Nobody seems to know what made Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi ask the musicians playing his opera Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda to pluck their violin strings in 1638, but his eccentric fancy led to the establishment of one of the most popular effects in the world of stringed instruments.
The word "pizzicato" comes, naturally, from Italian and literally means “to pluck, to prick, to sting.”
Playing pizzicato requires the instrument’s strings to be plucked with the fingers. Depending on how and where the musician plucks them, the sound that is produced varies from brief and dry high notes to long-lasting and resonant low tones.
The harp is the most popular orchestral instrument played by plucking. Other suitable instruments are the violin, double bass, guitar, mandolin, banjo, zither, ukelele, lyre, lute, and harpsichord.
The technique is peculiar in its creation of abrupt, detached, and separated tones which, in the Italian language, are referred to as “staccato.” But playing staccato doesn’t necessarily require using pizzicato technique, and neither affects the rhythm of the melody.
Usually composers instruct musicians to perform pizzicato by jotting the abbreviation “pizz” or by putting a dot above the note head (when the stem points downward), or below the note head (when the stem points upward). The return from pizzicato to normal playing is indicated by the Italian word “arco.”
Pizzicato is the opposite of legato, which presumes playing the notes smoothly without stopping.
After Monteverdi gave birth to this unique musical technique, other composers developed and diversified it.
With his Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule (1756), Leopold Mozart initiated the most popular pizzicato style–plucking with the index finger of the right hand.
Hungarian composer Béla Bartók initiated two other pizzicato techniques. One was to pluck the string strongly and then let it go abruptly, causing it to resonate against the fingerboard. It is called the “Bartók pizzicato.” The other was called a ”glissando” and is performed by pulling the string and then sliding the finger up and down along it. The latter can be heard in Bartok’s "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta."
In 24th Caprice from his 24 Caprices, Op. 1, the violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini applied yet another form of pizzicato: He performed it with a finger of the left hand. This was unusual because it is the left hand that normally stops the strings.
With another form, the” triplet pizzicato,” it is the right hand that creates a percussive effect.
In Capricio Espagnol, Rimsky-Korsakov used another dazzling pizzicato technique in which the two hands take turns plucking the strings. This is called a “two-handed pizzicato.”
Pizzicato in Classical Music
Despite normally using the bow to play stringed instruments, classical music actually became the cradle of the pizzicato.
Many notable composers, such as J. S. Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Leo Delibes, Antonio Vivaldi, and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, added color to their works by applying the pizzicato techniques.
Contemporary classical composers also employ the teasing sound of the pizzicato in their works. Benjamin Britten used it in Simple Symphony, and Leroy Anderson in the composition Plink, Plank, Plunk! The latter became famous as the theme for the CBS show “I’ve Got a Secret.”
To listen to the music that started all that pizzicato, tune into All Classical Radio, 89.9 FM, Portland Oregon, for a broadcast of Claudio Monteverdi’s opera "Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda," on Aug. 29.