Classical Period: Style and Interpretation

On this page we will be looking at elements of Classical style and interpretation. For more information about cello repertoire and technique in this period, see the page Classical Period: History and Repertoire

The transition from the Baroque (1600-1760 approx) to the Classical period (1730-1820 approx) passes through the “Rococo” period (mid 1700’s), which can be considered as an evolutionary stepping stone between these two main stylistic epochs. The changes in compositional style that occurred in these transitions reflect the extraordinary social transformations that occurred over the same period. For a magnificent discussion of the differences between Baroque, Rococo and Classical compositional styles, see the book “The Classical Style” by Charles Rosen.

These stylistic transitions accompanied – and were a natural consequence of – “The Enlightenment”. In this period, thanks (among other factors) to the development of the printing press, there was an explosion of knowledge and of scientific thought. This led to increased questioning of the enormous power of the church. Instead of superstition and authoritarian religion, now “reason” became a new-found goal. Balance and equilibrium were very “classical” ideals and the “classical” phrase was more often than not a very regular, symmetrical structure, rather like a classical arch compared to the more irregular, less mathematically predictable phrase structure typical of Baroque music.

In terms of cellistic interpretation and style however, the Classical Period has so much in common with the Baroque Period that almost all the observations in the Baroque Style and Interpretation article are also valid for playing music of the Classical Period. In other words, there are very few differences between Baroque and Classical Period cello-playing styles. Some changes are however worth mentioning.


The Baroque bow was gradually transformed into the “Classical” bow, ultimately leading to the development of the “modern” bow (the “Romantic” bow ??) by François Tourte in France in 1785-90. At the end of the Baroque period, the violin bow became longer – perhaps the cello bow also. In 1750 the use of the screw to tighten the hair was invented and quickly became standard. Gradually, the bow became less convex and more concave. With these developments, the bowhold moved towards the frog from its Baroque position further up the stick.

At the time of the invention of the Tourte bow (also called the “Parisian” bow at the time),  Beethoven was 20 years old, Mozart was at the end of his life, Haydn was almost 60 (but was to live and compose still for 20 more years), Schubert wasn’t born yet, Paganini was 10 years old and Boccherini was 50. These dates might lead us to think that although Mozart obviously must have composed all of his string music with the old Baroque bow in mind, Beethoven, Schubert and the later works of Haydn might have been composed for players using the “Tourte” bow model. Well, this is a subject that needs exploring!

While the Tourte bow changed bowing technique considerably, its effects on Classical period cello playing are not clear. One of the reasons for this is that the most famous Classical Period composers were germanic, and the use of the Tourte bow did not become standardised in Germany till considerably later, coinciding more with the transition from the Classical to the Romantic Period.

It seems that the substitution of the old Baroque bow and the transitional (hybrid) Classical bow by the “Tourte” bow was vigorously resisted in the germanic world. Research has even revealed that the famous Saxon court orchestra at Dresden did not use ‘modern’ bows in the French style before 1851. Only after 1830, with changes both in the French style of violin playing and the German attitude towards the politics of the new French monarch, Louis-Philippe I, did the Tourte style of bow gradually become the standard in German-speaking countries as well.

The following links take us to several excellent articles about this subject:

German Or French Bows For Beethoven ??

The Tourte bow and its gradual adoption in Germany

A Short History of Pre-Romantic Bows

Certainly, it would seem likely that Jean Louis Duport, the Parisian cellist who played the first performances of Beethoven’s Opus 5 cello sonatas in 1796 with the composer, was already using a Tourte bow at the time. The following painting of him at the cello, by Remi Descarsin, dates from 1788, eight years earlier :

One of the main improvements associated with the modern Tourte bow was its ability to facilitate legato, sostenuto playing. But whatever bow was being used at the time, in Classical Period music (as in Baroque music) if the notes were not slurred, then they probably should be played non-legato. The french term for this style of playing is “detaché” which means literally “detached”, in which there is a slight separation and rearticulation between each note:


Normally, in Classical and Baroque Period music, we will tend to favour the “lowest” possible fingerings, in which the notes are played preferentially in the lowest fingerboard position on the highest possible string rather than using the higher registers of the lower strings. But in Haydn’s D Major concerto (1783) Haydn actually specifies that the second theme of the first movement should be played high on the G-string rather than low on the D-string.

This was very unusual for the time and seems to be an anticipation of the Romantic style,  no doubt stimulated by the extraordinary virtuosity and expressivity of James Cervetto, the cellist for whom the concerto was written, famous for using fingerings of this type.


Apart from the invention of the “Tourte” bow there was another significant development for the cello which coincided with the end of the Classical Period: the invention of the spike (endpin).


The spike (endpin) was only invented in the 1830s, at the end of the “Classical Period”, just a few years after the deaths of Beethoven (1827) and Schubert (1828). The spike enables the modern cellist to play with the cello much more horizontal than in the “pre-spike” era, in which the cello rested on the calves of the cellist’s legs. This has considerable consequences not just for our seating posture but also for our bowing and bowhold, due to the changing influence of the effect of gravity (the bow’s weight) according to the verticality of the cello. It is worth remembering that ALL of the music of the Classical period (and before) was originally played “spikeless”, with the cello resting on the cellist’s calves.

The cellist in the following portrait is Jean Louis Duport’s brother, Jean Pierre, eight years older than his more famous younger sibling. If we assume that his age in this portrait is 20-30 years old then we could calculate that the painting dates from approximately 1760-1770.


The Tourte bow, and the subsequent invention of the spike, anticipated and facilitated the transition from the Classical period to the new and vastly different aesthetic of the Romantic Period. These developments created considerable differences in both the way the cello sounded and was played between the Classical and Romantic periods ? Basically, they helped cellists to play both louder and more “sostenuto” (sustained, legato). Both of these characteristics were (and still are) necessary for Romantic Music and large concert halls: music was “going public” and was no longer the exclusive domain of the highly resonant church or the small private audiences of the aristocracy. Unfortunately however, these characteristics are usually not so appropriate for earlier music. It is curious that we now play all styles of music with this “modern” bow (it is also curious that we use the word “modern” even though it has not really changed at all since 200 years ago!).

“Pre-Romantic” music breathes a lot. The only time it doesn’t breathe is during a slur, but otherwise, between each bow stroke, it is quite normal (necessary even) that the bow pressure relaxes and only the resonance (of both instrument and room) continues to sound. This means that the phrases are made up of many small, slightly separated “units” and each unit is normally simply a bow stroke.

With the arrival of the Tourte bow and the Romantic aesthetic however, this graceful, “airy” style is completely turned on its head. Now the new increased possibilities for legato, sostenuto playing mean that the “unit” of phrase construction is no longer the bow stroke. In the Romantic period, air is taken between phrases rather than between bowstrokes, which means that the music breathes both less often but deeper. Also, the meaning of the slur changes significantly. One of the main characteristics of Pre-Romantic music is that the last note of a slur – especially a short slur – was almost always both shortened and played on a diminuendo but in the Romantic period we will often want to do the opposite!

Another major cellistic change during the Classical Period was the introduction of the use of thumbposition which opened up the use of higher regions in general (see History of Thumb Position). While this development hugely extended the pitch range of the cello, converting the cello into an instrument capable of great melodic virtuosity, it doesn’t seem to have had any other notable effects on cellistic playing style or interpretation.


In music of the Romantic Period, rubatos come very naturally and are often quite extreme (large, pronounced). In music of the Classical Period however, rubato/rhetoric is a much more subtle affair. Because of this, the use of rhythmic freedom/rubato/rhetoric in music of this period tends to be considered by interpreters as a danger-zone which many interpreters prefer to avoid, choosing to err on the side of the metronome rather than risk being accused of excessive liberty. The definition of taking “too much” liberty with the rhythms is when our freedoms take us into the world of bad taste, but somewhere in between these opposite extremes of an extravagantly “un-classical”, kitsch, romanticised performance and a robotic, metronomic delivery lies a degree of freedom that creates magic.

Many wonderful examples of this magical use of micro-rhythmic freedoms can be found in the recordings of Walter Klien playing Mozart (and Haydn) Piano Sonatas, and of the Mosaic Quartet playing Haydn’s Opus 2o string quartets.

A tiny wait before a note, a tiny (and brief) tempo change: often the metronomic deviations are almost imperceptible but create a type of magic in which the classical perfection becomes also suddenly imbued with huge additional emotional and philosophical meaning. It is no wonder that the Tokyo Quartet was particularly famous for its interpretations of music of the Classical Period as this music benefits so much from the careful attention to the minutest details that we so associate with Japanese art, culture and society.