By Silvia Eccher
“Il di lei esercizio, e studio principale deve esser l’arco in genere, cosiché ella se ne faccia padrona assoluta a qualunque uso o suonabile, o cantabile”
So begins the letter sent in 1760 by Giuseppe Tartini to his pupil Maddalena Lombardini Sirmen. The celebrated composer highlights with these words the importance of the bow for violin players; three years earlier, in 1757, he had published “L’arte dell’arco,” a collection of virtuosic variations written on a gavotte by Arcangelo Corelli precisely to confirm the centrality of the bow in music for the violin and for other stringed instruments (in fact, the bow).
Such importance, however, has never been taken for granted, quite the contrary; very often, in fact, bows are not taken into consideration because we tend to perceive them only as accessories focusing solely on the instrument. Yet there is no violin without a bow and vice versa: violin and bow are inseparable and complementary.
The bow consists of a wooden rod; between its two ends, the head and the heel, is attached a bundle of horsehair whose tension is regulated by a screw mechanism. The bow is essential and serves to articulate, pronounce and characterize the sound and make it expressive, shaping and molding it into its subtlest dynamics and nuances. Not surprisingly, the violinist’s hands have two different functions, and it is the right hand, the hand that holds the bow, that produces the sound while the left hand, which moves along the neck, determines the pitch of the notes. In fact, the technique of bowed instruments is thus made up of the sum and integration of two different techniques that coincide with the different use of the hands.
The history of the bow is the history of sound and has always gone hand in hand with the art of stringed instrument making even though it tends to be separate from the bow making profession. Over time the bow has evolved considerably in the direction of increasing power of sound, manageability, and strength: from the short and very convex bow (hence its name) of the seventeenth century to the longer and flatter bow of the early eighteenth century to the modern bow defined at the end of the century by François Xavier Tourte with its slightly concave shape, better balanced weight, and use of hot bent pernambuco wood. The famous virtuoso Giovanni Battista Viotti, who collaborated with Tourte apparently said, “The violin is the bow.”
The bow we know today was born on that model, which has become in effect a standard just like the Stradivarius for violins. Thanks to the skill and work of great bowmakers today we come into contact with a fascinating world that reminds us that behind a good musician lies a good luthier and a good bowmaker.