What should I call my violin?


Violin bows and their sound secret "The magic comes from the right hand"

01/30/2020 by Susanna Felix

Which instrument a violinist plays can be found in almost every biography. But what about the bow? Little is said about him. The violin bow is crucial for the sound - much more important than is generally assumed. But what makes a good bow? Is there even an ideal bow for every musician? And what about the craft of bow making and its future?

Image source: imago / eastnews

"The bow can actually influence the timbre of the instrument," explains Anne-Sophie Mutter. She knows from her own experience that he "can make an instrument sound a little lighter, more silvery or even darker." The world famous violinist plays a whole range of violin bows. Because there is no such thing as the perfect bow for all situations.

A violin bow like a Porsche

Anne-Sophie Mutter has clear ideas about an arch. | Source: picture-alliance / dpa When it comes to chamber music, Anne-Sophie Mutter opts for a different arc than when it comes to a large orchestra. She chooses a different bow for Mozart than for the romantic repertoire - the playing technique is also important. In spiccato passages, for example, where the bow should jump a lot on the string, Anne-Sophie Mutter uses a lighter bow with a catchy response. But: "At a Brahms concert with a large orchestra, I look for a bow that goes deeper into the strings - like tires that prevent aquaplaning and have great cornering".

I want a Chevy, but with the speed of a Porsche.

Anne-Sophie Mutter likes to compare violin bows with cars. She only plays modern bows, which she has made according to her ideas. And her bow maker knows exactly what she's looking for: "I want a Chevy, but with the speed of a Porsche," says Anne-Sophie Mutter with a laugh: "So on the one hand the softness, on the other hand the liveliness."

Record prices for Tourte bows

Many musicians prefer historical bows such as that of François Xavier Tourte. The legendary French bow maker developed a model at the end of the 18th century that still shapes modern bow making today. But: You can easily spend up to 50,000 euros on an original Tourte bow.

I've already broken bows in concert.

Anne-Sophie Mutter doesn't play historical arcs. For one simple reason: "I've already broken arcs in the vehemence of a concert," she says. "To be honest, I'd have a bit of a stomachache on a tour." Before the revolutionary development of modern bow making, there were different models - especially in the Baroque period. Basically, the baroque arch differs from the modern arch in that it is shorter and lighter. In addition, the bar is convex, so it has the greatest distance to the hair in the middle.

Baroque bow for perfect articulation

Even today, many musicians prefer to play music by Bach or Handel on baroque bows, whether historical or recreated. "The baroque bow simply reacts much faster and transfers small details very quickly to light notes," explains violist Nils Mönkemeyer. "I can change the articulation very quickly." This has to do with the fact that the weight distribution of the baroque bow is different. It is much heavier at the frog than at the top. "This makes it much easier to articulate," says Mary Utiger, professor for baroque violin at the Munich University of Music. "Actually, the right hand is much more important than the left," she reveals. Of course, the left hand is responsible for the proper gripping, but Utiger emphasizes: "The magic comes from the right hand."

Magic material pernambuco wood - threatened with extinction

The baroque bow is not at all suitable for romantic music due to its lightness. Therefore, the arch model changed over time. François Xavier Tourte corrected the curvature of the bar, the center of gravity and established pernambuco wood in bow making. This wood only grows in Brazil and has very special properties: It is relatively light, but at the same time very stiff. In addition, when heated over a gas flame, the bow rod can be bent following the grain and maintains this curvature over the long term. Today almost all high-quality violin bows are made from this wood.

The pernambuco wood is often strongly reddish in color. Formerly a dye for textiles, today it is popular in bow making. | Source: Westend61 However, pernambuco wood has been under species protection for years because it is threatened with extinction due to the heavy raw dung of the Brazilian rainforest Mata Atlantica. This means that the tree can only be felled in exceptional cases. This puts bow makers all over the world in distress, the wood supplies are dwindling. The bow makers therefore joined forces to form an initiative that endeavors to preserve the pernambuco tree by planting new trees.

Carbon as an alternative?

A possible alternative for the future could be violin bows made of carbon. They have been manufactured since the 1980s, and a lot has happened in development since then. Today there is a wide range of carbon bows of different quality. Franz Scheuerer, violinist in the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, likes to play with his carbon bow in the orchestra: "Overall, it is a few grams lighter than the wooden bow. The bar remains perfectly still on the string, even when it is very tight. In addition, the bow is on the frog more agile. I enjoy the unbelievable ease and precision. " On the other hand, Franz Scheuerer also has to admit: "A wooden bow naturally has a lot more tonal subtleties and more charm. That's why I use the carbon bow when it is supposed to be practical and has to work reliably. Otherwise, when it is musically important, I use it I prefer the wooden bow. "

A wooden bow has more tonal subtleties and more charm.
Franz Scheuerer, musician in the BR Symphony Orchestra

Henry Raudales, concertmaster of the Munich Radio Orchestra, has been playing a carbon bow from Belgium for many years and is extremely satisfied. He plays everything with this bow - from solo concerts to orchestral repertoire. "He's absolutely reliable," enthuses Raudales. He has already played many old French bows such as those by Tourte or Dominique Peccatte, but prefers to stick to his carbon bows: "Whether it's warm or cold, heating - it doesn't matter. You can also play with it in Africa." In his opinion, one thing is particularly important: good hair.

Bow hair - a science in itself

Parts of a violin bow | Image source: BR / Nadja Pfeiffer For the hair on the violin bow, horse hair from the tail is used - but only from stallions, as the hair of the mares is usually brittle due to the urine and therefore unusable. Usually the bow makers choose between Siberian, Mongolian or Japanese hair. Obtaining a bow is a fine art, says bow maker Wolfgang Romberg: "You have to find the right amount of hair for the right bow. Because if you put too much hair on the bow, the bow rod will no longer be springy." Bow hair alone does not make a bow sound. That's what rosin is for - but it shouldn't be any either.

A rosin for Bayreuth

The rosin consists mainly of tree sap from larch, spruce or pine trees, with various metals often being added. The bow hairs are rubbed with the rosin. This has a bit of the effect of glue. As a result, the bow hairs stick to the violin string and cause it to vibrate, so that a tone can arise at all. Because at the point where the bow touches the string, heat is generated. And as a result, the rosin melts. The melting point is different for every rosin, says Wolfgang Romberg. That is why it is important not to mix different colophonies on one hair. "Then something happens that we call glazed. That means the arch hairs bake together in such a way that no sound response works properly."

A bow must also match the violin.

Julia Fischer has also experienced a nasty surprise with a bow. | Source: Decca / Uwe Arens "Le violon, c'est l'archet" - "The violin, that's actually the bow" - Giovanni Battista Viotti, an Italian violinist and composer who lived in Paris in the 18th century, knew that . But even a very good bow is of no use if it doesn't match the violin, says Julia Fischer. She herself had a nasty surprise: "I had a very, very good bow that I played with the Stradivarius, which I had until 2004," she says. "And then I bought the Guadagnini - and the bow no longer sounded at all."