The bow is a frequently misunderstood and underestimated part of the violin. Without its use, the violin is inert and unable to make the music for which it was intended. Despite this there is a common misconception that the instrument itself is the only important part. Not so, both work in a symbiotic relationship in order to achieve results, and finally create music. There is a wealth of scholarship and craftsmanship behind the development of the bow across all stringed instruments, but in this instance the focus is on the Violin bow in particular.
The modern violin bow should be familiar to most students of the violin. It consists of the wooden stick itself with the pad or thumb leather and silver winding – sometimes fishbone – towards the lower end. In addition to this the frog works alongside the tightening screw to give dynamic and controlled tension to the hair, which in turn creates friction and resonance with the strings of the violin.
Early examples of the bow were were little more than an accompaniment to keeping time than a tool to reach specific notes. Early violin craftsmen thought very little about the bows themselves, so players generally employed a fiddle bow in order to play the violin. This was to change when Francois Tourte began working on the craft of Violin bows.
Many of the features of the modern bow are in fact innovations of this man. Working alongside with the virtuouso G.B. Viotti he made many changes to the design and structure of the bow used at the time. He both lengthened them, and used more wood in the tip and employed a heavier nut. Before his work with the bow, it was cut to the desired specification which gave little assistance to the tension of the hair. In his use he employed heat to bend pernambuco wood (still used by bowmakers or ‘archetiers’ today) which gave a much more precise tension to the frame of the bow itself. The perfecting of the tightening screw of the bow is one of Tourte’s principal contributions to bowmaking, alongside the spreader block which holds the hair in formation and prevents tangling. It was said of Tourte that was the “stradivari of the bow”, incredible praise given Stradivarius’s contribution to the art of violin construction.
Tourte’s patron Giovanni Battista Viotti was to have declared “Le violon, c’est l’arche – the violin, it is the bow“. Given that sentiment and how integral the bow is to the violin, more students of the violin should give proper praise to the bowmaker – and take better care of their bows!
Matthew Nugent 2015
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