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Rediscovering classical keyboard style.

How was 18th-century keyboard music played? We will never fully know because we have no recordings from that time. There are, however, two available paths toward rediscovering classical style: one is to play the keyboard instruments that existed during that era, primarily the clavichord and fortepiano (18th-century piano). The second path is to find out what musician-writers of the time had to say. This article explores some of the principles set forth by authors of the period, as well as suggests some ways these may be incorporated into the performance of solo keyboard music by Haydn and Mozart.

In the mid-18th century, a plethora of "how-to" method books became available. As society underwent a momentous political shift with the decline of the noble class and the emergence of a significant middle class, musicians became aware that this new amateur group needed and craved instruction. Several important method books were published; among the most significant are these four:

Johann Joachim Quantz, On Playing the Flute (1752)

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments (1753)

Leopold Mozart, Treatise on Violin Playing (1756, the same year his would-be famous son Wolfgang was born)

Daniel Gottlob Turk, School of Clavier Playing (1789)

In these and other books, we find clues to 18th-century performance practice that cannot be obtained in any other way.


First, what were some of the aesthetics of the time? What was considered important to express musically? One of the new concepts involved the expression of varied characters or emotions. In the baroque era, each piece or movement expressed basically one character, and that to the "nth" degree. Consider any baroque piece, such as Handel's Messiah. The usual pattern is for each movement to devote itself to only one emotion or "character." The "Hallelujah" chorus expresses great majesty throughout, and contains the same rhythmic and melodic patterns over and over. The "Pastoral Symphony" expresses a pervadingly peaceful character, again with repeating melodic and rhythmic figures.

By the mid-18th century, however, a significant aesthetic change had occurred. Quantz stated that, "... in the majority of pieces one passion constantly alternates with another...." (1) C.P.E. Bach put it this way: "And so, constantly varying the passions [a musician] will barely quiet one before he rouses another." (2) Anyone who has played C.P.E. Bach's works can attest to the huge and often abrupt change of emotions that occurs, as indicated by sudden dynamic shifts, shown in Example 1.

Example 1

C.P.E. Bach, Fur Kenner und Liebhaber Vol. I, Sonata No. 3/I/36-42


We find such dramatic contrasts in Mozart's music as well, such as the beginning of the C Minor Sonata, which juxtaposes two characters, the first bold, in unison octaves and the second pleading, in the upper register (Example 2).

Example 2

Mozart, Sonata, K. 457/I/1-4


As in the above two examples, abrupt terracing of dynamics is a frequent element of classical style and reinforces the dramatic interplay between opposing characters.

Another important aesthetic element in the 18th century is the frequent comparison of music to oratory or speech, as, for instance, Mattheson's in 1739: "... instrumental music is nothing other than speech in tones or oratory in sound...." (3) C.P.E. Bach also related the musician's task to that of an orator or actor when he wrote, "A musician cannot move others unless he too is moved. He must of necessity feel all of the affects that he hopes to arouse in his audience." (4) This last statement must be taken to heart by every student dedicated to communicating the powerful messages of music. A useful practice tool for students playing the two opening phrases in Example 2 is to take time first to feel the emotion of the opening unison passage (commanding, bold) before playing it, then pause and feel the emotion of the second phrase (pleading, uncertain) and then play it. As actors do, to truly feel a particular emotion, it is often necessary to think of a situation within one's experience that caused that emotion. Simply to play forte or piano is not enough; the underlying emotion must be felt internally before it can successfully be communicated. An important part of the lesson time is exploring what the music is "saying." Encourage the student to relate passages to experiences he or she has had.


From the mid- to late-18th century, and into the 19th century, a tremendous shift in normal touch (articulation) took place. C.P.E. Bach stated in the mid-18th century that, "Tones which are neither [marked] detached, connected, nor fully held are sounded for half their value, unless the abbreviation "Ten" is written over them." (5) However, in 1789, Turk advised, "For tones that are to be played in customary fashion ... the finger is lifted a little earlier from the key than is required by the duration of the tone ...." (6) So normal touch was becoming longer by the later 18th century. By the early-19th century (1801), though, Muzio Clementi was writing, "... when no indication is given ... the best rule is, to adhere chiefly to the LEGATO." (7) Indeed, since the early 19th century, most piano instruction has been based on the premise that legato is the normal touch unless otherwise notated. When playing 18th-century music, though, we must reverse our thinking, and assume that everything is detached unless otherwise notated. In fact, then, in classical repertoire, any tone may be shortened. For instance, in Example 3, the end of a Mozart sonata exposition contains a quarter-note octave in the left hand, with 30-seconds above. According to C.P.E. Bach, the quarter note would normally be shortened to an eighth note, and according to Turk, it might be shortened just a bit, but it definitely can be shortened from its notated length.

Example 3

Mozart, Sonata, K. 282/I/15


The next question, then, is how much to shorten notated rhythms. Turk and others make it clear that the precise duration of tones "... [depends on] the character of a composition." (8) Johann Abraham Peter Schulz and Turk refer to "heaviness" and "lightness" of execution, which have to do not only with volume, but also with articulation. Schulz stated in 1774: "The heaviness or lightness of execution [should] be suited to the work's character and expression. A work of grand and sad expression must be executed heavily ... by marking and holding onto each note as if tenuto were printed above. Works of a pleasing and tender expression, however, are played in a lighter fashion, that is, every note is more lightly stated, and not held so long." (9) If we were to apply this principle to the opening unison passage of Example 2 previously, while all tones would be played detached, the tones might be played longer if we believe the character is "grand," but shorter if the character is determined to be "charming." We see, then, that 18th-century articulation is involved with more than whether or not to play legato or detached; it is highly nuanced, and the performer must consider the character of a piece or passage to determine the exact length of tones.

Other factors enter into articulation. One is the phrase structure or form. Turk advised that, "For a very refined execution, with regard to the lifting up of the finger, one must take into consideration whether the periods are larger or smaller and more or less joined to each other. The finger is lifted sooner from the key at the end of a full cadence...." (10) So the end of a larger section of music would imply greater detachment than merely a phrase ending. Haydn's finale in Example 4 begins with a series of four short phrases. Each would have a space at its end, but the end of the first period (measure 8) would have the largest space.

Example 4

Haydn, Sonata, H. XVI/23/III/1-8


In addition, articulation is used to bring out harmonic elements. Turk, as well as C.P.E. Bach, described the following procedure: "When there is a curved line over harmonies which are to be slowly arpeggiated ... it is customary, especially in compositions of agreeable character ... to let the fingers remain on the keys until the appearance of the next harmony." (11) Also known in modern times as "finger pedaling" or "over holding," the practice stems from harpsichord technique, in which tones within a harmony may be held beyond their written length as a way to add volume to the sound or to make the harmony clearer. Later, the sustaining pedal of the piano often took over this harmonic function. It seems the case that overholding tones, especially within an accompaniment pattern and even without a slur mark, was often done to bring out the harmonic outline, as in the slow movement of Mozart's C Minor Sonata (Example 5). Here, Mozart inconsistently applies slurs over broken chords, only taking the time to write them in measure 11; the consistent texture implies that slurring and over holding would occur throughout the harmonic accompaniment of these measures.

Example 5

Mozart, Sonata, K. 457/II/10-12


Articulation, then, becomes very important in the expression of a piece's "message." Mozart, especially, very carefully notates minute articulation in his works. As can be seen in Example 6, marks of articulation, including not only slurs, but also different types of separation (staccato, wedge and portato), are all carefully indicated. Spacing at the end of a slur causes the following tone to assume greater significance and expressiveness, as it does before the two-note slur of measure 2. The portato (slur with staccato marks underneath), used for the first three notes and in measures 4 and 5, was called "Tragen der Tone," and is especially associated with clavichord and string technique. Turk defines it as: "The dot indicates the pressure which every key must receive and by the curved line the player is reminded to hold the tone out ... [for] the duration of the given note...." (12) So portaro is a special technique in which the overall effect is legato, but with an articulated beginning to each tone, much as a string player can easily do by keeping the bow on the string, but dropping it a bit for the beginning of each tone. Adhering to the articulation so carefully notated in this passage is essential to its expressive, intimate character.

Example 6

Mozart, Sonata, K. 330/II/1-8


Elements of Time: Rubato and Tempo Fluctuations

Eighteenth-century writers describe a highly nuanced approach to rhythm. Stretching certain tones of a phrase was common, again as an inheritance from harpsichord technique, in which length, rather than volume, was the primary way of communicating phrase shape. Quantz stated the general rule that, "... the stressed notes of each figure, namely the first, third, fifth and seventh, are held slightly longer than the passing ... although this lengthening must not be as much as if the notes were dotted ... [except in] quick passage-work in a very fast tempo in which the time does not permit unequal execution, and in which length and strength must therefore be applied only to the first of every four notes." (13) A passage of even 16ths, then, could permit a slight lengthening on the first of each set of four, with the greatest lengthening on the first beat of the measure, as in Example 7.

Example 7

Mozart, Sonata, K. 280/I/7


Addressing two-note phrases, Leopold Mozart's violin method book also stated that, "The first of two notes coming together in one [bow] stroke [indicated by a slur] is accented more strongly and held slightly longer...." (14) In the finale of Mozart's Sonata, K. 545, for instance (Example 8), notice the slurs, including an unusually long slur in measures 2-3 (especially rare for the 18th century in that it carries over a bar line). The implications of Quantz's and Leopold Mozart's advice are that the first note of each slur would be both stronger and longer, with the time made up by the following notes.

Example 8

Mozart, Sonata, K. 545/III/1-4


C.P.E. Bach also advises that " ... certain notes and rests should be extended beyond their written length, for affective reasons." (15) According to this suggestion, in Haydn's finale, seen in Example 9, between the end of the development and the beginning of the recapitulation, the performer could stretch the eighth-note rest of measure 93 to emphasize the drama of the moment. In fact, rests are often highly dramatic points in 18th-century music; the silence should be savored.

Example 9

Haydn, Sonata, H. XVI/23/III/90-95


W.A. Mozart wrote in 1777: "... in tempo rubato, in an Adagio, the left hand should go on playing in strict time." (16) Eighteenth-century rubato, then, differs from 19th-century rubato, in that while one part is allowed to stretch or push the rhythm for expressive purposes, another part remains absolutely steady. A good opportunity to try rubato of this type is contained in the slow movement of Mozart's Sonata in C Minor (Example 5 above). In measure 12, one could stretch the high F, then make up the time on the descending tones, meanwhile keeping the left hand absolutely steady. To learn to play with one hand steady and the other flee, the student should first play the steady part until it is "automatic," then play the free part with the nuance desired and finally, literally throw the two together.

There are also descriptions of delaying (retardation) or anticipating a written tone, another type of rubato illustrated by Turk (Example 10, with "a" being the notated rhythm, "b" the anticipation and "c" the retardation). (17)

Example 10

Turk, School of Clavier Playing, 364


Such techniques may be used as expressive devices, as in the slow movement of Mozart's C Minor Sonata, where some of the right-hand two-note slurs in measures 34-36 could have delayed beginning notes (above which I have added identifying tenuto marks) for greater piquancy (Example 11). Or, at the performer's discretion, and according to Leopold Mozart's direction above ("The first of two notes [slurred together[ is accented more strongly and held slightly longer...."), these same notes could alternatively or additionally be played longer than the second note of the slur. These are some of the expressive tool options given the performer of 18th-century music.

Example 11

Mozart, Sonata, K. 457/II/34-36


Turk makes it clear, however, that generally, while 18th-century music does allow some rhythmic flexibility, there must remain a steadying larger unit: "Tempo Rubato is achieved by means of anticipation [or] retardation.... With this manner of execution neither the tempo nor the meter as a whole is disturbed...." (18) The steady part may be a complete measure, or a two-measure group or some other unit. If metronome practice is desired, have the student try this: rather than playing with a metronome beating the smallest increment (such as a quarter note or an eighth note), practice with the metronome beating a larger unit (such as a half note or even a whole measure). This will allow some rhythmic freedom but within a steady larger unit.

However, there are descriptions of actual tempo changes to bring out contrasting characters. Turk suggests that a sudden tempo change could be used as, for instance, a slower tempo for a "... tender, moving passage between two lively, fiery ideas." (19) A passage for which this might be appropriate occurs in the first movement of Mozart's C Minor Sonata. In measures 36-43, an intimate duet between a soprano and a tenor voice could be played slightly slower than the surrounding more energetic passages (Example 12).

Example 12

Mozart, Sonata, K. 457/I/36-43


Turk also states that a bit of accelerando ("somewhat hastened") and ritardando ("increasing hesitation") could be used in certain instances, for example, accelerando "... in pieces which have a character of vehemence, anger, rage, fury and the like...." and ritardando "... in exceptionally tender, languishing, sad passages...." (20) Measures 141-149 of Mozart's Fantasy in C Minor in Example 13 contain a dramatic interchange between two contrasting characters. The pleading, piano character might be effective with a slight ritard, as though hesitant, while the bold, forte character might accelerate, showing its aggressiveness.

Example 13

Mozart, Fantasia, K. 475/141-149


It would seem, though, that use of accelerando or ritardando is only rarely appropriate, since there are so many cautions regarding its use, such as Schulz's: "Singers and players often introduce a holding-back or a pressing-forward which the composer has not marked, and they are certainly often of very good effect. But whoever does this must have an adequate knowledge of harmony...." (21)

Gestural Playing

Taken together, the statements by Leopold Mozart, "The first of two notes ... in one [slur] is accented more strongly...." and Quantz, "... the stressed notes of each figure, namely the first, third, fifth and seventh...." seem to suggest a "gestural" way of playing that is quite different from the normal 19th-century approach to phrasing. The typical 19th-century melody consists of a long, legato line, generally indicated either with a crescendo to the middle of the phrase followed by a diminuendo to the end (Example 14), or with a steady crescendo to the end of the phrase (Example 15).

Example 14

Chopin, Etude, Op. 10, No. 6/1-4


Example 15

Chopin, Etude, Op. 25, No. 10/43-46


In 18th-century music, however, small gestures are given greater significance, as seen in the numerous articulated figures in the following example.

Example 16

Mozart, Sonata, K. 330/I/1-8


Consider a "gesture," such as an arm gesture pointing out a road sign to someone else. The part of the gesture that takes the most effort is the beginning, not the end. A "gestural" approach implies that the beginning of phrases and/or slurs tend to be the strongest, and this is the way of playing that seems to be described by 18th-century writers. Emphasizing the first tone of each slur and/or the first tone of each phrase (as in Example 16) transforms classical music, giving it both greater vitality and gracefulness.


Eighteenth-century method books, then, describe a highly nuanced style of playing that goes far beyond what is notated. The most important factor to consider is what the music is "saying" in each and every passage that is played. It is that "character" that determines how the passage should be played. Those of us trained to play classical music using a 19th-century approach need to remember what 18th-century writers tell us, and give ourselves permission to play with nuance appropriate to what is being communicated. As C.P.E. Bach put it so succinctly, "Play from the soul, not like a trained bird!" (22)


Anderson, Emily. The Letters of Mozart and His Family, 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1989.

Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel. Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, Part One, 1753, Part Two, 1762, William J. Mitchell, trans. New York: Norton, 1949.

Clementi, Muzio. Introduction to the Art of Playing on the Pianoforte. London: Clementi, Banger, Hyde, Collard & Davis, [1801]. Facsimile, Sandra P. Rosenblum, ed. New York: Da Capo, 1974.

Mattheson, Johann. Der Vollkommene Capellmeister, 1739, Ernest C. Harriss, trans. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1981.

Mozart, Leopold. Treatise on Violin Playing, 1756, Editha Knocker, trans. London: Oxford University Press, 1951.

Quantz, Johann Joachim. On Playing the Flute, 1752, Edward Reilley, trans. New York: Schirmer Books, 2nd ed., 1985.

Rosenblum, Sandra P. Performance Practices in Classic Piano Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Schulz, Johann Abraham Peter. "Vortrag," in Allgemeine Theorie der Schonen Kunste, 2 vols., Johann George Sulzer, ed. Leipzig: Weidmann, 1771, 1774.

Stephenson, Trevor. Heavy and Light Execution: The Correspondence Between Touch and Expression in Keyboard Music of the Classical Era. D.M.A. Dissertation, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University, 1991.

Turk, Daniel Gottlob. School of Clavier Playing, 1789, Raymond Haggh, trans. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.


(1.) Quantz, 124-425.

(2.) C.P.E. Bach, 152.

(3.) Mattheson, 208.

(4.) C.P.E. Bach, 152.

(5.) Ibid., 157.

(6.) Turk, 345-346.

(7.) Clementi, 9.

(8.) Turk, 343.

(9.) Translated in Stephenson, 7-8.

(10.) Turk, 331.

(11.) Ibid., 344-345.

(12.) Ibid., 343.

(13.) Quantz, 123-124.

(14.) L. Mozart, 115.

(15.) C.P.E. Bach, 160.

(16.) Anderson, 340. Letter of October 24, 1777.

(17.) Turk, 363-364.

(18.) Ibid.

(19.) Ibid., 360-361.

(20.) Ibid., 360.

(21.) Schulz, Vol. II, 1255.

(22.) C.P.E. Bach, 150.

Carol lei Breckenridge, Farver Professor of Music at Central College in Pella, Iowa, specializes in early keyboard instruments. She has given numerous recitals and workshops across the United States and in Europe.
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Author:Breckenridge, Carol lei
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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