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 extraordinary changes in compositional style that occurred in the transition from the Baroque (1600 – 1760 approx) to the Classical period (1730 – 1820 approx) reflect the social transformations that occurred over the same period. This stylistic transition accompanied – and was 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.

The transition from the Baroque to the Classical style passes through the “Rococo” style (mid 1700’s), which can be considered as an evolutionary stepping stone between these two main periods.

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. The main differences between Baroque and Classical Period playing style are due to the substitution of the the Baroque bow by the new “Tourte” bow, invented towards the end of the 18th century (1785-90).

The Tourte bow encouraged a new more legato, sostenuto and louder way of playing, appropriate for the new, larger 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. The Tourte bow, rather than leading to radical performance changes between the Baroque and Classical periods, anticipated (and allowed) the new and vastly different aesthetic of the Romantic Period.

“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 was the introduction of the use of the Thumb Position and the higher regions in general (see History of Thumb Position). It is worth remembering also that the Cello Spike (Endpin) was not invented till the 1830’s. Therefore ALL of this music was originally played “spikeless”, with the cello resting on the cellists calves.