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The Bow – Part One: Beginnings

Want to know more about the history of the cello bow? Look no further.
This is the first in a series of articles about bow history by our new bow specialist, Andrew Bellis. Enjoy! – Dr. Brenda Neece, Curator

Who invented the bow?

I don’t want to start this series of articles on a pessimistic note, but I’m sorry to say that it is a waste of time searching for an answer to “who invented the bow?”

Nearly four centuries have elapsed even since the modern violin family came into being, so time is not on our side.

(Please note – by “violin,” I mean the violin family of violin, viola, cello, and double bass. No insult is meant to the larger string instruments – I am a viola player, after all – it’s just easier.)

The old saying, “Nothing exists in the West that wasn’t first in the East,” likely applies. Basic bowed instruments – vibrating string/s, bridge, amplifier body – seem to go back into the mists of time. Perhaps it is best that their origin remains a mystery. . .

Musical Magic from Ordinary Elements

The magic of the system is the combination of horse (tail) hair and tree rosin. Just one rosined hair tensioned between hands will make a string sing quite competently. But, on the other hand, an unrosined hair is disappointingly useless!

Gathering extra hairs into a bundle gives them strength against continued use. Anyone who has had the misfortune to lean against a pine tree on a place where it is “a-weeping” will know exactly how sticky and persistent the resin is. For some reason best known to the manufacturers, tree resin becomes violin rosin once it is re-formed into those vulnerable, expensive cakes we players know so well.

For freedom of playing, all the player has to do is find a way of tensioning the bundle of hairs remotely so that the bow needs only one hand to work it. Initial ideas depended on what types of wood were available locally. The first string players actually used “out-curved” bows, rather in the fashion of the hunting/archery bow tensioning its firing string.

Bamboo also works well. One instrument using such a bow is the Ravanastron and its variants. These were well established by the seventh century A.D. in the Far East and South Asia.


Ravanastron. Image: Public Domain. The ravanstron is an ancient violin-type instrument originating in South Asia. Its body features two tunable strings, a neck/fingerboard, a bridge, and an amplifier box. The strings are played with a simple bent-rod bow. It is held in a sensible cello-like manner to enable day-long busking.

What makes a bow?

The length and weight of the bow would have been decided simply by instrument technique and the chosen timber. Little skill is needed to fashion these basic devices. The only possible tricky parts are holding the (up to) 50-ish hairs together evenly in a “hank” (somewhat akin to herding cats, to the beginner bow maker). Then, they are secured to the tensioning stick while still allowing the hank to be easily removed for replacement.

The out-curve profile only happens because of the hair’s tension on the otherwise straight stick. With the hair tension released, the stick will or should return to being almost straight.

Rebab with bow, front and 3/4 views. Musée Panafricain de la Musique de Brazzaville (République du Congo), Inventory Number MPM-2009.3.4. Photo: KMKG-MRAH. One of the earliest known bowed instruments, the rebab, is an ancestor of many European stringed instruments. It is nevertheless a later development of the Ravanstron, using a specially-made amplifier body. But, the bow is still quite simple.

Musical Migrations

Traders from the Middle East likely brought their instruments along to what is now the European mainland. Then came the transformation. Folk instruments were refined into the early violin around 1530 in Brescia, Italy, a perfect combination of a finely carved aesthetic object and a musical instrument.

Such individually-made prizes were expensive in their exclusivity. The city of Cremona in Northern Italy became a world-center of “modern” violin making. The design and size have scarcely changed to this day. Cremona was followed closely by Venice around 1640. However, within a century, the market was satiated. Sales declined, and the knowledge of the working practices of those early craftsmen was nearly lost around 1750.

But what of the bow?

The exquisite development of the violin was not matched by the bow immediately. Instead, it became more refined in craftsmanship, but the out-curved principle remained until makers obtained endemic timbers from the New World.

Portugal claimed Brazil in 1500, and the export of hardwoods of a density previously unknown to European woodworkers followed soon after. Some doubtless appeared so heavy and difficult to work that they would have been of no use to a cabinet-maker – but they would be of use to bow makers.

The Bow Maker’s Challenge

Bow development needed close collaboration between player and maker. For example, players wanted to produce longer phrases, so makers needed to make longer bows. This required some way of making the extended bow feel less top-heavy so that the new stick and bow stroke would be both possible and controllable.

Makers interpreted this as a need to lower the vertical center of gravity of the bow, keeping the stick as close to the hair as possible. They also tapered the stick thinner in the upper third. Ideally, even with enough tension in the hair hank to play, the bow needed to curve into the instrument, not away from it.

The first approach used stiff, heavier woods, simply harnessing their inherent resistance to bending for tensioning the hair. However, a few of the “new” timbers from Central and South America could be permanently reset to a curve by dry heat.

The Rise of Pernambuco

One of these New World timbers – called pernambuco wood – became the best bow-making candidate, possessing an ideal combination of density and strength. It came from Bahia, a region in Brazil, and was originally used for dye purposes as it yielded a vivid pink/red color when it came in contact with moisture.

The fiery color of the wood actually gave the country its name – combining the Portuguese words “brasa” (“ember”) and “île” (“island”). The timber export further north caused the state to be named Pernambuco; its port city was Recife. However, the area soon became far more famous for its sugar production, and Recife was infamous as the first slave-trading port in the Americas.

Adventures in Parisian Fishing

Rumor has it that a certain Parisian fisherman enjoyed his sport on the banks of the Seine where goods were offloaded. One quiet Sunday, he spied a pile of timber abandoned on the quayside, maybe “bleeding” color after a shower. Picking up a piece, he thought it might be useful for his craft – making violin bows. So it went home with him.

The fisherman was Nicolas Pierre Tourte, Francois Tourte’s father, and the wood was pernambuco. I hope that story is true; it could easily be so. Francois famously became known as the father of the modern bow at the end of the eighteenth century.

The Art of the Bow

Bow making eventually became a craft separate from that of lutherie – violin making. Bow-makers began using the professional description archetier. Because of the differences required by these specialties in working and workshops, not many artisans did both. At the age of twelve, they would become apprentices to one type of master craftsman or the other.

Pernambuco wood would not have been popular with cabinet-makers as an inlay because, with alcohol-based “French” polishing, the strong color would leach out and spoil nearby lighter timber. But for archetiers, its rather “thermoplastic” quality of being re-set to any shallow curve multiple times with the heat of a small charcoal stove (like a barbecue starter) brought about the fully in-curved bow. Players could thus experience that wonderful feeling of the bow “clinging” to the strings.

Early Experiments in Bow Making

It may be that large, strong, molasses barrel staves yielded material (though probably not pernambuco) for the first experiments. These woods acquired a curve while being manufactured using dry heat – a fire is set inside the roughly assembled barrel. The thick staves from the barrels enabled a bow head to be formed, albeit not a high one. The gentle curve of a single stave is similar to that needed for an eighteenth-century bow stick – more in the middle than at each end.

Modern copies of early bows.

Bows, top to bottom: Basil de Visser, Luis Emilio Rodriguez Carrington, Luis Emilio Rodriguez Carrington, School of Edward Dodd, School of Meauchand, John Dodd. Photo courtesy Richard Gwilt, Traditions of Baroque Violin Playing.

Look at the bottom of this image for an example of a silver-mounted Tourte-type wooden violin bow. The bows pictured here are carefully made replicas and restored originals to give the player of today a taste of the past. After all, how do you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve come from?

The uppermost three bows are made of snakewood from Guyana. The others are pernambuco. It really needs a carbon fiber bow below the Tourte to bring the progression up to date, but I will write more about them in a future post.

So we leave the bow, on the cusp of its “big change,” around 1750, where for the classical period bow the hank of hair more than doubles in quantity from the simple bows and becomes a firm, flat ribbon.

Next Installment

My next article deals with Tourte, Dodd, Tubbs, and Hill.

Your Turn

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