The Importance of the Bow

Bows and bow-making are an often overlooked ingredient when talk turns to the finer points of violins, violas and other bowed instruments. The most sought after bows can cost as much as $100,000.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The violin always gets the glory, but it takes two to make beautiful music. This month, the Library of Congress is celebrating the bow, as well as its mate, in the exhibit, The American Violin: From Jefferson to Jazz. On display is, not only the first violin ever made in America, but also the bow, made in Hollywood, back in 1940, especially for Albert Einstein.

Thinking the time was right for an exegesis on the bow, we asked our own Miles Hoffman to bring in his bow and his viola, of course. Miles has written about both in the NPR Classical Music Companion. Good morning.

MILES HOFFMAN reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So, you've got your bow and your viola, but let's begin this discussion with why the bow is so important.

HOFFMAN: I think a perfect analogy is that the bow is for the string player what breath is for the singer. And, one of the reasons that good bows are so prized is that they are so versatile. They have to be strong. They have to be flexible. They have to be balanced just right. They have to--most important, they have to make a beautiful sound.

MONTAGNE: Show us a little bit about what you mean with your own bow.

HOFFMAN: Well, Renee, if I just play a couple of bars--this is couple of bars of Bach, but not that it matters--and I will demonstrate just how you can play the same two bars with different bow strokes, using the same bow, the same instrument, and get completely different sounds.

(Soundbite of viola)

HOFFMAN: And moving away from Bach, Renee, here's a slightly different kind of sound.

(Soundbite of viola)

(Soundbite of laughter)

HOFFMAN: Etcetera, etcetera.

We actually have some recordings here that I think would demonstrate just what bows are called on to do, or at least a few examples of what they're called on to do. Here's a section from the opening measures of the third movement of Ernest Bloch's first piano quintet.

(Soundbite of "Piano Quintet No. 1", Third Movement, by Ernest Bloch)

HOFFMAN: So, there we hear very, very strong, powerful sounds, almost violent sounds made with bows--two violins, a viola and a cello, in this case.

Now, sticking with Ernest Bloch for a moment, if we take the opening of his second sonata for violin and piano, it's also called the Poeme Mystique. And, we hear a beautiful, ethereal, gentle, delicate sound. This is an example of the kind of versatility that bows have to have.

(Soundbite of "Poeme Mystique" by Ernest Bloch)

HOFFMAN: Isn't that pretty, Renee?

MONTAGNE: And so delicate.

HOFFMAN: Yeah. And, actually, now, let's go to a recording from 1950 by the 14-year-old violin virtuoso Michael Rabin, one of the great virtuosos of the 20th century. And now we're going to hear what's called the spiccato bowing. This is a bouncing bow and this is a pretty flashy example from the 24th Caprice by Niccolo Paganini.

(Soundbite of "24th Caprice" by Niccolo Paganini)

MONTAGNE: Miles, we've just heard some very different sounds, and if one wants to think of them in terms of the bow, you know, you're first thought is, really, what is a bow made of?

HOFFMAN: All fine bows, Renee, are made of one kind of wood. It's a wood called pernambuco that comes from the forest--the coastal forests of Brazil. Pernambuco is an astonishing wood. A block of pernambuco is so heavy that it won't float; that's how dense it is. It also has a very special inter-locking grain and all good bows--the best bows, I should say, are made from this kind of wood.

And so, bow makers in Europe got familiar with this wood and, eventually, in the late 1600s, started using it to make bows, and it turns out that it is the perfect material; it's strong; it's flexible. A violin bow only weighs about two ounces and yet it can take all this punishment.

MONTAGNE: Does it matter, the hair of the bow? What kind of hair that is or what creature it's from?

HOFFMAN: Well, it's always from the same creature, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Well, a horse.

HOFFMAN: It's from a horse; it's from the tail, yeah.

MONTAGNE: But I mean, a particular horse in the north of England or something like that...

HOFFMAN: Well, actually...

MONTAGNE: ...or the south of France?

HOFFMAN: ...not the south of France. You want to stay away from the south of France. You want hair from the tails of horses that live in very cold climates. And for years, much of the hair that people all around the world have used has been from Mongolia, Manchuria, Siberia, sometimes northern Poland, places like that, where the hair is very coarse. There may be 150 to 200 strands of hair in the hank of hair that's put on a bow but, Renee, you replace the hair every six months, every year, every three months, whatever you like. The hair gets replaced. The stick doesn't. The stick is really the heart and soul of the bow.

MONTAGNE: So, the bow itself lasts, obviously, like violins, like violas, for decades, hundreds of years.

HOFFMAN: Mm-hmm.

MONTAGNE: Great violins made by people like Stradivari can be worth a fortune. Have there been renowned bow-makers and are their bows terribly valuable?

HOFFMAN: Yes, absolutely. The father of the modern bow, Renee, of the modern violin bow, is a man named Francois Tourte and Tourte bows that are in good condition, regularly sell for well over $100,000. The highest price ever paid for a bow at auction was at Sotheby's in 1988. It was a Tourte bow that sold for $152,000. Now, that's at auction. If you buy them privately or in a shop, they may be more than that, but when you find a great bow and a bow that matches your instrument, because, you know, not every great bow is going to be a match for your instrument, but if it works well with your instrument, gets a good sound and does all the things it has to do, it's worth far more than its weight in gold. Let's put it that way.

MONTAGNE: Miles, what should we hear to end this conversation?

HOFFMAN: Oh, let's go back to Michael Rabin. Such a great violinist with such masterful control of the bow and why don't we go out with a little more Paganini.

(Soundbite of violin playing)

MONTAGNE: Miles, it's been a pleasure as always.

HOFFMAN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Miles Hoffman is the violist and artistic director of the American Chamber Players. The exhibit, now at the Library of Congress, is The American Violin: From Jefferson to Jazz.

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