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

... the sources in detail ...


Roger North (1653 - 1734)
various writings, including The Musicall Grammarian and Memoirs of Musick (both 1728)

Roger North was an English lawyer, chronicler and amateur musician who amongst his numerous writings wrote copiously about music and musicians at the beginning of the 18th century. Here, in the Musicall Grammarian of 1728, he writes about the Italian violinist Nicola Matteis:
“His manner of using his violin was much out of the comon road of handling, but out of it he made the utmost of sound, double, single, swift, and all manners of touch, which made such impressions that his audience was not onely pleased but full of wonder at hime, and his way of performing. He was a very tall and large bodyed man,used a very long bow, rested his instrument against his short ribbs, and with that (having onely a full accompanement) could hold an audience by the ears longer than ordinary, and a whisper not be heard amongst them. In short the character of that man, to those who never saw or heard him, is incredible; but out of that awkwardness he taught the English to hold the bow by the wood onely and not to touch the hair which was no small reformation.”
In An Essay of Musicall Ayre (c. 1715 - 20) we read:
“… and then came his superior powers, an arcata as from the clouds, and after that a querolous expostulary style, as just not speaking, all which and other signall excellencys might then be perceived but now may not be described, so violent was his conference of extreams, whereof the like I never heard before or since. And that which was most remarkable of him was that he bore up to the quickest touches of his part with all his bases that were very loud, and if he touched forte and piano the latter was always heard as distinct as the other. He was a very robust and tall man, and having long armes, held his instrument almost against his girdle, and his bow was long as for a base violl, and he touched his devision with the very point.”

Once again, then, we read about the long bow - and that Matteis' performance style was commanding. Affirming the rhetorical performance style, but flatly contradicting the idea of a long bow, we have the following:
"Old ... Matteis used this manner ['Stoccata'] to set off a rage, and then a repentance; for after a violent stoccata, he entered at once with the bipedalian bow [meaning two feet long], as speaking no less in a passion, but of the contrary temper"

The arcata of which North writes was important to him - in an early notebook (c. 1695?) he wrote:
"The Italians have brought the bow to an high perfection, so that nothing of their playing is so difficult as the arcata or long bow, with which they will begin a long note, clear without rubb, and draw it forth swelling lowder and lowder, and at the ackme take a slow waiver; not a trill to break the sound or mix two notes, but as if a bird sat at the end of a spring [and] as she sang the spring waived her up and downe, or as if the wind that brought the sound shaked, or a small bell were struck and the sound continuing waived to and againe -- so would I express what is justly not to be shewn but to the ear by an exquisite hand."
In his autobiography, Notes of Me, he revisits this in a detailed discussion of teaching, and the method to achieve a good sound. If North was not a professional musician, he was acquainted with (and apparently held in high esteem by) many, so his opinion is well worth reading. Here, slightly abridged, are his comments on the use of the bow as regards sound, note-shape, and vibrato:
"Therefore as to the pratique, I would have a voice or hand taught, first to prolate a long, true, steddy and strong sound, the louder and harsher the better; for that will obtein an habit, of filling, and giving a body to the sound, which els will be faint and weak ... And so for a bow hand, to spend the whole bow, at every stroke, long or short. These lay a good foundation, the roughness and harshness of which will soften in time. ... then next I would have them learne to fill, and soften a sound, as shades in needlework, insensatim, so as to be like also a gust of wind, which begins with a soft air, and fills by degrees to a strength, as makes all bend, and then softens away againe into a temper, and so vanish. And after this to superinduce a gentle and slow wavering, not into a trill, upon the swelling the note. Such as trumpetts use, as if the instrument were a litle shaken with the wind of its owne sound, but not so as to vary the tone, which must be religiously held to its place, like a pillar on its base, without the least loss of the accord. This waving of a note, is not to be described, but by example. But as wee often use odd similes to express our meaning and help our imagination, take these images of sound by lines; which represent the humour of sound judiciously managed. The latter is the trill, which, as you see, breaking the tone, and mixing with another, is dangerous for a scollar to meddle with ..."

The diagram above illustrates his text - first the plaine note (with a slight swell), then the waived note (a light vibrato), and lastly a trillo note.