Fiddlesticks
by Stephen Marvin © 2000

 
(This article has appeared in several publications in the US, Canada, Japan and Germany).
 
fiddle-stick n. 1. a bow for the violin   2. a thing of little value - Webster's Dictionary
 

The bow, archet or "fiddlestick" shares the intimacy of creation with the violinist, violist, cellist, bassist, vielle or viol player and a sometimes unforgiving "fiddle"---a ménage of unequals which in a performance may alternately seem a dance of passion or a confrontation of antagonists. As the violinist surrounds and coaxes expression from the violin, it is the bow that serves as interlocutor. Contrasts are its function, achieved by subtle pressure of the bow hair across gut strings: from soft to loud, short to long, the way each note begins and ends. All this from an entity of no more substance than a ballet slipper or a pop-tart (a Baroque violin bow with hair weighs only about 52 grams).

While a beautifully functioning violin holds the potential for marvels, it is surely clear that a fine performer must realize its possibilities. I have argued for many years before students new to the Baroque violin that the bow arm should be the focus of their technique. In modern performance, "colour" in the sound is usually learned as a function of the left hand (primarily as vibrato), while ideal bowing is uniform and equal. While vibrato is used by performers on period instruments, it is far less important an element of expression and is essentially an ornament. Our ideal in bowing is inflection, gradation and even inequality, like the rhythms of life, our breathing and pulse. Indeed, 18th century pedagogues spoke of the natural qualities of the voice as worthy of emulation.

Of course, the finest musicians have always been sensitive to subtleties of bowing and phrasing. But a return to the actual early instruments and bows, with a consciousness of historical techniques, is only decades old. There is much more to rediscover and learn.

When you see and hear a modern Symphony Orchestra's string players, you may observe that the design of the bows they use is unvarying. This design is the legacy of the late 18th/early 19th century bowmaker Francois Tourte and his followers. (Beethoven's Violin Sonata of 1802 was dedicated to Kreutzer of the Paris Conservatory, whose playing on a Tourte bow was the composer's inspiration.) Today, a Tourte bow is priced higher than most violins, that is, in many thousands of dollars. Tourte's original design has proven so functionally successful for the aesthetic of the 19th century and decades following, that any modification is considered rash. In much the same manner, the Amati family codified the design of the violin in the 16th and 17th centuries; but while the internal structure of an early violin can be modified for modern tastes in tone production, a bow cannot be rebuilt.

The natural history of the bow from 1600 to 1800 is therefore one of constant evolution by player selection. The pejorative etymology of the word "fiddlestick" is derived from the late 16th century, when a bow was little more than a stick to hold hair, used once and thrown away. It was not until the 19th century that the finest bows became widely available to individual musicians not connected to court or conservatory. The 17th and 18th centuries saw bow design develop primarily because of the rise of the virtuoso violinist/composer. As violins were strung more heavily, and more clarity and intensity of tone were sought, bows were made to suit. Though an oversimplification, it is accurate enough to say that the length of the bow eventually increased, along with some added weight.

Most bows before 1750 retained a simple straight shape, often with a slight convex curve at the tip end.. Throughout the 17th and early 18th centuries a typical violin bow weighed less than 50 grams and measured just over two feet long ("bipedelian," as the theorists of the time sometimes said, which suits my evolutionary metaphor).* The hair was attached to the stick at both ends and was tensioned by inserting a "clip in" frog. The stick would then be naturally more convex in shape. However, even by the late 17th century, bow sticks were quite resilient, and the hair was rarely held more than 3cm from the shaft. The innovation of a screw mechanism to adjust hair tension came quite late and was not in common use until 1760 or later.* Structural modifications became necessary as the playing length of bows increased. A longer "sonata" bow, championed by Tartini, was generally straight, and eventually curved inward to hold a longer, wider hank of hair. The tip of the bow became higher to hold the hair securely away from the stick.

All these changes occurred because musicians asked for them. Much as vocal technique and ornament became less intimate and more expansive in the l8th century, so the ideal of broader, longer lines and the slowing of the harmonic rhythm in composition promoted changes in the bow. In Italy, Corelli, Geminiani and Viotti are known to have had bows made to order, and Leclair and the later French schools had a similar and related influence. All were looking for exactly the right balance of flexibility and strength to permit them both the delicacy and the drama they would express. Furthermore, each country had its own style: French bows were different from Italian and German, and the English, who followed as grand imitators, produced their own bows, varying the style of French and Italian models, Among the few hundred surviving bows that predate 1760, hardly two are alike in materials, weight or balance.

What about the forty years or so between 1760 and 1800? Well, we string players casually refer to bows made during this period as "transitional," that is, neither Baroque in style nor the "modern" designs of François Tourte. A modest epithet, this "transitional." Think for a moment what was happening in Austria and Germany alone: C.P.E. Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, no less, were fully active. In any era, artistic accomplishment occurs within an historical context. Like violins and forte-pianos, bows were being built stronger to suit developing tastes. The bow became as varied in its way as the music. There was experimentation in new woods, and its length increased by 2-4 cm. Violin bows could weigh up to 60 grams. Snakewood, a dense brown figured wood from South America, had been the standard for the finest bows; after 1760 somewhat stiffer but lighter woods were sought. Among many that were tried with great success, a dense wood from the Pernambuco region of Brazil---previously used to create intense red and purple dyes---became a preferred choice. Fittings made from silver, gold, tortoiseshell and ivory also became more popular, as bows began to be appreciated as artistic creations in themselves and proudly bore their makers' brands. Despite the continual experimentation and development of bows in the 17th and 18th centuries, before 1780, bows were rarely signed or stamped by a maker. This was primarily because a violin and bow came as a set and were sold together. Decade after decade, new models of bow were used---and ultimately discarded---in a way a violin would not be.)

Today, I make bows to order for very picky musicians who have specific requirements, but are constrained by historical precedent, as am I. As we look back to play with the ears of musicians past, we must bow with their bows. It would be lovely to have a dozen or more bows to span the national styles throughout more than 250 years. Even in one concert, Tafelmusik (the orchestra with whom I have played for twenty years) may well play music that requires, in theory, three or four bows, not to mention different stringing and tuning for the instruments. The reality is that each musician learns to use perhaps three bows well, and makes them serve all purposes.

With so many bows to study and copy, a maker of historically informed bow reproductions is both blessed and cursed with a choice of almost unlimited possibilities and the real necessity to learn to work successfully with only a few models and selected materials. There are fine old bows in museums and private collections, but often time has dimmed knowledge; a bow may be extraordinary, and yet prove of almost unidentifiable provenance. However, as with all study, new facts and examples are discovered. Our ignorance is not total.

And what about those unusual woods from South America? I have spent nearly fifteen years and many thousands of dollars searching for wood that matches that of a few fine original bows. Were there space here, I could tell stories of frustrated efforts and fortuitous encounters in this quest. Every year I find new wood and try to understand its properties.

The tools required for bowmaking are: two planes, a knife, a chisel, a file, a saw and a drill. Various polishing agents finish the job. I estimate that it takes only about 30-40 hours for an experienced worker to make a bow, but that time is an exercise in patience and in resisting the demons of eyestrain and muscle fatigue. When you think that the diameter of the wood in a finished violin how is graduated from about five to nine millimeters along its length, and that at every point this measurement is crucial, you can imagine the possibilities for instant failure. Also, the bow is not carved with its inward curve, or "camber," but must be heated and bent repeatedly until the shape is correct---one hopes, before you burn or break it.

However, because it is a benevolent universe, after the planing, carving, drilling, shaping, bending, polishing and hairing (it is still real horse hair), most often an elegant functional and, I hope, artistic bow does emerge from the workroom a few times a year.

So, as you admire the efforts of a fine string musician and the glories of a great violin, notice too that subtle appendage with its unique tone colour, its very personal character and temperament: the bow.

*There are many facts and informed observations such as these I have learned in conversation with Robert Seletsky, and in reading his articles on "The Bow" in the Revised New Grove and now available in the May and August 2004 issues of Early Music Magazine. My own research on old bows only confirms his study. Dr. Seletsky can be reached by email at: memres@sprintmail.com