussion of the History and Repertoire of the Romantic Period click on the highlighted link.

The Romantic Style represents such a radical evolutionary step from the preceding Classical and Baroque Styles that in many ways it could be considered as their stylistic opposite. In this page we won’t be looking at the harmonic aspects of this revolution/evolution (the stretching of the boundaries of harmony, increasing chromaticism and greater use of dissonance) because these elements of the Romantic musical language represent a new challenge principally for our aural and reading abilities. We will however look in detail at the new characteristics of Romantic phrasing and aesthetics, because these make completely new demands on both our left and right hand technique.


Radical changes occurred in cello bow design at the end of the 1700’s. When we talk about the development of the bow, “mutated” is probably a more appropriate word than “evolved” because these fundamental changes to bow design occurred over a very brief  period of time (around 1785-1790) during which the French bowmaker François Tourte, in collaboration with the violinist Viotti,  basically “invented” this radically new bow design. The “Tourte” bow anticipated perfectly the social, political, economic and philosophical transformations associated with the transition from the Classical to the Romantic Period in the first quarter of the 19th century, and our bow design has remained basically unchanged until this day.

These modifications affected the way the cello was played and the way the music sounds. The baroque bow model had quite different playing characteristics to this modern bow. The Tourte bow is heavier and longer than its predecessor. The stick has a concave curve rather than a convex one, and its centre of gravity is displaced away from the frog. These and other of its many new design features permitted sostenuto, legato phrasing, with more equality between downbows and upbows, as well as favouring greater volume and the use of spiccato. All of these characteristics were (and still are) necessary for the playing of Romantic Music and for playing in large concert halls. Unfortunately however they are usually not so appropriate for earlier music in the same way that the characteristics of a baroque bow make it inappropriate for playing Romantic music. With a baroque bow, romantic phrasing, articulation and expressivity are difficult, if not impossible to achieve.

Not only did the bow design change radically, but also the bowhold changed at the same time, moving to the frog from its Baroque position further up the stick.



The “Classical” phrase is typically a perfectly formed, balanced, symmetrical structure, often resembling an arch in which the main weight of the phrase rests on the first beats of every first and third bar. In direct contrast to this regularity, the “Romantic” phrase, in search of greater expressivity and tension, is often deliberately unbalanced, displacing the moments of greatest melodic emphasis (interest) away from the “main” beats of the bar. In the following example, all the dynamic markings are by Schumann himself (from the autograph manuscript).

schumann fantasistucke1


If we look at lengths of phrases in the music of Mozart, Haydn or any of the other composers of the Classical Period we will see that by far the most typical Classical phrase length is four bars. In Romantic music by contrast, the phrases are often both longer and more irregular (less clearly structured). In the above Schumann excerpt for example the first phrase is 5 bars long while in the Bruckner example below the phrase is nine bars long.

bruckner 7th I

Whereas Pre-Romantic phrases are often made up of smaller expressive units, these long Romantic lines usually don’t want to be broken up into little bits. It is as though we were a singer or a wind-player, now having to play long unbroken lines all in one breath. To maintain these long lines – and to keep them interesting – requires that we really connect the notes to each other. In the Romantic period, legato string playing reaches its absolute culmination.


Maintaining this new special “Romantic seamless legato” makes new demands on both our left and right hands. With the right hand we need now to become experts in doing both very legato bow changes and long slurs, while the left hand now needs often to maintain an almost continuous vibrato. Whereas vibrato can almost be considered as an ornament in pre-romantic music, continuous vibrato is a very typical characteristic – almost a requirement – of Romantic expressivity. Here is another repertoire example:

elgar theme 1

Romantic vibrato is not only more continuous than previously, it is also more intense and wider.


In Pre-Romantic music, most long notes – in fact most notes – have a diminuendo towards their end. With the invention of the Tourte bow (around 1790), this characteristic became optional rather than virtually unavoidable. In Romantic music, one of the ways in which we can maintain the long lines is by actually doing a crescendo on the end of long notes. This has the effect of maintaining the musical tension and leading the music onwards to the next note. In the above Bruckner symphony excerpt for example, it would be quite normal to build the tension towards the end of the high B (Si) of bars 3 and 4 whereas in typical Pre-Romantic style we would do the contrary. In the following example, a truly romantic interpretation begs for a crescendo towards the end of each of the opening chords whereas a baroque-classical interpretation would once again do the contrary.

elgar concerto