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    Was Berlioz The First Composer To Use Col Legno Bowing Technique?

    I would like to know if anyone is aware of an earlier use of col legno bowing technique than Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.  Did Berlioz innovate this technique or are there earlier examples of it in the repertoire?  Can anyone point to other composers who innovated new bowing techniques, for example Bartok's pizzicato snapping techniques in his 4th String Quartet?  Thanks

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    • I believe generally the earliest cited example for a col legno technique is from Tobias Hume's The First Part of Ayres (1605), where the instruction is given to "drum this with the back of your bow."  There are a couple other sporadic uses in the 17th century (Biber's Battalia comes to mind).  But if you're asking when it become well-known enough that composers might actually think of it as a standard technique, it's really not until the 19th century.

      As for other techniques, some of the other accepted "standard ones" have their first use in the 17th century.  (For instance, both Hume and Biber also appear in the early history of pizzicato instructions.)  But again, most of these techniques only caught on gradually, at first being used in rather extreme works, appearing only as "special effects." 

    • Chopin used col legno in the kujawiak-finale of his Piano Concerto No. 2 (1829/1830), which was performed in Warsaw privately in February 1830 and publicly in March 1830. Symphonie Fantastique also dates from 1830, but I'm not sure which months. So Chopin's use probably predates Berlioz's more celebrated use. In any event, I hope that Chopin's innovative col legno could be cited as evidence against the often repeated and weakly supported criticism of Chopin's approach to orchestration.

    • Thank you for the information John and William.  I look forward to investigating the works you have suggested.  It will be interesting to see if I can find samples and hear earlier usage of col legno.    

    • Dear all,


      The first instance of the pizzicato snapping technique I'm aware of is in Mahler's 7th Symphony, third movement.



      Michele Ignelzi

      Michele Ignelzi

      Conservatorio di Musica, Florence, Italy

    • Thanks Michele, I look forward to listening to the Mahler.  

    • I found the Hume col legno example.  Here's a video which features col legno at about 1:33

      The viola da gamba is quite a complex instrument - part harp, guitar, lute, string instrument.  I thought the Bach cello suites were difficult until seeing this long forgotten rich repertoire.  I really do think the da gamba is a superior chordal instrument compared to the modern cello.   

    • And here's the Biber example of col legno at about 0:40


    • In addition to the use of mutes, Haydn calls for col legno at the end of the second movement of his Symphony No. 67 in F Major. The Trio from same work's Minuet movement is for two muted solo violins, the second of which uses scordatura, detuning the fourth string to an F. These are hardly the only examples of Haydn's seemingly inexhaustible creativity in his use of novelty in his symphonic writing. (Symphony No. 60 has the violins tuning up in the last movement; Symphony No. 22 has a pair of English horns in it; Symphony No. 24 has a flute concerto movement in it; Symphony No. 45, of course, has musicians exit in turn; etc., etc.)

    • Thanks for that information Eric.  I'm a huge Haydn disciple and look forward to investigating your references.  Bach also uses detuning of strings in the 5th and 6th cello suites.  There are often two notation versions in the cello suites for regular tuning and the alternate tunings.