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Glissandos and glissandon’ts

By Jessica Barbour

GLISSANDO. A term unfortunately used by composers anywhere but in Italy to indicate a rapid glide over the notes of a scale on keyboard instruments and the harp, as well as a slur with no definite intervals on strings and on the trombone. Italians do not use it for the simple reason that it is not an Italian word; in fact it is not a word in any language, but a hybrid form of the French glisser (to glide or slide) with an Italian present-participle ending. The proper Italian term is strisciando.”

So begins the article “Glissando” in the fifth edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Eric Blom and published in 1954. In the Language section of his preface to the book in which he details each “false coinage” that the tome has “nailed to the counter,” Blom writes that “Neither is there such a word as glissando, a sort of mock-turtle with a French head and an Italian tail; but it is so widely used (not by Italians) that its meaning must still be explained. It is therefore given an entry, where, however, it has now been firmly put in its place.”

As a musician, I found this absolutely shocking — here I thought I’d been hearing the glissando (the effect created when, for example, a pianist runs his finger up or down the keyboard), all my life, and suddenly it turned out that the very legitimacy of the word had been dismissed by Blom, a prominent linguist and writer on music, more than 30 years before I was even born. I immediately turned to the entry “Glissando” in the book’s third volume to take a look at how Blom, who dutifully composed the entry himself, put the term “in its place.”

I continued to read as the word glissando, a peculiar sort of bilingual portmanteau (not to be confused with a portamento, which is not to be confused with a glissando — more on that later) was mercilessly condemned by the editor. Later in the entry the musical effect itself earned a dismissive tone. Blom described it as “ugly and ineffective” when played on the organ, “almost too cheaply effective” coming from the harp, and “comic at best and vulgar at worst” when performed on the trombone. A similar effect from a string instrument, meanwhile, was “far less offensive.”

The term doesn’t appear in the first edition of George Grove’s A Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1878–1889). The OED cites the earliest recorded usage of the word in the 1870s, just a few years before the first volume of Grove’s book was published. However, “Glissando” is defined in the second and third editions of Grove (edited by J.A. Fuller Maitland and H.C. Colles, respectively), where the language of origin is listed as Italian, not French: (Ital. ‘sliding’).

The second edition (1900) discusses it mainly as a piano technique used “of course exclusively on the white keys,” and also mentions its use on the harp. The third edition (1927) has four definitions for the effect: one for its use on piano, taken from the second edition; one for its use on the harp in orchestral music, which it deems “the most important”; one for its use on the violin, equating it with a long portamento; and one for its use on the trombone, saying it is “much used in music of the ‘Jazz’ type.”

David D. Boyden’s article “Glissando” from Stanley Sadie’s The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicans (1980), the first edition of Grove from the post-Blom era, offers a definition for the word but includes the following initial caveat: “It has proved difficult to confine the term to a single, unambiguous definition.” It doesn’t acknowledge the word’s “mock-turtle” origins except in listing its language variants (italianized, from Fr. glisser: ‘to slide’; It. strisciando).

The 1980 “Glissando” article also distinguishes portamento as a separate term. While still creating a sliding effect between two notes, a portamento does not distinguish separate pitches on the way to the destination note, and is mainly written for the voice, or for strings.

My favorite part of this edition’s article comes after the opening definition. “In practice, the terms glissando and portamento are often confused and used interchangeably…However, if, in the interest of clarity (which often entails some degree of arbitrariness), the distinctions made above are kept, it follows that the piano and the harp, which have fixed semitones, can play glissando but not portamento; and the voice, violin and trombone can produce either type of sliding, although glissando is far more difficult for them.”

That parenthetical statement about “some degree of arbitrariness” and the acknowledgment of the term’s ambiguity in practical use are vital points in this definition. The fluidity of Grove’s meaning for the word is reflected in (and perhaps influenced by) musical performance: I surveyed my friends via the celebrated research tool Facebook, asking what they do when they see glissando in a musical score, and their answers included variations on “glide,” “slide,” “it depends on the instrument,” and “panic.”

What makes Blom’s writing on the glissando so fun to read is the openness with which he tells the reader that he is in the business of defending the English language against “Musicologese.”And it seems only appropriate that he would be so protective of the lexicon—if you’re not passionate about words, why would you want to be the editor of a dictionary?

Yet you may be befuddled if you look up a word and find a definition that seems to merrily resent its own existence. The most recent version of the article is, I think, the easiest to use for practical musical purposes, even if it isn’t quite as zealously written as Blom’s. And I can’t help but feel relieved to know that the general consensus of musicians and musicologists seems to be that glissando, despite its questionable linguistic origins, remains a perfectly cromulent word.

Jessica Barbour is the Associate Editor for Grove Music/Oxford Music Online. You can read her previous blog posts, “Wedding Music” and “Clair de Supermoon”, or learn more about “Glissando” and “Portamento” on Grove Music Online. Thanks to Allison Wright for her assistance with this post.

Oxford Music Online is the gateway offering users the ability to access and cross-search multiple music reference resources in one location. With Grove Music Online as its cornerstone, Oxford Music Online also contains The Oxford Companion to Music, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, and The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.

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    I am Italian and I am quite puzzled as the verb “glissare” and its gerund “glissando” are very much in use in contemporary Italian.


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