A short history of the violin bow.
Like the violin itself, the structure of bows has evolved over the centuries. The primitive bow dates back to the Byzantine Empire of the mid fifth century. Early bows were convex like an archery bow. Initially, they were crudely made with the horsehair being fastened directly to the stick with little thought to tension. Then prior to the Baroque era, the frog was a curved piece of wood attached to the bow that only acted as a kind of rail to guide the hair and keep it separate from the stick. The thumb was used to place tension on the bow while playing.
Throughout the middle ages there was no change to these rudimentary bows. The violin as we know it had yet to be invented so these bows were used to play ancient instruments like the rebec and the medieval fiddle or vielle. Around the start of the 16th century, instruments were thought to be less important than singing. These ancestors of the violin were mainly used as rhythm instruments to accompany vocal music and to keep time for the dancing at festivals and weddings. The bows of the time were short- only about 20 to 30 centimeters in length. They were held in quite a different manner to the modern bow using either a closed fist or an underhanded method.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8aihAgJQmY a video of the rebec being played by Ernst Stolz
A rebec with bow
An illustration of a rebec player demonstrating the bow hold
but then a detachable frog was invented and finally the tension of the hair could be altered with the button and screw mechanism.
The Baroque Bow
During the Baroque era, playing techniques developed further and the structure of the bow needed to change to improve control. Initially the early violin virtuosos continued to play with the rebec and vielle bows of the late middle ages. Early French Baroque music was similar in style to Renaissance dance music so there was little change to bow construction and technique.
German Baroque music which was introspective and had relatively slow tempi highly arched bows were also still used. The music often required the string player to produce true chords. The method of changing the tension of the bow hair with the thumb was used to relax the tension and two or more strings could be played in a chord. A tighter tension was then used for the single melodic lines. Currently music such as Bach’s solo sonatas and partitas for violin what is written as chords is played as a arpeggios. But in a historically informed performance an arched bow could be used to play true chords.
Here Emil Telmanyi plays Bach’s Chaccone for solo violin with a modern version of the arched German bow.
In Italy, the violin of the Baroque period evolved for two reasons. When compared to German Baroque music, Italian Baroque music required agility and speed and was light and airy. And in contrast, to the early French music, the violin was not just being used to keep time for dancing- it had become a solo instrument. The Italians were very interested in cantabile or songlike playing. Italian violinists preferred an overhand grip and longer bows which allowed new sounds and techniques. Longer bows made longer sequences possible and spiccato and legato became more widespread. Along with being a composer, Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) was a violinist who greatly influence technique and teaching. He composed violin works that required the long Baroque violin bow. As such Corelli’s compositions caused the violin music to resemble singing.
Modifications in construction were made for the longer Baroque bow. The height of the head was increased to distribute weight more evenly and achieve playability along the entire length of the bow. The convex curve of the bow lessened until a bow that was slightly straight to concave had evolved. To increase tension to the hair, a detachable frog was invented until eventually the button, eyelet and screw mechanism became standard. Bows of the time were aesthetically sophisticated. They were made of beautiful woods such as snakewood and could be carved with fluting. The frogs and heads were decorated and shaped into a variety of fanciful designs. Baroque bows had no uniform standards but the range of shapes and designs.
Baroque bow with fluting to the stick.
Comparing the Baroque to the Modern bow frog. Note the absence of the ferrule and metal underslide on the Baroque bow.