The bow is an essential piece of “equipment” for every string player, and for period players it means having a range of bows from different eras and of different styles. In just the opening two programs of this season, for example, the violinists will use three or four different bows, to cover everything from Farina (1620) to Vivaldi (1720), and early Mendelssohn (1820) to Tchaikovsky (1880). We asked violinist Christopher Verrette to offer a brief explanation.
The string players of Tafelmusik use a variety of bows to best perform the different styles that we encounter in any given season. The history of the bow is challenging in that there are relatively few surviving examples. Nor is it always obvious how they were used, as there was little standardization and a great deal of experimentation, but with some help from written sources and the visual arts it is possible to at least come up with some basis for further experimentation by players and bowmakers.
We can identify four basic categories. By around 1625, a violin bow would be similar in length to the violin itself, roughly two feet; its stick was made of snakewood, or some other hardwood imported from South America, curved slightly away from the horsehair at the middle and tapering to its point. This type of bow is adept at delivering strokes of varied strength, like the differently weighted beats of dances, and the speech-like gestures so essential to all baroque music. The best players could also sustain a long, strong sound with these bows as well, so they remained useful throughout the baroque era.
During the 18th century, distinctly longer bows began to appear alongside these earlier bows. These bows offered new possibilities for sustaining the sound, as well as a gentler attack and evenness which suited “galant” trends in mid-century musical style. Some prominent artists embraced the new bows, while others never abandoned the shorter version. It is not unusual to see both types simultaneously on stage at Tafelmusik.
In the latter half of the 18th century, some makers changed the shape as well. The stick was bent toward the hair at its middle, and then out again to a higher tip. These begin to resemble modern bows visually, but play quite differently; they share many of the singing qualities of the longer baroque bows, but enabled bouncing strokes suited to the emerging classical style.
Around 1780, Francois Tourte arrived at what would eventually be the model for the modern bow (to this day). Tourte was very specific about the shaping of the stick and both ends were strengthened for maximum evenness of sound. It was initially promoted by the violin teachers of the newly formed Paris Conservatoire, but not accepted everywhere right away. These bows are appropriate for Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky, but would not yet have represented the norm for Haydn, Mozart, or even Beethoven.