By Philip J. Kass | From the November-December 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Surely you’ve heard people claim that all bows look alike. Some have gold, others silver, and sometimes the frogs are recognizably made from some other material, but otherwise, distinguishing them can be difficult. Those who spend a great deal of time looking at bows, however, do not find this to be true. Those frogs involve an enormous amount of handwork that often reveals the aesthetic ideas of the maker every bit as much as the carving of the stick and head. And there are some bow makers who employ a style that is undeniably individual, sometimes downright eccentric.
Indeed, sometimes bow makers come up with odd notions of what is practical. I suspect that a lot of them were not players, or at least that those who made the strangest ones never actually played them. But there is also something lovable about these unusual bows, as strange as they may be: their impracticality, lack of convention, or their maker’s insistence in trying something new, even if it doesn’t work.
Among these oddballs, I have a few favorites, whose foibles and quirks I am happy to share with you here.
Old Ideas in New Bottles
When we look at bows made in Mirecourt in the late 18th century, we find a custom of unusual decorative devices set into the faces of the frogs and also earlier concepts of heels, heelplates, and ferrules. After the design revolutions that centered on Tourte, Peccatte, and Pajeot, in which the standard model changed dramatically, we might assume that these old styles fell out of fashion. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, it appears that several generations of bow makers, many of whom we might consider in the second tier, remained true to these sorts of models as part of their method of distinguishing their work; we still see this sort of frog as late as the 1850s.
The makers we identify with this approach are primarily Louis Simon Pajeot, the father of Étienne, who represented the end of the craft in the 18th century, but also the rather prolific François Jude Gaulard, who began his career at the end of the 18th century but who only retired around 1855. Among the other makers who we find in this group are a slew of more obscure ones, such as the Duchaines, the Lagardes, and the Harmands.
As befits their era, these frogs are often of ivory, with rounded heels, and occasionally with ridged patterns carved in them in place of heelplates. The decorations on the faces are often ebony or mastic disks, with ivory bits inserted, and occasionally metal wiring as well. Visually they are quite striking. The downside, though, is that this amount of decoration, created from lots of tiny bits of ornament, is just asking to come to pieces when handled by hot and sweaty hands.
Alternate Self-Rehairing Systems
Many are well-acquainted with the self-rehairing system that Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume developed, in which the hair tightened and loosened inside a stationary frog, and which could, in principle, be changed by the player at will. Fewer are acquainted with an alternate system developed by Étienne Pajeot in Mirecourt at around the same time. Like Vuillaume’s method, it was patented, and like Vuillaume’s method, it had a fairly short life. However, there are certain qualities to it that are both eye-catching and practical.
Pajeot was particularly novel in his ideas about metalwork. He was the inventor of the metal plates welded onto the front edges of the underslides of his bows, to the perpetual discomfort of generations of musicians (a similar device was created by one of the Knopf bow makers of Markneukirchen at about the same time), as well as the continuance of a method developed by Tourte, where a disk of metal was welded to the inside surface of the button and the screw run through it, so that it was flat metal that made contact with the heel.
For the self-rehairing bows, Pajeot’s frogs moved against the stick, but the hair was mounted into the frog in two different models. In one, perhaps intended for the lower-priced bows, the hair was finished with a dowel at one end and a shallow flat mount at the other. The flat mount fitted into a narrow mortise in the head, and the round dowel plugged into the back of the frog, with the hair then running along its bottom surface. The other was more ingenious. On the frogs with ferrules, the entire bottom surface of the frog was held in place by the ferrule and the heelplate. The best involved a metal slide with the ferrule incorporated into it. On these, the slide and heelplate locked together in a dovetail joint.
It was an elegant solution: elegant and, as the English would say, terribly fiddly, and I’m sure musicians tired very quickly of both methods, preferring to leave these messy details of bow rehairing to those most qualified to handle them: the bow makers.
The Completely Impractical
When the Moennigs acquired the inventory of Rembert Wurlitzer, Inc., upon its closing in 1974, they also briefly had possession of one of the most impractical bows ever made. It was a violin bow made by Eugène Sartory for the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. It had come to the Wurlitzers as part of Henry Hottinger’s collection. Ysaÿe, of course, was a friend of Sartory’s, and owned many bows by him, but this one was unique in that the frog and button were made out of mother-of-pearl. The Moennigs admired but declined it, and it became the property of Isaac Stern, who was playing Ysaÿe’s Guarneri at the time and always felt a strong kinship to him.
It was stunning to look at but completely useless, at least if you cared about actually using it. Mother-of-pearl reacts badly to acidic perspiration, literally dissolving over repeated contact, so that pearl mountings eventually crumble. But there are more problems with mother-of-pearl than just the vulnerability of the material.
During the period when the bow was in the shop, Johannes S. Finkel was working for the Moennigs, and he decided to make a copy of it. It cost him dearly. Pearl is quite hard and abrasive. Every single cutting tool and file that he had was worn dull or useless while fashioning the pearl into a frog shape, and indeed it had taken much more than his usual complement of them to finish the bow. It ended up in Rafael Druian’s hands, and the steady process of dissolution in his perspiration proceeded accordingly. When I finally saw the Finkel copy, the frog looked as though it had melted in the heat.
Of course, there was a precedent for Sartory’s work in the form of a series of bows by Nicolas Maire. These were from his years shortly after his employment by Pajeot and sport the thumb plate extension, button disk protector, and such, but what is remarkable about them is that the frog is sheathed in highly figured pearl sheets. It is stunning—and equally unusable.
The Practical but Strange
I always admired the work of Jean-Jacques Millant, and saw quite a few of his bows through my friend Marc Reindorf, who during the 1980s became close to the bow makers of Paris—and a principal importer of fine French bows, new and old. After his death, his estate gave the Moennigs his collection for resale, and in it was something the likes of which I knew only from book illustrations.
Around 1960, Millant had invented a new design for a frog, which functioned according to a novel system that harked back to the earliest screw-mount bows. It was shockingly different in appearance and decoration, the heel being at a sharp angle and the ornaments being triangles that mimicked its shape. Furthermore, the thumbseat and frog rails were separate and were permanently mounted to the heel. The frog itself, without an underslide, rode on an indented track that was deep enough to keep it from falling off the sides. In this respect, it echoed the early bows, on which the frogs were flat mounted against the bottom facet and stayed in place because of the eyelet and two guide pins.
Millant probably saw this as a radical, extremely modern design, which indeed it is. Musicians, on the other hand, were less accepting. In making the bows, care had to be taken that the balance point was maintained, because the new-style frogs were much smaller and of lower mass, and therefore would leave the balance point high if proper compensation were not made for it. Anyway, by around 1970 he had given up trying to persuade musicians to accept this radical space-age design and returned to making traditional bows. The handful we have are eye-catching and rarely ever used any longer, as they have “collectible” written all over them.