The Cello In The 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. On 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 techniques.


The revolution in performance practice associated with the arrival of the Romantic style was greatly facilitated by the radical changes that occurred in bow design near the end of the 18th century. In this period, the cello (and violin/viola) bow mutated into a very different creature from its Renaissance (and earlier) beginnings. Heavier and longer than the baroque bow, more “springy” (bouncy) thanks to its concave rather than convex bowstick, and with its centre of gravity displaced further away from the frog, the modern bow has quite different playing characteristics to the baroque bow. Not only did the bow design change radically, but also those design changes caused the bowhold to move towards the frog from its Baroque position further up the stick.

These changes facilitated 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.

When we talk about the development of the bow, we can use the word “mutated” rather than “evolved” because these fundamental changes to the bow occurred over a very brief period around 1785-1790 during which time the french bowmaker François Tourte, in collaboration with the violinist Viotti, developed and perfected this radically new bow design. This “Tourte-model” bow is the bow that all string players (except bassists) grow up with and it is still called the “modern” bow even though its design has remained basically unchanged since its “discovery” almost 250 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 and 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!

And then came another development for the cello which had important stylistic and interpretative consequences: 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). At this moment, Mendelssohn, Chopin and Schumann were all approximately 20 years old. The spike enabled the Romantic Period 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 had considerable consequences not just for seating posture at the cello 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.


How did these modifications affect the way the cello is played and the way the music sounds ? Both the Tourte bow and the spike (endpin) 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. These two new improvements/developments in cello playing anticipated, accompanied and facilitated, the new and vastly different aesthetic of the Romantic Period.



For the left-hand, one of the most important ways in which we can achieve the heightened emotional intensity of Romantic music is through our vibrato. We will look later at the need for continuous vibrato in the context of the seamless legato that often characterises music of this period but romantic music needs also a much wider range of vibrato colours and this extension of our palette is principally in the direction of “more”: more energy, more intensity, more speed, and often (but not always) wider.


Romantic music is full of soaring and leaping melodies in which the sudden and extreme register changes can be seen as a metaphor for the extreme intensity of the mood swings of the music:


“Baroque” fingerings tend to use the lowest possible positions on the fingerboard, with the corresponding frequent use of both the open strings and string crossings (changes of string). These fingerings could be called “keyboard” fingerings in the sense that, by favouring string crossings over shifts, they avoid vocal glissandi. “Romantic” fingerings, on the other hand, tend much more to shift up and down the same string rather than taking the “pre-Romantic option” of playing across the string in the same position and therefore doing fewer shifts. In melodic lines, staying on the same string gives a more lyrical, vocal quality, but even in passages that don’t have a lyrical, vocal character, staying on the same string confers a greater “Romanticism” to the passage.

In the above example, our notes are spiccato so there is no need for glissando during the shifts. In more legato passages, however, the use of glissando is a very prominent characteristic (feature) of the Romantic style. The subject of the glissando has its own dedicated page in the shifting section:

The Glissando

Whereas in Pre-Romantic music even our slurred glissandos tend to be quite discreet, in Romantic music glissandos become a powerful expressive device and are used not only in slurred shifts but also in shifts on (legato) bow changes. If the bow doesn’t stop at the bow change, then we must decide on which bow stroke to do our shift: on the old bow, on the new bow, or using a bit of both. Our choice will depend largely on how expressive we want our glissando to be. This is often a question of musical style and for this reason, we can name these two possibilities according to their historical epoch.


For “romantic” shifts (where we do our glissando on the new bow), changing the bow before its rhythmically correct moment (before the music says we should) can be a very useful expressive and technical aid. It is as if the shift were a gracenote before the target (destination) note. In case this sounds strange, let’s look directly at some musical examples:

Changing the bow early helps to maintain the legato line by allowing our “new bow” glissando to start earlier and thus to last longer (go slower). This not only makes the shift more dramatic and/or expressive but also makes finding the destination note of the shift easier. It is especially useful in long, very romantic (dramatic, expressive) shifts, as in the above examples, but is also very helpful even for “normal” warm romantic lyrical leaps as in this little solo from Verdi’s “La Traviata”:

The above examples all concern upward shifts but exactly the same principle applies to downward shifts and shifts to another string:

This subject is looked at in more detail on its own dedicated page:

Shifting And The Bow



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).


If we look at the 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 at 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


Along the continuum of refinement, politeness and formality, a Baroque Minuet is at the other extreme from techno funk or hard rock, while the music of the Romantic period lies somewhere in the middle. Our body language while playing music of the different periods is in many ways the reflection of the way in which we would dance to these different types of music.


In the same way that our vibrato will often need to be more extreme in romantic compared to pre-romantic music, our dynamic range will also often need to be wider in order to reflect the extremes of emotion often portrayed in music of this period.


Probably, the principal characteristics of the “romantic sound” are warmth and sensuality but because of the wide range of extreme emotions portrayed in music of this period, we will actually need to use every possible colour in our sound palette in order to be able to reflect deep depression, sensuous ecstasy, delirious joy, spiritual nirvana, unrequited love etc.