Stephen Marvin
“The Bow During Mozart’s Lifetime”
Revised from the original version in The Strad, August and September, 2006, with additional photos and updated commentary. © 2006, 2014

Part I

W. A. Mozart is well known to have been a fine violinist and violist. We string players appreciate the unsurpassed subtleties of the chamber music. We also admire, if sometimes with trepidation, the idiomatic but exposed and challenging figures in the concertos, operas and orchestral compositions which may confound the left and right hand techniques of accomplished performers. From his letters, we learn that Mozart was a critical observer of performance style and technique. This is hardly surprising, as his father, Leopold, was the author of a remarkably comprehensive violin method, published the year of his famous son’s birth, 1756. The Violinschule was re-edited, translated and bowdlerized for decades afterward, yet is admired and studied today. Early editions illustrate Leopold(?) holding the violin loosely in his left hand, his right hand supporting a relatively short bow with a clip-in, non-adjusting frog. This was not an anachronism. Leopold surely would not wish to present himself as looking backward, but as an advocate of modern performance practice; in fact much that Leopold advocates in The Violinschule has a distinctly modern feel to it, especially in contrast to Baroque technique from the 17th- early 18th centuries as we understand it today.

Paintings, illustrations and recent scholarship clearly demonstrate that in the middle of the 18th century, especially in Germany and Italy, short bows, 60-64 cm with a clip-in frog, were still common though many string players eventually adopted the longer models---overall length between 69-72 cm. Violin bows had increased in length, no longer made to match the total length of the instrument, while cello bows---along with viol bows which may have become interchangeable with cello bows---were shorter, now often matching the violin bow length. Therefore, in his early years as a violinist, Mozart would most likely have played on what we think of as a “long baroque” bow, somewhat convex with the frog in place, probably made from a local fruitwood, or in the best examples, one of a number of South American hardwoods such as snakewood (Piratinera and Brosimum Guianense). Such long models were first produced around 1720-1730, in France and England, but only found general acceptance by the middle of the century. Evidently, even in the early 18th century, French makers were innovators; French masters were among the first to use the longer bows and soon after, the screw mechanism.

In Wolfgang’s mere 36 years he would have seen the violins and bows of England, France, Italy, and of course, Austria, Germany, and Bohemia, especially Prague. In his travels, Mozart visited many regional orchestras and met the finest soloists of the day. The “Baroque” bows with elongated tips and open, clip-in frogs he knew as a child would in fact persist throughout the 18th century and beyond, even as new, slightly longer, rather light and flexible bows with screw adjusters would be developed. Indeed, before he died, Mozart may well have seen early examples of light, pernambuco bows, perhaps some with silver ferrules that were being made by the Tourte family in Paris and imitated in England. (However, Mozart’s last visit to Paris was in 1778 when such bows were not common.) Somewhat different models, with open frogs, mostly long and light designs, were also being produced in Germany and Italy as early as the 1760’s.

Disposable Bows

Though the evidence isn’t conclusive, it seems that there was little uniformity in bow choice, even in regional orchestras. Bows were tools, and though often made with great skill, were rarely stamped by the maker or shop before 1760, and were most likely discarded following the end of a performer’s career, while the violin would live on, perhaps with a new bridge design or longer fingerboard for its new owner. However, “upgrades” occurred over decades, not months.

Two Bow Patterns

The long bows found in Europe from c. 1750-1790, are generally light and very flexible, especially those with a higher tip. Many were in fact lighter than earlier or contemporaneous “baroque” model bows. There is a logical explanation with material and efficient causes: Some performers wished for a longer bow with its marginally greater sustaining qualities but they did not want to lose the flexibility they were accustomed to, nor did they want to wield an ungainly tip-heavy stick. There are two possibilities: Make a heavy, strong bow, nearly straight, after the models of the past which were always popular, or rethink the issue entirely. Bowmakers sought wood that would be light in weight but still strong. Woods such as Pernambuco, some Swartzia species often called Ironwood, and Cacique wood, even the stiff unfigured snakewood called Amourette, were found suitable. Even a little added length changes the balance point of a bow dramatically, making the tip feel heavy and the response slow. However, if the stick is made lighter it might be too weak to support hair tension, so the technique of applying a mild inward (concave) bend to the stick with heat was developed to increase its strength when tightened. For some of these bows, the elongated tip was abandoned in favor of a higher, hatchet or block shape, accommodating a deeper bend (cambre). Such bows retain a great flexibility, even in the spiccato stroke---which would only become sharp and crisp in the 19th century. (Try an original François Tourte bow; you will see why few today are able to adjust to its subtle flexibility without “playing through.”)

What emerged from these varied experiments was two, usually distinct, bow patterns, two contemporary branches of bow style in the later 18th century. What they had in common was of course the music, and the sensibilities of the musicians:

--Baroque Pattern: One style was the familiar early pattern with a long, fairly low tip, with little or no camber. When such a bow is tightened the stick will become slightly convex, especially in the upper part, near the tip, adding space between hair and stick, and therefore flexibility. The wood is often the 17th and 18th century ideal, snakewood, and often quite heavy and strong---for violin, 50-55 grams---so that the stick itself is strong enough to support hair tension without significant concave cambre. After about 1750 some of these bows were made with a screw adjuster. Some also were fluted, presumably to reduce weight, and after 1760 there are quite a few surviving examples with more pronounced cambre and a higher tip. Recently described examples from the Tourte family (Louis Tourte) show the familiar design where the frog rests on three facets of an octagonal stick. Such bows were likely created as early as 1740, though cuiously, this technique was not widely adopted until much later, even in France. Also, many earlier clip-in frog short and long bows were rebuilt with a screw mechanism late in the century, with varying success.

--High Tip Pattern: This second approach utilized stiffer woods, some lighter, some not. The tip was redesigned to raise the hair further from the stick, and the elegant pike or swan shape was abandoned; there could no longer be extra length (and weight) without function. From the 1740’s in France and England, and slowly spreading throughout Europe, screw frog models emerged. Various designs were developed for the frog track and screw adjuster to move the frog backward without pivoting, and by about 1780 some examples were designed with a metal ferrule on the frog to hold a wide hair ribbon. (Ferruled bows were naturally more expensive, so many fine open frog bows were made well into the 19th century.)

I’d like to emphasize strongly that these two bow patterns were essentially contemporaneous in the later 18th century. Earlier long model baroque bows were discarded or in some cases refitted with a screw and button, but what we recognize as the basic baroque model remained in use into the early 19th century. Bows with the characteristic elongated tip, often from snakewood, continued to be made even as Francois Tourte produced what we know today as the canonic modern bow design. The bow was indeed evolving from about 1730-1800, but there is no single link between the early, straight, long bow and the modern Tourte bow. Both patterns had the flexibility and fluid cantabile qualities that were the ideal of the late 18th century. These long bows, whether high tipped and cambered, or on the baroque pattern, were all well suited to legato phrasing and an intrinsically slower harmonic rhythm. Within these two overall categories of bow there are also surviving hybrid designs such as fluted snakewood sticks with high ornamental tips and significant cambre made as late as 1800. Ultimately, both bow patterns achieve the common goal of expression, becoming more than mere tools. Bowmakers were developing individual styles, with artistry enough to be recognized. Naturally some began to stamp their bows, identifying either themselves or the violin shop in which they worked.

*Baroque specialists, please note: Most new “baroque bow” models sold today, if historical at all, are copies of these very late 18th century examples. A typical baroque bow before 1720 was a very short, light stick with a clip-in frog. Later long baroque bows similarly would not have screw adjusters or significant concave cambre before about 1740 in France, later in other countries. Longer cambred models were primarily made after1760, certainly not the era of Bach and Handel. Bowmakers have made copies of what are really classical, late 18th century bows, simply because such bows survive to be copied, and until recently it was not understood that these elegant screw mechanism bows with modern frog assembly were made so late in the century. Given the paucity of extant examples, some bowmakers have expanded their models from iconography. The present author has utilized templates from museum collections for frog and tip designs where no original bow survives.

Part II

In the previous issue I discussed the development of the bow in the late 18th century, the emergence of two bow design patterns, reflecting national tastes, performer preferences and the cantabile style: Baroque Pattern and the more forward-looking High-Tip Pattern bows. Baroque Pattern bows of the late 18th century were the old style pike or swan tip, the best examples made from snakewood, though often lighter, with a more pronounced camber and a screw tightener. The High-Tip examples have the more familiar square or hatchet tip, and eventually, the modern frog attachment.

When speaking of the bow during Mozart’s life, we are confronted with the 20th century, early-music, jargon that unfortunately persists today: We still hear the bow during this period referred to as “transitional,” as if it were in that awkward time between childhood and adulthood, being neither baroque nor modern. Recent scholarship, especially from Dr. Robert E. Seletsky, has clearly shown that the bow was steadily evolving, from the 16th century to the mid 19th century, each stage representing the appropriate tool for the music of its time. Clearly there were periods of relative stasis: From the mid 17th century until about 1730 the standard short clip-in bows changed little. Throughout the 18th century, typical string players would find the one bow or model that suited their personal tastes, and live with it throughout their performing years, while a few soloists continued to experiment. Note however that Pietro Locatelli, (d. 1764) one of the last great baroque virtuosos, never abandoned his short bow, even after longer bows had become the popular choice.

Surviving Bows

It is a sad fact that very few bows exist that were made before 1760. In fact, the situation for the cellist is most unfortunate. Though there must be a pregnant attic in an old manse somewhere, to this date, only a few ambiguously long bows, which may have also been used on the viola da gamba have been identified. There are a very few 17th and early 18th century short violin bows of quality, and some broken bits and perhaps a dozen or so truly healthy surviving long bows. However, after 1770, both Baroque Pattern and the newer High Tip Pattern bows exist in some quantity, especially from England and France. Clearly, the existence of the convenient, if musically unnecessary, screw mechanism guaranteed the survival of many bows made late in the century, that is, during Mozart’s life. But in conservative Germany, earlier clip-in frog bows for all string instruments remained in common use. The 1787 edition of Leopold Mozart’s Violinschule has several illustrations which still show long Baroque Pattern bows, with no screw adjuster.

Camber, or concave bend, in late 18th century bows is difficult to analyze. Even well preserved bows may have been heated and changed at any time over the last 250 years with no visible sign, and of course a well loved and used bow may have relaxed over the years quite naturally, especially from over tightening. Such bows have often been "restored" with mixed results. It is therefore more instructive to examine fine paintings and illustrations from the period which show bows in actual use. It is clear from these that at playing tension, bows from the early 18th century were still convex (bending outward). In Germany, later bows, once tightened, still had little or no concave bend into the 19th century. These bows do not collapse in vigorous performance because their overall weight is low, usually below 52 grams.

Artistry and Expression

We know that between 1756 and 1791 tastes in music style in string performance were influenced in great part by famous artists of the time. In their letters, Leopold and Wolfgang Mozart write clearly that they prefer a strong, clear “masculine” tone, with much shading and individuality, feeling and taste. Wolfgang writes to his father of the Tartini style as expressive, but rather thin sounding. Tartini’s two surviving bows are extraordinarily light---one a long baroque model, the other a high tip example, both with clip-in frog. Tartini speaks of playing primarily in the middle of the bow. Such a style and the bows associated were surely never dominant nor particularly influential in the long term, as Seletsky observes. It should not be seen as paradoxical that the Mozarts prefer a strong tone when bows of the time were quite light and flexible relative to today’s bows. Intensity of expression was not achieved by weight and force but by focus, and variety of articulation. A relatively light violin bow (48-55 grams) on gut strings has a substantial range of dynamic and tonal expression, and the potential for equally strong down and up bow strokes.

One of the most common hatchet/high-tip designs has been associated with the violinist Cramer. However, the extraordinarily successful bows of France and England after 1760 by Meauchand, the two Duchaine family makers, the Dodd family, the Betts shop as well as the Tourte family among others, owe their success to fine craftsmanship and broad appeal, not advocacy by any individual artist.

Great Bowmakers from 1760-1800

For the devotee of Mozart on string instruments this diversity is a wealth of possibilities. I personally find wonderful characteristics in many of the surviving late 18th century bows, and even if one cannot purchase an original example, a good bowmaker should be able to faithfully follow original designs and woods.

Baroque Pattern Bows made late in the 18th century often show excellent craftsmanship. These bows rarely have a makers stamp, and of course were never dated. Quite a few exist in private collections and museums and function quite well today. These craftsmen shall remain forever anonymous.

High Tip Pattern Bows after 1760

Many performers today find the more familiar work of some known pre-1800 makers very compelling.

France: Pre-eminent even before Francois Tourte, French craftsmen were superior innovators. Surviving bows by Meauchand, Marchand, Duchaine are elegant and functional. These makers utilized many less expensive woods from South America, often with ornate ivory frogs and refined hatchet tip designs. The bows show careful craftsmanship, excellent balance and a great variety of tone colours. Most violin examples are very light before 1790 (44-52 grams) often with a flat ivory frog track, based on earlier models. The slot where the clip-in frog once rested on the stick has been filled with an ivory sheet. The frog is stabilized with a small pin or ridge that prevents side to side movement of the frog. (I believe that this design is a logical development: This same technique was undoubtedly first used to update earlier clip-in bows with a screw adjuster. The result was quite attractive, and so utilized in the new, high-tip bows until the three-facet frog attachment method was broadly adopted.) Pernambuco, Amourette, various Swartzia woods, Satine/Cacique, others.

Meauchand bow (1750–1780?) Ivory and Cacique (Bloodwood)

Meauchand, frog assembly

England: Several makers, but only a few identified. Certainly best known are members of the Dodd family, John and Edward. The best early examples began life with open frogs, often with ivory. Some are heavy-tipped and ungainly. Many Dodd bows with a Tourte-style tip have been refitted with a modern frog. The Betts shop is an interesting contrast: Prolific craftsmanship by one or more anonymous makers over several decades---some with a peg-shaped button and very thin frog may be as early as 1780, when the shop opened. Violin and cello bows have a very high but elongated, unlined tip, but are longer and lighter than many Dodd bows. These are uniformly excellent in response, and in later years, influenced by French design, a bit heavier and stronger. Mostly Pernambuco wood.

Betts violin bow: similar examples were made from 1780-? This is most likely a late example.
Ivory and Pernambuco.

Italy: Very little survives. One must conclude that the bows from this time were later found inferior and discarded. It seems that Italian bows delivered with the great violins of the era did not exhibit the same level of fine design and craft. I have recently become aware of some interesting late 18th century examples, though accurate dating is impossible. Pernambuco and snakewood, some other woods.

Germany/Austria/Holland: I have recently identified at least three bows that are likely to be of Germanic origin from late in the 18th century. The designs show independent experimentation, little influenced by French models. Some sticks have fluting with ornate frogs and buttons. Snakewood and Pernambuco examples. Weight for violin bows is under 52 grams with excellent response and tone.

Probably German or Dutch violin bows, 1770-1800: Ivory, with Swartzia and Pernambuco sticks.

Concluding Comments:

It should be clear to all that any serious musician with an interest in style, phrasing, articulation---in short, what Mozart called “taste”---may pursue these with any decent bow on a string instrument. Conversely, the finest Tourte, wielded without skill and discernment, is just a fiddlestick.


This presentation is intentionally short, a reduction, yet my best understanding. There are serious ongoing studies of the bow, in particular by Dr. Robert E. Seletsky, with whom I consulted for this article, cited below. My own investigations have only served to confirm his fundamental conclusions. The Chelys article by Hans Reiners extends the discussion to the viola da gamba. The other citations are for excellent guides to early string performance and history, but do not contain recent research on the bow.

Bibliography and suggested reading:

Robert E. Seletsky, “New Light on the Old Bow,” Early Music (London: Oxford University Press, 2004), Vol. XXXII [May 2004], No. 2, p. 286-296 ; No. 3 [August 2004], p. 415-426; No. 4 [November 2004], p. 645 (Correspondence: “Newer Light on the Old Bow.” Continuing correspondence in later issues.)

Stephen Marvin, “Fiddlesticks” and other articles on the history and practical use of early bows.

Robin Stowell, “The Early Violin and Viola: a Practical Guide,” (Cambridge University Press, 2001)

Hans Reiners, “Baroque Bows,” Chelys: Viola da gamba Society of Great Britain, Vol. 28 (2000), p. 59-76

Robert E. Seletsky, "Bow I, 3: c.1625-c.1800," The Revised New Grove (London: Macmillan, 2000) NB: Be aware that owing to Grove's editorial problems at the time, many of the photos and captions do not correspond to the information in Dr. Seletsky's text.

Clive Brown, “Classical and Romantic Performing Practice, 1750-1900,” (London: Oxford University Press, March 2000)

Peter Walls, “Mozart and the Violin,” Early Music (London: Oxford University Press, 1992), Vol. XX, No. 1 [February 1992], p. 7-29

Robin Stowell, “Violin Technique and Performance Practice in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries,” (Cambridge University Press) 1985


Stephen Marvin is a violinist/violist, bowmaker and writer living in Toronto, Canada. He has been a teacher of baroque and classical performance technique and is a chamber music devotee. Mr. Marvin is a highly esteemed maker of Historical Bows and has researched the materials and construction of old bows from 1650-1850.

Stephen Marvin
4 Sandcliffe Road
York (Toronto), ON
Canada   M6N 2M3