The Baroque bow (violin bows, part I)
The development of the Baroque bow is a story of attempts and errors, an interplay of craftsmanship and music during the course of which widely varied models were designed, modified and improved. When the violin was invented in the late 16th century, the art of creating stringed instruments reached a zenith that triggered a musical revolution. The violin's predecessors were predominantly used to keep time on the dance floors of weddings and festivals, but this newer form of the instrument quickly liberated itself from its disdained origins. At first, however, the early masters of violin making paid no thought to the issue of a proper bow, so people continued to play using the fiddle and rebec bows of the late middle ages. Many of these bows were very clearly designed as rhythm instruments. Some of them were only 20 to 30 cm (8-12 inches) and had a strong convex curve; their length was further restricted by the player using an underhand or closed-fist grip.
At first, French Baroque music in particular stayed close to the styles in the canon of dance music, so it had little reason to re-examine how the bow was used and constructed. In Italy, however, there was vivid interest in cantabile playing. People there preferred the overhand grip, which opened doors to new sounds and ways of playing the violin: the “Italian” grip (as opposed to the “French” underhand grip) allowed the player to bow with greater sensitivity and modify the sound. Legato and spiccato techniques became more widespread as music grew more soloistic in nature, and longer bows meant that longer tones and sequences were now possible. By composing pieces which relied on the long Baroque bow, Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) made fundamental changes to the character of the violin; its aural ideal came to resemble that of singing more and more.
The introduction of a longer bow triggered a series of changes in construction, especially an increase in the height of the head so as to achieve a more even distribution of weight and playability along the full length of the bow. Bows with less of an arch gradually became more popular until eventually the straight to slightly concave line evolved. Players once determined the pressure of the bow by modifying their grip, e.g. by applying pressure with the thumb, but over time, the detachable frog and "toothpick"-style bows made a greater variety in tension possible, until at last the frog with an eyelet and screw established itself as the standard. These technical improvements were accompanied by more sophistication in the aesthetic design of the Baroque bow. Premium woods, especially the very hard amourette, were processed with great artistry, sticks were fluted, and frogs and heads were shaped into fanciful designs and decorated. No uniform standards emerged on a widespread scale, i.e. in this context one cannot speak of there being a typical model of a Baroque bow. What is, however, typical of Baroque-period bows is the diversity of shapes and designs.
Next chapter: The Classical bow