A Timeline history of the Violin Bow - from c. 1600 - 1800

... the sources in detail ...


Mozart, Leopold (1719 - 1787)
Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule -
Towards a Thorough Violin School (A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing) (1756)

You can find an online version of the complete facsimile (from the first to the fourth and subsequent editions) on imslp (click here), and an English translation by Editha Knocker is readily available as printed or e-book.

Leopold Mozart is one of our most important sources for 18th century performance practice in general, and violin playing in particular. If he sometimes comes across as slightly pedantic and over critical of any opinion opposing his own, that should certainly not diminish his obvious dedication as a pedagogue, and his clarity of instruction. The treatise was often reprinted (four times unaltered up to 1800, revised in 1801, and 'elaborated' in 1804). A French translation appeared in 1778. It was clearly highly influential in its own time, and was still being referred to after the founding of the French Conservatoire Style.
The treatise covers all aspects of violin playing, but the importance attached to bowing by Leopold Mozart is made clear in his Preface, discussing the reasons for writing his treatise;
"I felt a deep sympathy when I heard adult violinists ... distorting the meaning of the composer by the use of the wrong bowing"

In the following summary, I give some choice quotes - however, I cannot emphasise enough the importance of reading the treatise in its entirety. Chapter 2 is entitled Wie der Violinist die Geige halten, und den Bogen führen solle - "How the Violinist must hold the Violin and direct the Bow".  Here are the relevant paragraphs concerning the bow, both in facsimile and translation :

The bow is taken at its lowest part not too far from the frog in the right hand between the thumb and between or also a little behind the middle joint of the forefinger, not stiff, but light and easy. One sees this in the illustration, Fig. IV. And even though the first finger has the most to do with the increasing and decreasing the tone, the little finger should always remain on the bow, because it contributes much to the control/management [Mäßigung] of the bow stroke through pressing and releasing. Both those who hold the bow with the first joint of the forefinger, and those who let the little finger leave the bow will find that this method just described is more likely to bring an honest and manly tone from the violin; if they are not too stubborn to try something different. One must also not stretch the forefinger too far over the bow, or distance it from the other fingers. One might sometimes hold the bow with the first or second joint of the forefinger - but the stretching out of the forefinger is always a major fault. Then the hand will become stiff, because the nerves are tensed. And the bow stroke will be, heavy-handed, clumsy, indeed downright awkward/inept, because it’s done with the whole arm. One sees the mistake in Fig. V

Secondly, one places the bow more straight [upright] than to the side [tilted] on the violin, for through this one achieves more strength, and avoids the mistake that some have who have the bow so tilted to the side, that when they press a little they play more with the wood than the horsehair.
Thirdly, the stroke must not be made with the whole arm. One moves the shoulder little, the elbow more, and the hand but naturally and freely. I say, that the hand must be moved naturally. I mean by this, without making laughable and unnatural curves, without bending it too far outwards, or holding it at all stiff - rather one lets the hand sink when one plays a down bow, but with the up bow one bends the hand naturally and unconstrained, also not more and not less than the course of the bow demands. Speaking of which one notices that the hand, and above all the forefinger has the most to do with the moderation/control of the tone.
Fourthly, from the very beginning one must become accustomed to a long, uninterrupted, gentle and flowing bow stroke. One must not play with the point of the bow or with certain quick strokes that hardly touch the string; rather always play seriously/properly.
Fifthly, the student must not play with the bow sometimes up on the fingerboard, sometimes down on the bridge, or absolutely not crooked; rather he must draw the bow consistently and evenly not too far from the bridge, and through an even/controlled pressure and release search for a good and pure tone and with patience take care to maintain it.
§11. Finally I must still remind the beginner that he should always play seriously, with all his power, strongly and loudly; never play weakly or quietly, or even less dally with the violin under the arm. It is true, at the beginning the rawness of a strong and not yet refined stroke offends the ear. Only with time and patience will the sound lose its rawness, and one will retain with the strength also the purity of the sound.
In Chapter 4, Leopold Mozart concerns himself with "the Order of the Up and Down Strokes". In general, his point of view here is very conservative, coming from a guiding principle of down bow for the down beat. As the book is readily available, I will not reiterate it all here - but it's pretty much essential to work through the chapter - and then to play the "pieces for practice" at the end, in spite of Leopold's rather off-putting commentary "The more distasteful they are the more am I pleased, for that is what I intended to make them." (Why? - to encourage the student to learn them as fast as possible?)
Moving forward to Chapter 5, we have "How, by adroit control of the Bow, one should seek to produce a good tone on a Violin and bring it forth in the right manner"   This chapter is to be read from beginning to end. Here are some choice quotes:
"Every tone, even the strongest, has a small, even if barely audible, softness at the beginning; for it would otherwise be no tone but only an unpleasant and unintelligible noise. This same softness must be heard also at the end of each stroke"

He then proceeds with four exercises in dividing the bow into strong and weak. He starts with the messa di voce (soft - strong - soft), proceeds through a decrescendo (strong-decrease-weak), in both up and down bow, then the crescendo (weak-increase-strong), and finally "the fourth division with loud and soft twice in one stroke" (here with his diagram).
A couple of observations - in spite of his famous condemnation of too much vibrato ("Performers there are who tremble consistently on each note as if they had the palsy"), he does recommend here, particularly in the first division (the messa di voce) , that "the finger of the left hand should make a small slow movement which must not be sideways but forward and backward ...: in soft tone quite slowly, but in loud rather faster". Also, regarding bow speed, "...the stroke in soft tone must be drawn very slowly; when increasing the tone, somewhat quicker; and in the final loud very quickly."
He also advises, in addition to the above divisions "... to endeavour to produce a perfectly even tone with a slow stroke. Draw the bow from one end to the other whilst sustaining throughout an even strength of tone." (paragraph 9). Later (in paragraph 12), still concerned with evenness of tone, he points out that "... piano does not consist in simply letting the bow leave the violin and merely slipping it loosely about the strings, which results in a totally different and whistling tone, but the weak must have the same tone quality as the strong, save that it should not sound so loudly..."
A last important extract from paragraph 14: "Not a little is added to evenness and purity of tone if you know how to fit much into one stroke ... You must therefore take pains where the Cantilena of the piece demands no break, not only to leave the bow on the violin when changing the stroke, in order to connect one stroke with another, but also to play many notes in one stroke ..."
In Chapter VII, Leopold discusses "the many varieties of Bowing". His main thesis is that "the bowing gives life to the notes; that it produces now a modest, now an impertinent, now a serious or playful tone; now coaxing, or grave and sublime; now a sad or merry melody; and is therefore the medium by the reasonable use of which we are able to rouse in the hearers the aforesaid affects.". He proceeds to demonstrate numerous different ways in which a passage of equal 16th-notes can be bowed, from all separate, through ever more complex slurring patterns, to up-bow staccato and such. The bowings are presented as exercises for well composed music, but also as examples for what a "well-skilled violinist" possessed of "sound judgement" might add to less well composed music.
Certain essential nuggets of performance-practice advice appear during the course of the example - perhaps not strictly part of our focus here, but so very important! Discussing his very first variation, slurring in pairs:

he advises that "The first of two notes coming together in one stroke is accented more strongly and held slightly longer, while the second is slurred on to it quite quietly and rather late" (is he advocating a [light?] inégale here?). As he progresses through his variations he continually reiterates the need to play rhythmically. After pretty much covered all the bowing variations possible in common time, he proceeds then similarly with triple time - which he ends with a very important observation:
"Now if in a musical composition two, three, four, and even more notes be bound together by the half circle, so that one recognises therefrom that the composer wishes the notes not to be separated but played singingly in one slur, the first of such united notes must be somewhat more strongly stressed, but the remainder slurred on to it quite smoothly and more and more quietly (briefly paraphrased: slightly emphasise the first note of a slur, then make a diminuendo, but without portato).
In the second Section of Chapter 7, Leopold Mozart discusses the variations of Bowing in figures which are composed or varied and unequal notes". Obviously, by its nature, such a discussion cannot be complete, as Leopold himself acknowledges: "There exist, however, so many of these figures that it is not possible to remember all of them. I will set down in consecutive order as many as occur to me."
These are essential exercises, the mastery of which lead to a fine bow-control and ability to articulate. Don't forget to read Leopold's comments (§2 to §8). A few essential points to emphasise:
"In all these passages and their variations I recommend, as always, evenness of time-measure. ... with dotted notes followed by two quick notes which are slurred together... The dot must rather be held too long than too briefly. In this manner hurrying is avoided and good taste promoted; for that which is added to the dot will be subtracted imperceptibly from the following notes. That is, the latter are played more rapidly.

And again, on slurs; The first of two, three, four, or even more notes, slurred together, must at all times be stressed more strongly and sustained a little longer; but those following must diminish in tone and be slurred on somewhat later. But this must be carried out with such good judgement that the bar-length is not altered in the smallest degree
And finally, in Chapter 12, Paragraph 18;

Just as you have to observe precisely the slurring and detaching, the weak and the strong according to the demands of the expression: so also you must not continuously play with a dragging heavy stroke, but rather you have to follow the affect that prevails in every passage. Cheerful and playful passages should be played lifted, happily and quickly with light and short strokes: just like slow and sad pieces must be performed with long bowstrokes, nourished and with tenderness.