By Karen Peterson | From the July-August 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Bow maker Richard W. Riggall is a contented man, and who wouldn’t be? He loves what he does, commenting about his 45-year career—in a sentiment he underscores throughout our conversation—“I feel very blessed to have made a living and raised a family making my bows.”
The strings trade is a field of great variety—there are so many roles, passions, and stories. Tales Of The Trade shines a spotlight on the trade and the people involved in the art of the instrument.
Even better for a craftsman, his work is challenging. While he makes modern bows, Riggall’s specialty is early bows, primarily of the Baroque era. It is a mystifying and, for him, exceedingly satisfying niche endeavor. Mystifying because no one knows what Baroque music sounded like, in a historic sense. Satisfying, because it is Riggall’s mission to bridge that sound gap.
A modern Bach performance is an anachronistic experience for the 21st-century audience. What we hear today, says Riggall over a Zoom call from his home-based workshop not far from Philadelphia, “is not how Bach heard the music. He heard a different sound. If you want to hear what Bach heard, you have to go back to the original sound.”
Authenticity is where Riggall’s bows come into play in this quest to break the time and sound barriers, and to do so with appropriate gentleness of design. Baroque music has a “nuanced sound that can’t be reproduced in modern orchestras with modern instruments and bows,” he says.
His early-music bows, for violin and the viola da gamba family, are as close to the past as the centuries allow. He uses ironwood and African blackwood for his bows but often turns to the same wood that was popular in the early-music era: snakewood, a reddish-brown tropical hardwood with speckled black patterns, like a snake’s skin. “It has a smooth and waxy texture for the player,” says Riggall, “and it’s nice to work with.” (While none of the wood he uses is endangered, Riggall adds, “as a resource it is being more consciously and carefully harvested.”)
Zoom also allows Riggall to show me his bows, early and modern, which he holds close to the camera. The differences are readily obvious to a string player. Noticeably shorter in length, the Baroque bow’s head is sleek and more pointed, reminiscent of a stylized hood ornament on a pricey classic automobile.
The frog is unadorned, and both head and frog are lower than their modern counterpart. The lower heights are a significant factor in the Baroque bow not drawing as much sound from the instrument as a modern bow does. As the bow developed, makers made longer sticks and began to raise the height of the head and frog, which allowed more camber (reverse curve) to be put into the stick. With more camber in the stick, there is more tension on the horsehair when it is tightened. The greater the tension on the hair, the more the bow can dig into the string for a bigger sound.
In addition to these developments in the bow’s design, makers were experimenting with various woods, and finding those that had greater strength and spring. As is true in most of life, when one thing is gained, something else is lost. The modern bow gained power and projection but it lost the subtlety and nuance of the Baroque bow.
More amplified sound is one reason the early bows went out of fashion. Volume was needed when performances moved to public concert halls from early-music venues, such as churches and the homes of wealthy patrons. And the longer bows were in sync with emerging new forms of classical music, which called on steady, emphasized long notes and more legato. Baroque music was faster with shorter notes, especially so when played for dance. “Everyone wanted more sound, bigger sound,” says Riggall. “Concert halls were bigger, orchestras were bigger, and the style of music was more dramatic.”
Not a purist, Riggall says that while he is influenced by the original early-music bows, “I’m not trying to reproduce every detail of an early bow.” He adds, “So few early bows survived. Maybe it’s because no one used them; maybe it’s a bad bow to copy.”
The lack of period bows to “copy” allows the craftsman to be creative. That’s not the case with the modern bow. Says Riggall, “That concept of trying to recreate something from the past, the beauty of the lines, the freedom of different styles, the modern bow has kind of reached its parameters.”
Riggall’s path to bow making was a serendipitous one. He began as a clarinetist in the U.S. Army Band in the years leading up to the festivities for the 1976 United States Bicentennial. Stationed on Staten Island in New York City, Riggall had been introduced to early music as a musician and his curiosity had been piqued. The moment of truth came when he stepped into a Staten Island shop owned by William Monical, a world-renown expert on Baroque period bows. Monical encouraged him to continue to drop by and taught him a few basic bow-making tasks.
From there, after his stint in the Army band, Riggall joined Salchow & Sons in New York City, then moved to William Moennig & Son in Philadelphia in 1980 (it closed in 2009 after a century in operation), where he soon became head of the bow department. Riggall remained with Moennig for more than two decades, at one point dropping down to four days a week so that he could concentrate on making his own bows. “I loved working at Moennig as just a craftsman, sitting at my bench,” Riggall reminisces.
Baroque music has a nuanced sound that can’t be reproduced in modern orchestras with modern instruments and bows.
In 2008, Riggall left Moennig and opened Riggall Bows out of his home. He has a steady stream of clients for his early and modern bows. He does rehairing and bow restoration and conservation. For a number of years, he was in charge of caring for the bow collection at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, a collection that also includes his own bows purchased by Curtis. His bows are also in the collections of the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and the University of Toronto.
He has exhibited at the Boston Early Music Festival and has attended the Violin Society of America’s bow workshops at Oberlin College in Ohio. Early-music ensembles including the Baltimore Consort, Philomel Baroque Orchestra, King’s Noyse, Ensemble Rebel, Tempesta di Mare, and Tafelmusik use his bows.
Through it all, Riggall remains rooted in a fundamental truth. “I enjoy working with my hands,” he says. “I’m a craftsman by personality and style. I enjoy working with tools, and I enjoy making something beautiful.”
He is also a romantic who admits that as he works, he often sinks into reverie, his daydreams focused on the piece of wood he’s working with at the time. “It’s inspiring to wonder where the piece of wood was as I plane and peel off a shaving,” says Riggall, who then picks up a bow for the Zoom camera.
He is looking directly at the bow standing upright and strokes it as he speaks, clearly enamored by what he sees. “I know it’s an abstract, unanswerable question, yet it’s one that comes to my mind: I wonder, what bird was singing? What could the tree have heard? What moment of its life did I just shave off?”