On bowed string instruments, harmonics refer to activating various harmonic nodes by lightly touching exact points along the length of the strings. Harmonics may be natural, referring to activating the harmonic nodes of the open strings, or artificial, whereby the string length is altered by one finger, while another finger activates a harmonic node that is a physically attainable distance above the stopped position.
Harmonics were used on the violin at least as early as the 18th century, and began to be implemented for virtuosic effect by famous violinist/composers of the 19th century, including Paganini and Wieniawski. From the second half of the 20th century, repertoire for the modern violin has frequently employed harmonics, to the extent where all five of the compositions presented in the second instalment of the Recitals, Yet We Must Go On, include examples of harmonics, both natural and artificial. Particularly extensive examples of the use of harmonics can be found in all six of Salvatore Sciarrino’s Sei Capricci from 1976.
Harmonics on the baroque violin:
Natural harmonics are more volatile on raw-gut strings than on steel or metal-wound strings. As with all strings, the higher the partial, the less clear and more difficult it is to produce. Anything higher than the fifth partial can be problematic on gut strings, although still possible to achieve.
Artificial harmonics are also possible on raw-gut strings, although some important physical limitations must be taken into account. As the left hand is supporting the instrument, extended hand positions, such as fifth artificial harmonics, should be used sparingly and may not always be possible. Likewise, melodic passages in artificial harmonics are not recommended due to the difficulty of the necessary shifting involved in the absence of a chin rest and shoulder rest.
The volatile nature of harmonics on the baroque violin can be viewed as a positive characteristic, when a fragile texture is desired. This was the case in several of the works studied in this research project, including The Target Has Disappeared (Anderson, 2018), Law II (Garsden, 2013), silver as catalyst in organic reactions (Giles, 2016), and particularly in the case of archive (Smith, 2017a). A performance of extensive use of harmonics on the baroque violin in Samuel Smith’s archive (2017a) can be found in Volume 3 – the Recitals, in Everything Old is New Again.
Although conventions have existed for many decades, notation of harmonics is notoriously complex and should be studied in great detail. To avoid ambiguity, the sounding pitch may be included in brackets above the harmonic notation, as in Figure 17.1 below. For natural harmonics, the position on the instrument is usually notated with a diamond note head, as in bar 1 of Figure 17.1 below. It may also be necessary to indicate the intended string for clarity. In some instances, usually only with the second partial, or “octave” harmonic, the position can be notated with a round note head and a “0” above the note as in bar 2 of Figure 17.1 below. For artificial harmonics, the stopped position should be notated with a round note head and the lightly touched position with a diamond note head above this, as in bar 3 of Figure 17.1 below.
Figure 17.1 – notations for natural harmonics, open natural harmonics, and artificial harmonics