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

Bowing Technique - a brief overview


 
INCOMPLETE ... more a collection of thoughts than an essay ...
 
In one way, this essay is completely superfluous! All the information is actually present in the Timeline - and it also overlaps with my essay on the Development of the Bow.
 
But my purpose here is two-fold;
 
1. to try to put it all in context, and in some way assign relevance and importance to the sources. For example, when Fetis reports that Corelli and Vivaldi "had not yet experienced the necessity of rendering the stick flexible, because they had no idea of imparting to their music the varied shades of expression [of more modern times] ..." , it must be fairly obvious to all that this is not useful or relevant. On the other hand, when so many sources (from Prinner and Muffat up to Corrette) point out the difference between the French bow-hold (thumb on frog) - also used by the Germans - and the Italian (thumb on the stick), we have to take that seriously. Note, however, that the sources refer exclusively to nationality, and NOT to the sort of music being played. So when you might read in some modern literature that the thumb on frog hold is a "dance-music" hold (appropriate for simple music with simple accent patterns), that's opinion, not fact! (... and questionable, at that, although that's also opinion!) ...
 
and secondly:
 
2. to provide a brief summary. As already said, the material is all in the timeline. This essay is an attempt to provide short-cut, to plot out the basic trends ... "what every baroque violinist needs to know". And hopefully also to instill a sense of curiosity, and responsibility. So much for the polemic ... on with the show.
 
Perhaps a good first step here is to cast your eyes over my iconography page (this link will open in a new page). As you scroll through the pictures a few things become clear. First, throughout the 17th. century, the bow is consistently very short - no longer, I would estimate, than the length of the violin. Which as pointed out in the Development of the Bow adds up with the few written reports we have. Moreover, you'll notice that the bows are most often quite thick (especially at the frog, but often throughout their length), and light coloured. This clearly suggests indigenous woods, rather than snakewood, or some other extremely dense tropical wood. Of course - worth saying again - we don't know if any given painting is documenting the present state of things, or an artistic representation of the past. But simply statistically, I would argue that short indigenous wood (cherry, plum, beech, yew?) bows were most commonly used in the first half of the 17th century - if not much longer.
 
Now, just to re-iterate what I have said elsewhere; - at any given time artists, musicians, anyone really, will develop the tools best suited to the task at hand. So in the early 17th century, we have music by Monteverdi, Castello et al. We have violins by the brothers Amati, Maggini et al. Is it not extremely likely that the bows developed and used by the people who played this music on those instruments would have been of a similar quality. So when we see all these short light bows, not only should we assume they used bows like that, but also that bows like that are best suited to the music, instruments, strings of the time. There is no substitute for hands-on experience. You have to have one of these bows in your hand, you have to try them out to understand their characteristics. (You can read about my attempts to re-create such bows on my RG bows page ).
 
They are incredibly immediate - they articulate really well, but without 'attack'. They work surprisingly well with the thicker gut strings - making light work of an open gut g-string. They have a gorgeous 'human' sound - paralleling and enhancing exactly the kind of sound lent by an all gut set-up. They also inform - and here we come to the point - bowing technique. They are good at certain things, less good at others. What can a combination of the iconographical evidence, the written sources and the (reconstructed) bows themselves tell us about baroque bowing technique? We'll start with the 17th century, looking at the main topics. First;
BOW HOLD
Here it is completely clear there are essentially two ways to hold the bow. (Just to clarify, we're talking exclusively here about 'clip-in' frog bows - the adjustable screw-frog didn't really appear till the middle of the 18th century.) A quick look through the iconography page shows the two methods - one with the thumb on the stick, and the other with the bow under the frog/hair;
 

The first written mention of how to hold the bow comes in 1664 in John Playford's A Brief Introduction to the Skill of Musick, London 1664. He writes;
"the Bow is held in the right hand, between the ends of the Thumb and the three first fingers, the Thumb being staid upon the hair at the the Nut, and the three fingers resting upon the wood ...

The next is in Austria in 1677 - Johann Jacob Prinner's Musicalischer Schlissel. He's very clear about the two methods;
"... the violin bow is drawn with the right hand, but in different ways I have seen specially in Italy that most hold the bow just between the thumb and one finger, that is, only with two, on the wood, in the middle of the bow, where it’s more or less in balance, and bowed with that such that most true artists don’t approve ..."

- [something like this maybe? ]

 
"... but rather say that one should hold the bow nearer the frog, with the thumb on the hair and to lay the other fingers on the wood, so that one can tension the hair of the bow with the thumb, and with pressure one can give the bow power/strength"

 
Prinner is explicit here that the bow-on-the-stick hold is Italian. Looking through the other sources, we find a remarkable consistency; Germany, France and UK (before the Italian influence), thumb under - Italy, thumb on;
 
John Lenton, The Gentleman’s Diversion, or the Violin Explained (London, 1693):
"hold it with your Thumb half under the Nutt, half under the Hair from the Nutt, and let it rest upon the middle of the first Joynt, place all your fingers upon the Bow, pretty close, (or for the better guiding of it) you may place the out-side of the first joynt of the little finger against the Wood, ..."

Roger North, reporting on Nicola Matteis in 1728 (but probably referring to the late 17th century);
"he taught the English to hold the bow by the wood onely and not to touch the hair which was no small reformation."

 
Georg Falck Idea boni cantoris (Nürnberg, 1688);
... [the student] must learn to grasp and hold the bow correctly, such that the right thumb slightly presses the hair next to the frog, so that the hair well drawn can bring a full stroke and sound from the strings, and then he must take the wood of the bow between the two front joints of the fingers ...“

Daniel Merck in Compendium Musicae Instrumentalis Chelicae, (Augsburg, 1695) is somewhat less useful;
"How the bow is to be held, you should learn yourself"

 
On the other hand, Georg Muffat in the Preface to his Florilegium Secundum (Passau, 1698) gives us the clearest 17th-century summary of the situation;
"The majority of German violinists and other players of upper string instruments hold the bow as the French [Lullists] do, pressing the hair with the thumb and resting the other fingers on the stick of the bow; ... The Italians, among others, differ in playing these upper instruments in that they never touch the hair; ..." [implicit, then, they - the Italians - have their thumb on the stick]

This distinction between the French & German style on the one hand and the Italian on the other continues into the 18th century.
 
Michel Pignolet de Montéclair in 1711 writes:
"The bow is held with the right hand, the four fingers placed on the wood, and the thumb under the frog which holds the hair. "

And Michel Corrette in 1738 is as explicit as Muffat:
"I show here the two different ways of holding the bow. The Italians hold it at three quarters by placing four fingers on the wood at A. and the thumb underneath at B. The French hold it next to the frog, by placing the first, second and third fingers on the wood at C.D.E. the thumb underneath the hair at F. and the little finger next to the wood at G. These two methods of holding the bow are equally good, it depends on the master who teaches you."

 
After this date, I have found no more mention of the thumb-under bow-hold.
 
A few points to clarify;
1. - that the difference in bow hold is a national question (Italian as opposed to French/German) is pretty clear in the written sources. Less so in the iconographical. For example, Judith Leyster (Holland 1609 -1660), depicts both, thumb on the stick in The Carousing Couple, c. 1630 (with an old-fashioned bowed stick):
 

... and thumb under the frog in The Merry Company also c. 1630.

 
2. - the thumb-under technique has - both in written and iconographical sources - two variants, one with the thumb resting under the frog, one under the hair alone, beyond the frog. It seems there was no hard and fast rule - but you're left with personal preference and a trade-off. The reason given for putting the thumb under the hair beyond the frog is to control the tension of the hair. In my experience, there's only a very small range of hair-tension where such control is useful or necessary - beyond a certain slackness it makes no difference. Holding the bow in this manner beyond the frog is, for me at least, inherently unstable, and completely unnecessary with a judicious use of leather or similar under the hairs at the back of the frog, as illustrated here in this detail from a beautiful picture David Leeuw with his family, by Abraham van den Tempel in 1671 (The picture in its entirety is in the Rijksmuseum, and can be viewed online by clicking on this image)
:

 
3. - again both in written and iconographical sources we sometimes read of/see the little finger of the right hand placed under (or at least bedside) the stick; Lenton, for example writes; "you may place the out-side of the first joynt of the little finger against the Wood". This is clearly less usual - and seems more connected with a thumb-under technique. But it does suggest once again less standardisation than these days.
SOUND
Here we see a noteworthy consistency through the 17th century, and across the nationalities. A good even sound, with the bow drawn well over the strings and an avoidance of bouncing (play faster notes at the tip) are recommended.
 
Francesco Rognoni writes in 1620; "The viole da brazzo, especially the violin, is an instrument in itself crude and harsh, if it is not tempered and softened by gentle/delicate [soave] bowing." And later in the paragraph; "The passaggio must be made of equal notes and such that they can be heard note by note, not too fast or too slow, but following a middle road, drawing the bow well above the viola."
Playford 1664; "you are first to draw an even stroke over each string severally, making each string yield a clear and distinct Sound."
Bismantova 1677; "The whole art of playing the violin consists in knowing how to manage the bow well, and in making good bowing, in drawing a long bow ...'
Prinner 1677; "... with which to draw a steady long stroke ..."
Falck 1688; "the hair, well drawn, achieves a full stroke and sound from the strings ... The strokes should be according to the value and length of the notes long, full, and even on the strings, neither too near the bridge, nor too far from it."
Lenton 1693: "let your Bow be as long as your Instrument, well mounted and stiff Hair'd, it will otherwise totter upon the String in drawing a long stroke;" and; "let the Bow move always within an inch of the Bridge directly forward and backward ..."
Merck 1695; "accustom himself to a nice long stroke, and above all should not rush the up bow"
Muffat 1698; " Moreover ... all the finest masters, regardless of their nationality, agree with each other that the longer, steadier, sweeter, and more even the bow-stroke is, the finer it is considered;..."
 
Not only is the importance of a long smooth stroke emphasised, but at the same time, the opposite is explicitly discouraged; Francesco Rognoni points out that there are those players "who lift [the bow] with such force that they make more noise with the bow than sound. What is more, they do not bow four eighth notes or sixteenths which are equal one to the next but they go on with the bow jumping on the viola so that it appears to devour the notes ...". This is all completely confirmed by the bows themselves - any kind of 'bouncing' stroke (spiccato, sautillé, whatever) is pretty much uncontrollable, the bow is so light (mine average around 34 grams). All you get is noise, exactly as pointed out by Rognoni. These bows will 'bark' (bite, even) if you don't keep them close to (on, even) the string. And this with both thumb on and thumb under bow holds.
WHERE TO BOW
A consistent response from everyone who's tried these early short bows is 'they play so fast'. Indeed, with their lightness and super articulation they make such sense of those fast passaggi, divisions and gropetti - music that always seemed like hard work with a heavier, longer, 'soggier' snakewood bow suddenly seems easy. And playing at the point of the bow makes so much sense - too low down and you tend to lose control (Rognoni's 'noise'). And this adds up with every single source I know in the 17th century that mentions anything about where in the bow to play;
Bismantova (1677), "passaggi [diminutions], which should be played at the point of the bow, with a short stroke.”
Falck (1688), "the coloratura and quick little runs should be played at the point where the bow is light.“
North on Matteis: "he touched his devision with the very point;”
(Before I started experimenting with these little bows, the instructions to play at the tip always confused me. With a 'conventional' baroque bow (ca 1730's model 66 - 70 cm), the place to make the fast notes lively, sprightly and articulate seemed to me to be around the middle of the bow - the place where the bow might just bounce if you let it, but don't! The tip just seemed very far away and very 'flat' in effect. But with the little bows, the tip is firstly much 'closer', so to say, and the natural articulation of the short stick gives you the lively sprightly articulation without having to risk bouncing around out of control!)

 
FURTHER TECHNICAL POINTS
We have read in a couple of the sources about where on the string to bow; Falck 1688; "neither too near the bridge, nor too far from it." and Lenton 1693: "let the Bow move always within an inch of the Bridge directly forward and backward..."  Simply makes sense, nothing profound here.
Slurring is mentioned a few times - Merck, Bismantova for example. Francesco Rognoni is quite verbose about it, almost implying that it's a new idea; "If you want [this bowing] to have a good effect, you must practise it slowly, giving pressure to the wrist of the bow hand". And then he carries on with il lireggiare affettuoso, that is, with affetti, which "is the same as the kind described above, as far as the bow is concerned. However, it is necessary for the wrist of the bow hand, almost jumping, to beat each note, one at a time. This is difficult to do well, and thus much practice is needed to be able to do it with the beat, conforming to the note values, [whereby] you should be careful not to make more noise with the bow than with the sound."   Is this a sort of up- (or down-) bow staccato, or more in the direction of bow-vibrato? If the latter, then maybe this sheds light on Marini's instruction "Affetti" over half-notes in his Sonata Quarta from Opus 8;
- an alternative way of writing 'tremolo' as in La Foscarina from his Affetti Musicali, 1671.
 
There is as good as no mention of any 'virtuoso' strokes; Merck points out that 'special' strokes such as Spiccato or Harpeggiato used by Biber and Walther are too advanced for this tutor.
It might be of interest, though, to point out, that one of Biber's hall-mark strokes; works incredibly easily with a light bow held with the thumb under the frog!

Two more specifically technical points; Prinner (1677) suggests (presaging 18th century treatises such as Geminiani and Tartini) that it's a good idea to play faster notes with the wrist; "...and the speed of the fast notes with the wrist, and not wildly with the whole arm, to make oneself tired." . And Lenton (1693) recommends a loose wrist and not too high en elbow position: "...let your Bow-wrist move loosly, (but not much bent), and hold not up your Elbow, more than necessity requires..."
ORDER OF STROKES
Lastly in our brief survey of bowing technique in the 17th century we come to the question of the order of bow strokes, the 'up' and 'down' bow. This has been of extreme significance for the 'early music' movement, summed up by the anachronistic expression "rule of the down bow". This 'rule' is one of the first things I was taught, all those years ago. And it is still very relevant. Just that, so encapsulated, it never appears. It's a 20th-century expression. The closest I have found is in Francesco Geminiani's, The Art of Playing on the Violin, 1751 where he asks in one bowing exercise (no. VIII) to take "... Care not to follow that wretched Rule of drawing the Bow down at the first Note of every Bar". Yes, the first approximate mention is as the rule begins to dissolve.
 
But this doesn't negate its usefulness as an idea - especially with the light short bows. The down bow is simply stronger than the up bow - and an up bow, with its tendency to lift, is an ideal stroke for an upbeat. So I would rather re-cast the 'rule' as: "The Rule of the Up Bow" - make sure that every up beat is played with an up bow!!!. Indeed, such a formulation is hinted at by John Lenton, who's very first bowing instruction is; "if you have an odd Note before the first Barr, it must always be struck with an up Bow". Polemic aside, reviewing our sources again we find an impressive consistency, if tempered by the occasional contradiction and/or opacity.
 
Starting at the beginning with Ricardo Rognoni we are immediately landed in complete confusion. Taking apart the passage (which you can read complete in the preceding link) ...
"Since on string instruments it is difficult to pull and push the bow in beginning to play, you must always pull the bow if you play the Viola da Gamba, and also the Viola da Braccio;".
First off, I guess he means, it's difficult to know which way to push or pull the bow in the beginning - and sadly, this doesn't help very much. It is commonly acknowledged that the gamba and braccio (violin) family bow the opposite way round - and he even contradicts himself later. He probably means, start (on the beat) with an up on the gamba - but a down on the violin family.
"but short groppetti are made pushing and pulling as you wish".
for a short little ornament, it doesn't much matter which way round you bow (although implied is, all separate)
and also taking a new bow when you find quarters in the middle of eighths, or eighths in the middle of quarters, or you can make two notes in one bow, because you cannot make a long division if the bow does not go correctly,
Hmm - a little more complicated. It's clear that to make a long division you must bow 'correctly' - presumably meaning with the right order of up & down (push & pull). So if you're moving in regular eighths, and then you have a quarter, you'll either have to take a new down after the quarter, or slur the two following eighths:
Or, moving basically in quarters, two eighths should either be slurred, or taken with a new down:
"because on the Viola da Gamba the bow must be pushed on the eighths and quarters and on the viola da braccio it must be pulled on the eighths and quarters,
this clarifies his confusion in the first phrase - at least insofar as confirming the two families bow in the opposite direction. But "pushed [or "pulled"] on the eighths and quarters" is far from clear. Which is disturbing particularly "because above all the bowing must always be done correctly." Once again, I presume that he means that for the violin family, the bow should be pulled (a down bow) on the odd eighths and quarters - so you bow "the right way round".
 
So, in the end, with a bit of 'interpretative' reading one understands that on longer divisions it's important to bow the right way round - 'correctly'.
 
Moving forward to his son, Francesco Rognoni, we have a much clearer statement about bowing;
Everyone should know the true way of playing upon the soprano, as far as bowing is concerned. When whole note rests are found, you must begin by pulling the bow downwards; when there are half notes or sospiri, by pushing it upwards. Similarly, when you find a passaggio beginning directly in sixteenths or thirty-seconds, pull downwards; if the passaggio is preceded by an eighth note you may push the bow upwards and this is the natural way“

If you start on a main beat, start with a down bow. If there's a rest (so you start on the half-bar, or with an upbeat), start with an up bow. If you have a running 16th note passage, which starts with a single eighth, play the eighth with an up bow.

 
What we have here - if my interpretation of the somewhat obscure text is correct - is a clear statement that it's pretty much essential to get your bowing sorted so that you're always playing 'the right way round' - down on the strong beats, up on the weak.
 
This interpretation is subsequently confirmed by pretty much every source (excepting the first two), regardless of country. Going through in order:
 
Mersenne, 1637: "But before starting the piece of music, one must consider that one should always pull the bow down on the first note of the bar, and push it up on the following note"
Actually, as discussed in the entry on Mersenne, there is a slight confusion in his use of language, and it's not completley clear if he advocates (in bars with an uneven number of notes) a down bow on every bar line, or every second.
 
Zanetti (1645): gives very specific bowing instructions (by means of "T" and "P" in the music) - which as seen and discussed in his entry in the Timeline contradict every other source, and seem awkward. He seems to start with whichever bow gives an easy result with a "bowing as it comes" principle, the parts often have different solutions to the same issue.
This might be a good moment to point out that all sources are not equal. Some are explicitly tutors directed at amateurs and/or beginners (Playford, Falck, Merck), some more clearly for professionals (Muffat). The status (equivalent to ability?) of each author is worth exploring - both father and son Rognoni were highly respected musicians/performers. We have no idea who Zanetti was - where he worked, what he did. I'm not convinced, given the elementary nature of his Il Scolaro that he's got much to tell us about contemporary professional performance practice.

 
Johann Andreas Herbst, 1658 "Notice that, at the beginning of the music: the bow should be drawn against the right hand. And when the whole rests are present, then one has to continue with the down-bow; but if half rests or quarter notes are found, then up bow follows." . The expression; "drawn against the right hand" [gegen der rechten Hand gezogen werden] is somewhat curious - presumably he means a down bow. His examples (marked with "T" and "P" - again from Rognoni, Tirare and Pontare) start exclusively with a down bow, unless, exactly as said by Francesco Rognoni, they start with an upbeat, or an eighth followed by sixteenths.
 
John Playford, 1664 presents these Rules for moving your bow up and down; "when you see an even number of Quavers or Semiquavers, as 2,4,6,8 tied together, your Bow must move up or forwards, though it was up at the Note immediately before; but if you have an odd number, as 3,5 or 7 (which happens very often by reason of a prickt Note or an odd quaver rest) there your Bow must draw back at the first Note."
This needs a little explanation; "tied together" in this context cannot mean slurred but beamed together. A "prickt Note" is a dotted note. And lastly, the whole explanation is (presumably) backwards - when you have an even number of notes, you should start with a down - even if the previous note was on a down bow. This mistake arose from simply copying this passage directly from the paragraph concerning bowing on the Viol ten pages earlier.
 
Bartolomeo Bismantova, 1677 gives a clear and comprehensive exposition of the bowing principles - down bow on the barlines, a retake rather than two ups for two 16ths following an 8th, two ups on beats 2 and 3 in triple time. Interestingly (and comfortably) he advocates always playing a dotted note with a down bow. His last example is confusing - here he completely reverses the principles: and says;“the moderns play this way, and it’s really not so bad!” . Quite what he means here is not clear to me.
 
Georg Falck, 1688 is again clear and in accordance with the other sources of this time, as can be clearly seen in his entry on the TimeLine. Summarised drastically - start with a down bow; play an up bow after a rest, or an uneven number of notes; adjust either by slurring two 16ths after an 8th, or retaking a down on the first 16th; play all dotted notes with a down bow. In triple time he suggests it doesn't much matter how you bow (down-up-up, down-up-down with a new down on each bar, or as it comes); "as long as the music is not deformed".
 
Next, chronologically, comes John Lenton, 1693. I really like Lenton's little Treatise, The Gentleman's Diversion. It's short, to the point, and the fact he was a member of the Twenty-Four Violins at the royal court from 1681 gives his words a certain weight. His very first words about the ordering of up and down are brilliant; - " ... if you have an odd Note before the first Barr it must be struck with an up Bow, and you must be sure always to order your Bow of a length proportional to the Note you are going to hit ..." . First, you have a clear statement of the "Rule of the Up Bow" - and what good advice about bow distribution! For the rest, his bowing principles are what one might expect.
 
With Daniel Merck's Compendium Musicae Instrumentalis Chelicae, 1695, we come to the last of the 17th century instruction manuals. Merck was Cantor, violinist and violin-teacher exclusively in Augsburg. Like all, he emphasises the importance of a down bow on the first beat - and he's concerned (like the Rognoni's) about the importance of getting the bowing right - If one has not learnt the up and down strokes correctly, this leads to an unordered and absurd measure, from which really big mistakes arise.
 
Before moving on to the 18th century, we have to consider Georg Muffat. Here we have no treatise, no tutor, but rather prefaces to his various collections of pieces - Armonico Tributo, Florilegium Primum and Florilegium Secundum. The information here is priceless - a composer and performer giving clear and direct instruction as to how to play his own music, and at pains to point out the differences in national styles. In the preface to Florilegium Secundum in 1698, Muffat gives his well-known exposition of the Lully style of bowing. It's all in the preceding link, and all required reading!
 

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