THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE BOW
The development of the violin (and its associated family of modern string instruments), from its conception as the lyre some two thousand years before the birth of Christ to its full flowering as exhibited in the great Cremonese instruments of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, is a subject of great fascination, and consequently one to which music historians have devoted much time and energy. A matter that, by comparison, gets little attention is the development of the violin's inseparable companion, the bow. Before plunging into the details of the matter, let it be noted that the development of the bow begins, peaks, and levels off at times later than those of the corresponding phases in the development of the violin. If a conclusion were to be made from this, it would seem to be that the making of a bow required greater technical knowledge than the making of a stringed instrument. This writer's own experience tells him that the modern bow is quite a marvelous piece of wood. (But then the violin is pretty marvelous, too. . . . )
The first records of stringed instruments indicate that the Egyptians played lyres, harps, and guitar-like instruments around 1700 B.C. No bow as such was used, but sometimes these instruments, instead of being strummed by hand, were picked or strummed with a plectrum or wand.
As civilization moved into Europe, the concept of friction against strings being beneficial brought to European minds the ideas for what can be called the most primitive bows.1 The name bow is appropriate, as the first musically-oriented bows were very similar in form to their counterparts in the realm of hunting and warfare. They were made by fastening a string or sinew into slits made in either end of a bent rod.2
Although major improvements did not begin to happen until the thirteenth century A.D. or so, there are a few records of the developments before that time: the Cotton MS. Tiberius of the tenth century shows a performer on the viol using a bow somewhat resembling today's German-style bass bow; a twelfth century manuscript exhibited in Strutt's "Manners and Customs" shows a player of an oval-shaped viol using a bow that is "very much curved."3
In the thirteenth century, bow makers first began differentiating the ends of the bow4 (this change became permanent in about the fifteenth century).5 The larger end, called the nut (or frog), was held in the hand; the opposite end was called the head (or point or tip). Hair, and not string or sinew, was almost surely used. At this time the stick became somewhat flatter.6
Yet a description of the sixteenth-century bow still shows it to be fairly undeveloped. Carse says, ". . .the bow of the sixteenth century was comparatively primitive and clumsy. [It was] short, heavy, inelastic, and without proper mechanism for adjusting the tension of the hair. . . ."7
In the seventeenth century, the first attempts at allowing the tension of the hair to be adjusted were made. The frog was fastened to the stick with a piece of wire; attached to the frog was a toothed metal band which could be adjusted to some extent. The gradations it allowed were apparently not very fine: the violinist still had a choice only of playing piano or forte.8 The stick of the seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century bow was still curved, but this occasionally proved advantageous: Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin, composed early in the eighteenth century, were full of chords much more easily played with a bow of the time than with a modern bow.9
The great violinist Tartini (16921770) suggested certain improvements in the structure of the bow, many of which bow makers implemented. Among these were the use of lighter wood, a longer stick, a straighter stick (except for an inward curve toward the head),10 and a shorter head.11
Viotti (17531824), another violin virtuoso, could be called the designer of the modern bow. It is he who suggested the use of an adjusting screw on the nut of the bow, which is held to the nut by a metal device and fits into a groove on the stick. With such a screw the tightness of the bow hair could be adjusted with great precision.12 The bow maker who implemented this idea was named Tourte.13 It is to the son of this Tourte, one François Tourte, that the discussion now turns.
François Tourte (17471835) was the greatest innovator in the history of bow making, and, almost incredibly, no changes of any significant magnitude have been made since his time. The bows of François Tourte are still, in 1975, universally acclaimed as masterpieces they sell for about $3,000 at the bare minimum, and range upward into the realm of pricelessness. A description of his innovations follows. . . .
According to the specifications of virtuosi such as Viotti and Kreutzer, he increased the bow to its now-standard length of 73.9 74.4 centimeters. He standardized the thickness of the stick: 8.6 millimeters thick through the first 11 centimeters of length from the nut end, then tapering evenly to a thickness of 5.5 millimeters at the head (the idea of tapering at all was Tourte's own). He fixed the center of balance of the bow at a point 19 centimeters from the nut.14 (Many of his bows are beautifully inlaid with gold, silver, ebony, and/or mother-of-pearl; one may not realize that these are serving the very practical function of balancing the bow properly.)15 He experimented with woods from all over the world until he found the ideal: pernambuc (or pernambuco) wood from Brazil.16 He formulated the idea of cutting the stick perfectly straight and exactly with the grain of the wood, then heating it evenly so that it could be bent inward (toward the hair)17 (bending the stick inward to increase flexibility was also his idea). Viotti suggested to him that he make the hairs form a flat, broad plane instead of a round bunch as before; this he achieved with the use of a mother-of-pearl slide fastened into the nut with a silver or gold ferule.18 He found that because of the shingle-like scales on horsehair, it was best to place half of the hairs with their roots at the nut and half the other way;19 he increased the number of horsehairs used to around two hundred;20 he standardized a method for choosing and treating horsehairs (use only male horses' tails [mares' tail hair is somewhat fatty and nonuniform in thickness],21 then clean it first in soap and water, then bran-water, then blue-tinged water).22
With the death of Tourte, the saga is practically over. J.B. Vuillaume of Paris made minor improvements in the nut and slide,23 and in 1856 published a mathematical formula attributed to Fetis giving the tapering of the stick (Tourte had done it by feel).24 Vuillaume also brought out a steel bow, but it required different training to play, so it never caught on.25
In the late nineteenth century, the French bass bow first came into use. Bassists up to that time had used exclusively German-style bows, held somewhat like a handsaw. The newer bows resembled ordinary violin, viola, and violoncello bows (except that they were thicker and shorter).26 Both kinds are still in use today.
About 1960, the Roth Violin Company invented fiberglas bows, strung either with the conventional horsehair or with nylon. They are used primarily by young students, for they are very durable, but lack a certain amount of responsiveness and smoothness.
It is thought by many that the bow reached an ideal state with the work of Tourte (and Vuillaume's minor improvements). That a Tourte bow can be surpassed either in beauty or in functional quality seems hard to imagine. Only time will tell.
Sandys, W. and S.A. Forster. The History of the Violin and Other Instruments Played on with the Bow from the Remotest Times to the Present. John Russell Smith. London. 1864.
Abele. The Violin: Its History & Construction Illustrated and Described, From Many Sources. William Reeves. London.
Farga, F. Violins & Violinists. Rockliff. London. 1950.
"Bow". The New College Encyclopedia of Music. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York. 1960.
Carse, A. The History of Orchestration. Dover Publications, Inc. New York. 1964.