3. Glissando

The Italian term glissando (or glissandi in the plural) refers to a smooth gliding, either ascending or descending, between pitches. Fret-less, bowed string instruments are well suited to executing glissandi, as a single finger may shift uninterrupted along a single string, crossing all the pitch frequencies between one pitch and another. Glissandi may be executed with the bow or by plucking the string, although pizzicato glissandi are more effective on longer strings, and are thus less audible on the violin than larger string instruments.

Early 17th-century indications for glissandi, and the first known description of such a technique on the violin (Snyder, 1978, p. 35) may be found in Carlo Farina’s 1627 Cappricio Stravagante, where it is used to represent dogs barking, cats scramming and roosters crowing (Farina, 1627, pp. 25–28). In the case of Farina, we have a very clear description of the physical movement of sliding up or down the string with one finger, which is explained in the Avertimenti at the end of the surviving original Cantus part (Farina, 1627, pp. 31–32).[1]

Another example of glissandi from the 17th century may be found in Biber’s Sonata Representativa (Biber, 1669/2004, pp. 6–7), where it is again used to depict a cat meowing and a rooster crowing.

Glissandi have been used often since the 17th century, including common usage as an expressive tool in post-Second World War repertoire for the modern violin.[2] Iannis Xenakis (1922–2001) employed a particular style of glissando in his string writing where the performer is required to glide continuously from one pitch to the next, with even bow pressure. Examples of this technique may be found in his solo violin works, Mikka (1972) and Mikka S (1976).


Glissando on the baroque violin:

In the absence of a chin rest, glissandi function quite differently on the baroque violin than on the modern violin. While possible on the baroque violin, descending glissandi can be difficult to execute, as the left hand is typically being employed to hold the violin into the neck of the violinist. Because of this, the left hand cannot slide toward the scroll unless the instrument is being held in place by some other means, such as between the chin and shoulder of the performer, which is not a comfortable physical position to maintain in the absence of a chin rest. Therefore, glissandi may be used in composition for the baroque violin; however, with careful consideration for the physical demands on the performer.

Another consideration when performing glissandi on the baroque violin is the texture of the raw-gut strings. These have a rougher texture than steel strings, and are therefore more easily adhered to with the finger, making smooth sliding potentially problematic, especially on the pistoy, rope-like gut winding used on the D string of my choice.

As described above, glissandi were used on the baroque violin during the Baroque era by composers including Farina and Biber, and have been explored extensively on the modern violin since that time. Examples of glissandi in 21st-century repertoire for the baroque violin can be found in works commissioned by me, including Vincent Giles’ silver as catalyst in organic reactions (2016), Paddy Mann’s Curious Animals (2016), and extensively in Samuel Smith’s archive (2017a).


The following is an example of ascending and descending glissandi, including with harmonics and stopped notes, in Samuel Smith’s archive (2017a, p. 2).


Video 19.1 – excerpt from archive by Samuel Smith (2017a, p. 2), bars 49–50


Figure 19.1 – excerpt from archive by Samuel Smith (2017a, p. 2), bars 49–50


The following is an example of ascending and descending glissandi with artificial harmonics in Vincent Giles’ silver as catalyst in organic reactions (2016, p. 1).

Video 19.2 – excerpt from silver as catalyst in organic reactions by Vincent Giles (2016, p. 1), bars 22-24


Figure 19.2 – excerpt from silver as catalyst in organic reactions by Vincent Giles (2016, p. 1), bars 22–24 


Suggested notation:

A diagonal line between the starting and ending pitch, as in Figures 19.1 and 19.2 above.


[1] For instance, the instruction for dogs barking is given in the German, “das Hundebellen wird mit einem Finger von der Noten gar geschwinde auff einer Seiten auffwarts anzogen.” (Farina, 1627, p. 32).

[2] For instance, in solo violin works by composers including Richard Barrett (1994), Brian Ferneyhough (1986), Liza Lim (1997), and Kaija Saariaho (2006), among many others.