Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four. She is now a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.
Playing Second Fiddle
When a top-string player is reviewed for performance or introduced as a soloist at a concert, invariably the announcer or journalist will describe their instrument. A Stradivarius, maybe a Guarnerius, made in this or that year, the sound it produces, once belonging to Paganini or Jacqueline du Pré or another acclaimed predecessor.
Rarely is there mention of the bow, without which the illustrious instrument cannot show off its pedigree. Yes, you can pluck the strings, but pizzicato hardly brings out its true colours. The bow literally plays as vital a part in any instrumentalist’s performance as the instrument itself. It has been chosen as carefully as the violin, or whichever instrument of the string family they have chosen to specialise in.
The Bow Merits a Mention!
Unusually, when Min-Jim Kym had her 1696 Stradivarius stolen from virtually under her nose in a Prêt à Manger where she’d gone for a drink and a sandwich, mention was made of the bow that disappeared along with it, a creation by Peccatte worth £62,000.
They were both eventually recovered. It’s virtually impossible to fence such a well-publicised violin or bow, they can’t be played on stage, the critics want to write about what the performer’s playing on or with. I doubt whoever nicked it had any idea what a hot potato he’d lifted, two hot potatoes in fact. Thank goodness he didn’t destroy them to get rid of the evidence!
Of course, it wasn't concert notes eliciting such details of the bow in this case - it was publicity to retrieve the precious duo. If only the two were always mentioned in equal measure.
The report into the devastating theft of Min-Jin Kym's bow did not reveal which of the Pecatte family it was made by. Three of them were particularly esteemed: Dominique (1810-1874), his brother Francois (1821-1855), and Francois' son Charles (1850-1918). Dominique Pecatte is considered out of the three to have produced the finest bows, many of which are still being played with today. The Dominique Pecatte competition awards prizes for the best bow and violin entries.
See What the Bow Can Do: The Flight of the Bumble Bee
Engraving of Francois Tourte
Tourte: The Stradivarius of the Bow
Francois Tourte could arguably be considered to be the bowmakers' bowmaker, making several changes to the construction of the bow to improve performance.
As was often the case in the profession, Tourte was born into a family of bowmakers. At this time, bows were going through a transition period between the baroque-style convex stick and what we now regard as the modern bow.
Apart from the difference in look was the switch from denser woods such as snakewood, which was not immensely flexible, to the springier pernambuco. As well as the wood being more responsive it was also stronger and lighter. Tourte was based in Paris where at that time, the exotic pernambuco wood was being stockpiled over an astounding 168 acres, so supply was hardly a problem.
Collaboration with the esteemed Italian violinist Viotti led to major modifications to the bow. Viotti was looking for a bow which could cope with the rigours of virtuosic show-shopping compositions, many he turned out himself as vehicles to demonstrate his considerable technique.
Over a twenty-year period, Tourte made several changes to the construction of the bow to improve performance. The appearance changed from convex to concave and it became both longer and of a standard length though there are small variations from maker to maker and the specification of a bespoke commission. Instead of the horsehair being bundled from frog to tip it was straightened out and flattened, with a screw fixed into the end of the frog to enable the tension to be varied.
A Block of Pernambuco Wood
Pernambuco, the Number One Wood of Choice for Bows
Pernambuco wood was imported from South America principally as an aid to dying textiles. Sadly, the intense harvesting of the wood has led to it being listed as an endangered species. Not only is it favoured for the sticks of bows, cabinet makers use it for veneers and inlays as well as for carved objects. It is very durable due to its high density and boasts a straight-grain, ideal for bows. Pernambuco is also known as Brazilwood.
Violin Bow Frog
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The Beauty of the Bow
A bow is a thing of beauty, slenderly tapering from the frog, or heel, as it is also known, towards the tip. One of the first things a potential buyer will do is cast an eye down its length to check if it’s straight. So many become warped over time or due to misuse. Leave a bow continually with the hairs tightened and the tension will twist the wood out of true. A warped bow will not produce the same smooth flow over the strings as a straight one. Nevertheless, a musician friend of mine told me of a violinist who spent three thousand pounds on a distorted bow, to the bewilderment of us both. It must have had something going for it otherwise, it'd be like having an office clerk dressed to the nines wearing high heels unable to do the filing.
The frog where the hand sits is usually fashioned from ebony and maybe inlaid with mother of pearl or abalone with a silver or gold screw. At the opposite end is the tip, appropriately named. another piece of ivory, bone, tortoiseshell or silver is attached to its underside to finish it off.
Traditionally pernambuco wood is still used for the stick, but its export is restricted as now it comes under the directory of endangered species and carbon fibre is now also being offered as an alternative. Some bows are faceted at the frog end before smoothing to round. I have seen them faceted the whole length, but generally, a bow will be rounded most of the way along.
Critically an instrumentalist will be interested in the bow’s weight and balance. How does it feel sitting in the hand? Then there is the question of the spring. Too little and directions marked spiccato - to make the bow bounce - are difficult to achieve, too much and the bow will jump uncontrollably. Does the bow flow smoothly, is there a raspiness to the sound? These are some of the considerations a buyer will have in mind.
Rehairing a Bow
Hair and Spare
Purists opt to have their bow strung with unbleached horsehair. The hair is rubbed with rosin to create more friction between the hairs and the strings, allowing the natural scales on the hair to pluck the string to produce the sound. Synthetic fibres are mostly used for student bows and although far cheaper than horsehair they are not made up of the same effective properties. On average between 150 and 200 strands are used to rehair a bow.
Double bassists and cellists may favour black horsehair which is heavier than the natural white, or a combination of the two called salt and pepper. Some argue the best horsehair comes from Siberian stallions.
Video of a Bow Being Rehaired
Many Bows to Strings
Most professional string players own several bows. I personally have four but only play with two of them on a regular basis. It's necessary to have more than one as bows have to go for rehairing and it can be a couple of weeks before you have it back again.
The great twentieth-century violinist Jascha Heifetz owned several top quality bows including a Villaume and a Tourte. Yehudi Menuhin also owned a Tourte bow though his favourite was that of maker Voirin which he came to own in about 1930.
The same fate befell renowned cellist Mstislav Rostropovich as Min-Jim Kym in that his Sartory bow was thieved during a rehearsal. He had been given it by another equally gifted cellist, Gregor Patiagorsky one great performer acknowledging another.
Highly Strung, Highly Prized
String players will pay thousands for a good bow, it is their right-hand man, so to speak. Should you care to follow the auction prices for bows, in 2012 one made by Villaume realised $134,500. But the record currently for a bow sold at auction is awarded to the great Francois Tourte at an astounding $288,960.Not that the jobbing musician has that amount of cash to splash out on a wonderful bow, but it remains as important a part of his instrument case as his violin, viola, cello or double bass. However, bow prices are still far below the top price paid for a violin. A staggering $16 million for the 'Lady Blunt' Stradivarius in 2011, again at auction.
Nevertheless, should you have the wherewithal to invest in a venerated bow as an investment, selling it privately after a few years would almost certainly realise a decent profit and it can always be on loan in the meantime. Auctions may charge between 15 and 35 percent in commission so deals are frequently negotiated on a private basis.
Underhand Double Bass Bow Hold
French and German Frogs
Although the bow hold is often termed a 'grip', in reality, it should be cradled so that it can flow freely through the fingers to create a smooth continuous-sound. The thumb should rest on the underside of the stick, often covered in leather and wound over with silver wire, not be pressed hard up against it.
Players of the double bass are divided into two camps when it comes to holding the bow, some practise the overhand French version, as you would see with violinists, violists and cellists, while others are taught the underhand or handshake German position, demonstrated in the photograph of celebrated bassist Serge Koussevitsky. Proponents of the French style say it has more versatility, whereas those who prefer the German bow hold think you can exert more weight on the strings. The frogs of French and German bows to suit these two preferences are a little different, as you can see in the picture.
There are many bow strokes string players need as part of his or her technique. Musical directions are normally written in Italian. I have written some common ones below:
- legato - smooth bowing
- marcato - bow strokes are detached from each other
- spicatto - the bow bounces on the string
- col legno - using the wood of the bow
Baroque Violin Bow
The Baroque Bow
With the rise in interest of early music and authenticity of performance, instrumentalists have returned to the original designs that would have been heard at the time, including the bow. The hair of the baroque bow was tensioned by the player's fingers according to the desired sound and also whether chords - ie two or more notes played simultaneously - were required to be played. Slackening off the hairs meant they would cover more strings and thus achieve a chordal sound far more easily than if the hair was taut.
Buying Your Bow
So where to buy your bows? Auction houses such as Sotheby's and Christie's hold specialist sales from time to time, and there are shops dedicated to stringed instruments like Hill in London. The Strad places adverts for bows in their publications, one of several to do so, or perhaps you would go directly to a bow maker. A cellist friend of mine plays with a Sartory bow which she generously lent to a favoured pupil to take to a bow maker to copy.
I purchased one of mine in Manchester, England, but my prized possession was a present, silver mounted and sympathetically weighted for my arm.
So no matter what type of instrument is owned, whether factory produced or by a top maker, without the bow it cannot sing, it has no voice. A good bow literally points the player in the right direction, the slender stick of wonder.
© 2017 Frances Metcalfe
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Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on January 26, 2017:
Thank you. The bow is absolutely essential to any member of the string family. Whist you do frequently hear the double bass nowadays playing jazz pizzicato - plucking the strings - the double basses strings are so long, they resonate a great deal more than the smaller of the string family, it's rarer to hear elsewhere.
Barbara Walton from France on January 25, 2017:
What an informative article! Lovely pictures too. I didn't realise the violin bow was so important.