Discovering Music – Glissando

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

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Discovering Music – Glissando
Illustration: Adam Howling
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There is one instrument you can safely bet most readers will have tried playing at least once: the swanee whistle. After all, what rational human being can resist the temptation to impersonate Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin’s adorable Clangers? If you were successful (not exactly difficult) and managed to produce the space-mouse-like creatures’ distinctive up-and-down piping sounds, the effect you have produced is what musicians call a ‘glissando’. But it’s possible that you progressed from this basic skill to producing the notes of an identifiable tune, sliding rapidly between them. If so, then what you performed is probably better described as ‘portamento’.

While both words sound Italian, only one of them is. The term ‘glissando’ derives from the French glissez, ‘to slide’. But in classical music Italian has long been the approved language, so the French word quickly mutated into the more respectable sounding (if etymologically dubious) ‘glissando’. So we have a quasi-respectable term for what is often a far-from-respectable sound. In the classical orchestra, the instrument that leads itself most readily to these kind of antics is the trombone – which, if you really want to annoy trombonists, you could describe as a gigantic brass swanee whistle.

For a long time, sliding about like this on a trombone was very infra dig: after all this was an instrument which until Beethoven’s time was mostly used in church music and to enhance solemn supernatural effects in opera. It wasn’t really until the 20th century that it discovered clowning. Probably everybody knows the reeling glissando effects in The Acrobat – pure comedy. But the jokes soon turned nasty: hence the glissando sneers at Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony in Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, or the world-weary yawns in Nielsen’s Sixth. Harps can also execute glissandos, running rapidly from note to note rather than sliding between them. The later Romantics loved the liquid wash of harp glissandos; 20th-century composers began to tire of them just as Hollywood began to warm to the effect (discuss). Something similar seems to have happened to portamento among string players – still audible in Elgar’s recordings of his own music. Mahler’s scores often indicate such an effect, yet contemporary musicians fight shy of it. There’s no group more fickle than the arbiters of ‘good taste’.

 

This article was first published in the June 2011 issue of BBC Music Magazine

 

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