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The Story of Today's Bows Starts With France: A Brief History


Until the ascent of the violin in solo literature and more intricate music, the bow was a mere accessory, for the simple reason that music did not pose the kind of technical challenges that came later. Although the sound of the violin necessarily originates with the bow, the simpler (or less variant) musical and technical demands of long ago required a simpler bow than today's bow. With the violin mainly in the background, and often simply accompanying dance, that was enough. Just as with the development of the violin, the development of the bow, as with any musical instrument or "tool of the trade" is linked to the needs of the player. And the player's needs are directly linked to the demands of the music, as envisioned by the composer and audiences.

It was during this same time that the simple bow from the baroque era evolved rapidly into the bow that is familiar today. And these changes happened in France. Today, we call this "disruptive innovation". In late 18th century France, the disruptor was François Xavier Tourte. Tourte enjoyed great success in his lifetime. His early career as a watchmaker helped him develop great coordination and attention to detail. His great sensitivity to the needs of musicians during this period of rapidly evolving music impelled him first to perfect the classical bow of the time, then to change it to serve his musician customers. His list of innovations in the development of the bow is vast: He was the first to use pernambuco wood, which has the natural qualities of strength and flexibility that enabled a number of important changes – a narrowing of the stick to create agility; reversing of the arch, to provide power and fast agility; widening of the frog to accept a wider ribbon of hair, for yet more power. The new bow that emerged from Tourte's hands enabled new techniques of playing to emerge: sautillé, saltando, spicatto, as well as stronger legato and cantabile playing. Violinists exploited these new advantages, allowing them to play as never before, quickly moving the violin into its prominent place as the solo instrument of Paganini and other virtuosos of the day.

Interestingly, if Tourte was not satisfied with a bow that he made, he would not sell it at a discount -- he would simply destroy it, And he did not work with assistants or apprentices, jealously guarding his secrets. It took the great Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume to "deconstruct" that which Tourte had created, much as he did with the great Italian violins of the 17th and 18th centuries. Vuillaume's genius enabled him to discover the technical and physical qualities inherent in Tourte's bows, largely because of Tourte's intuition and trial and error methods. Ever the astute businessman, Vuillaume was able to systematize what he learned, successfully applying Tourte's discoveries and innovations in his vaunted Mirecourt workshop. His now-legendary makers, Voirin, Peccatte, Maline, Simon, Sartory and others, used these discoveries in the crafting of the great bows revered by today's great artists of the violin.