By Sarah Freiberg | From the July-August 2021 issue of Strings magazine
While the violin has remained constant in size and shape since the early 17th century, the same cannot be said of violin bows. Bows have undergone an amazing transformation over the centuries, varying in size, shape, material, and function. Understanding the history will help guide you in your quest for just the right style of bow for you, and you might find it worth your while to invest in a variety of bows to keep in your musical arsenal.
The Earliest Stringed Instrument Bows
David Hawthorne, who studies and makes early and modern bows for stringed instruments, mentions that there are only a few extant bows left from the 1600s, though he had the chance to study one in a private collection. Illustrations are helpful for placing instruments and bows in a historical context. Hawthorne says, “Dutch paintings, which are very accurate, give us a window into bow iconography at the time—and there the bows look much like this rare bow I have studied in depth.” Modern makers of early bows glean important information from studying such paintings.
The very earliest bows were simply dowels with horsehair attached to the tip of the stick through a slit. They were very short in length. But by the early 17th century, bows had become more sophisticated, with the hair knotted into a mortise and kept in place with a wooden plug at the tip, though there was hardly any height to the head of the bow. At the other end of the stick was a similar mortise to secure the hair—the hair was attached to the stick, and not to the frog.
Unlike modern bows, a removable frog was used to raise the hair from the stick—what we now call a clip-in frog. These bows were still very short in length, about 58.5 centimeters—the same length as the violin. Hawthorne hypothesizes why this would be so: “One reason would be how the instrument was held—lower, and more in front of the player—so there was only so far that your arm could extend. Another was that cases were the size of the violins, and so the bow had to be the same size to fit the case.”
Early bows would have been made from local European woods, but eventually South American snakewood became the wood of choice for those who could afford it, because of its strength, and, as Hawthorne puts it, “it sounds great.”
Snakewood was a great fit with the short clip-in bows, and the bows were perfect for the dance music for which violins were favored in the 17th century. Acclaimed Baroque violinist Carla Moore, concertmaster of Portland Baroque and co-concertmaster of Philharmonia Baroque, loves using her short “dagger bow” primarily for dance movements. “I find this bow is really important to have. It’s so great for articulation and getting out those diminutions, those fast, little notes. The bow is so agile—it can really speak.”
18th-Century Evolution of Historical Bows
Hawthorne notes that bows evolved quickly from 1700 to 1800. This went hand in hand with changes in musical style and sound-production ideals. The first notable modification in the early 18th century was the lengthening of the bow, which facilitated the longer lines of solo violin music of the time. Bow makers were experimenting, but these later bows measured up to 72 centimeters in length, often with a higher “swan head” tip. All the early bows would have a slightly convex shape near the tip, giving Baroque-era examples a more bowed-out appearance than modern ones.
Bows from the first half of the 18th century would still have clip-in frogs, regardless of their length. This is an important consideration when thinking about the music of Bach, Corelli, and their contemporaries. Without a screw mechanism to tighten the bow, a player needs pieces of leather, paper, or ribbon to put between the frog and the hair to add tension. Given modern playing requirements, Moore notes that “clip-in frogs might not always have the right tension, with temperature and humidity changes in the halls we play in. We need our equipment to be reliable in modern halls or theaters with air conditioning, and with frequent travel, so clip-in bows may not be realistic for all modern Baroque players.”
Moore says that a longer Baroque-style bow works well for a more singing style. “There is a bit more hair on the bow, the stick is longer, and the music has more long lines—not just quick little notes.”
We need our equipment to be reliable in modern halls or theaters with air conditioning, and with frequent travel, so clip-in bows may not be realistic for all modern Baroque players.
The most far-reaching bow development of the 18th century was the screw frog, which appeared between 1740 and 1750. As Hawthorne put it: “After that, everyone started making them—it was so much more convenient. Of course, not everyone switched as bows changed. The engraved frontispiece of Leopold Mozart’s treatise on the violin from 1756 clearly shows a clip-in bow.”
As experiments and modifications continued throughout the 18th century, not everyone could afford to keep up with the newest bow advancements, and many would have continued to use the bows that worked well for them. It is likely that an early short Baroque bow would be played alongside not only longer Baroque bows, but later so-called “transitional” bows, and by the dawn of the 19th century, that Baroque and “modern” bows would be used in the same orchestra.
The latter half of the 18th century saw an explosion of experimental bows—which resembled each other but were quite a step away from the long Baroque bow, although they were approximately the same length. We tend to call these “transitional” bows, but of course the makers didn’t think of them that way. These bows have strength and power throughout the stick, bounce well, and work beautifully for the music of the Classical era—from C.P.E. Bach through Mozart and Haydn to Beethoven—and they are notable for their variety of shapes and sizes.
These transitional bows had open frogs and higher heads—the tip shaped less like a swan head and more like a “hatchet,” and, says Hawthorne, the higher head required the bow to be curved inward, or have camber, to make it less floppy and easier to control. It turns out snakewood tends not to hold its cambervery well. So the hardwood of choice for bow makers in the late 18th century became another from South America—pernambuco, which is still in great demand today, and is, unfortunately, now endangered. It is likely that while many bows throughout the 18th century would have been made from European hardwoods, most of the original transitional bows that survive today are of pernambuco.
In the late 18th century, French bow maker François Tourte came up with the design for the modern bow, complete with a highly camberedstick, a closed frog, and at 73 centimeters, slightly longer than most transitional experiments. Over time, the Tourte bow became the standard, and, very slowly, the other bow variants disappeared from use. However, I have two transitional bows made in England, as well as a copy of a Baroque bow, all of which hail from the 19th century.
Colorado bow maker Evan Orman comments that: “The Baroque bow is analogous to cross-country skiing. The modern is downhill. There is lots of variation in between. They are all good ways to ski—just for different purposes. The form and function of bows are kind of analogous to that.” He says that bow makers from the 18th century “were chasing musicians and composers, to make bows that worked for players.” In other words, the kind of bow that will suit you best depends heavily on the music you wish to play; the bows themselves were reflections of the musical trends of their time.
All About Historical Cello Bows
Orman is also a cellist, and he mentions that there was much more variety in early bass instruments than in the violin, and the early eight-foot ones were large, with unwieldy all-gut strings, and used for accompaniment only, probably using big violone bows. In the 1660s, the advent of metal winding revolutionized the cello—strings could be thinner and shorter, the instrument smaller, and thought of as a possible solo instrument.
These days, there are skilled makers who reproduce early bows for all stringed instruments.
Unfortunately, there are almost no remaining examples of original cello bows from before the beginning of the 18th century, but current scholarship holds that early cello bows would not have been short like the 17th-century violin bows. Hawthorne thinks that cello bows have pretty much stayed the same length through time: “How far can you extend your arm? Cello bows have to be longer and heavier—they need more mass to make the thicker strings speak.” And some early bows considered to be cello bows might have been made for viola da gamba—and vice versa. Bows for six-foot instruments were quite varied, not just in size and shape, but even material—made from woods such as pear, cherry, maple, beech, or locust wood.
These days, there are skilled makers who reproduce early bows for all stringed instruments. Since there are few extant original bows, buying modern copies is a great way to fit your bow to the style of music you are playing. But be careful, as there are many mass-produced “Baroque” bows available online that may not be historically accurate, though the price may be attractive. Moore advises: “Play some handmade bows in shops—try some out, to see what fine-quality makers are making. Ask for advice from Baroque players or your teacher, talk about bowing styles, and try bows; learn about style.”
Further Resources: For more information on the history of bow development, check out Robert E. Seletsky’s articles on the subject in the May and August 2004 issues of Early Music. Also, bow maker Basil de Visser’s website, baroquebows.com, is very informative.