When was the last time you took a good look at your bow? It’s much more than just a skinny stick you drag across your strings. The bow has a rich history that spans more than 400 years, a history that reveals what a fine work of art and science it has become.
The history of the bow can be divided roughly into three stages of development: the baroque bow, the classical bow and the modern bow.
The Baroque Bow
“Baroque bow” is a generic term for a wide range of early bows used during the baroque period (approx. 1600-1750). It doesn’t describe a specific model or type, as bows of this period were not standardized and every one was different. Baroque bows started out quite short compared to today’s standards, which made them well suited to the rhythmic, non-legato dance music of the time. Early baroque bows also had a removable frog (called a clip-in frog) that tensioned the hair when attached.
As interest grew in cantabile (“songlike”) playing and composers began to call for a smooth, connected notes, the baroque bow grew longer. With this increase in length came changes in construction. A frog with an eyelet and screw gained popularity. The angle of the stick and the head became steeper as the height of the head increased, which allowed a more even and sustained tone across the length of the bow. Probably the most noticeable change, however, was the transition of the stick from convex (curving outward) to slightly concave.
The Classical Bow
The term “classical” (or “transitional”) bow is not quite so broad a term as “baroque”, though it still refers to a variety of bows of the classical era (approx. 1750-1830). Though the changes were not as dramatic as in the baroque era, the popular music of the time prompted modifications to the bow. Structural issues were resolved and design contributions from various bow makers resulted in a stronger bow that could meet the demands of the new, virtuosic music.
Around the turn of the 19th century, the bow’s evolution was largely complete and the era of the modern bow began. A man named François Xavier Tourte is responsible for perfecting the design that has been the standard of bows for the last 200 years. Tourte’s innovations included using premium pernambuco wood and utilizing complex mathematics to define the dimensions of the stick.
The Modern Bow
The modern bow has changed very little since Tourte perfected his design. The modern bow is the epitome of a versatile tool, as it can play legato passages with evenness and good tone, yet can also perform demanding articulations like spiccato, ricochet and sautillé.
Never forget that bows were created and altered to meet the demands of the current style of music. Though a modern bow will do justice to any style of music, a bow designed in a given era will perform the music of that era with the greatest authenticity. We highly recommend playing music with a period bow if you ever have the chance—it’s an incredible experience!
Explanation and demonstration of historical bows:
You Might Also Like…