"Le violon – c'est l'archet!"
– Giovanni Viotti
I am an adult violin student who likes to understand the historical context of the pieces I play. As I started playing pieces by composers such as Jacquet de la Guerre, Corelli, and Biber, I became interested in baroque playing practices and baroque bows. Reading about the history of bows and the development of violin music, it became clear that the performance of music on the violin is inextricably linked with the choice of bow. Additionally, following the release of Rachel Barton Pine's recording of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, the publication of her critical edition of this music, and her promotions of the baroque bow in print and at conferences, there has been increased interest in baroque bows for students. So, I decided I wanted a baroque bow!
In the initial stage of my research, I found a few articles suggesting I could buy a decent baroque bow online for a couple hundred dollars. Was it really true that I could find an inexpensive and functionally accurate baroque bow? Yes, and no. I own a $4000 violin and a $400 modern bow. That is not a lot in the world of a professional violinist, but it is about right for a student of my ability. People will say that baroque bows are inexpensive, but that is in comparison to modern professional bows that can cost $1,000’s to $10,000’s or more. A professionally made baroque bow can cost around $2,000 – $3,000; relatively cheap, but too expensive for a student.
Amazon and Ebay are awash with cheap "baroque" bows ranging in price from about $50 –$200, and Shar Music sells them for $200, though they are often on sale for less. In an article by The Strad, bow maker David Hawthorne advises players to avoid inexpensive Chinese bows, pointing out that the average factory worker has no understanding of the musical character of a baroque bow and so won’t know how to create one. Fair enough, but most students will not have any other option. So are the inexpensive bows any good? Based on user reviews, there seems to be a great variety in quality. It is also clear, though, that many people don’t really know what a baroque bow is, or what they should expect from it.
In my quest for an inexpensive baroque bow, I read many online articles, talked to bow makers and dealers, met with a professional baroque violin player, and tested a number of bows. I sifted through a great deal of material trying to sort consistent, credible information from the sketchy to down-right wrong (yes, it’s there).
Most students will start out as I did: knowing little about baroque bows, and their teachers may lack knowledge as well. The aim of this article is to save such people time and let them know what to look for and expect. In this article, I first describe how a baroque bow looks and plays and detail its characteristics. Then I describe my search and what is really out there. I conclude with a summary of the situation and options. The text includes many links to online material. A list of additional sources is at the end.
What it looks like: the baroque versus the modern bow
Images of historical bows can be found on the webpages of Eitan Hoffer and Pieter Affouritit. Baroque bows of the 1600’s have many names, dart, dagger, or dance bows. They are relatively short and the manner in which the stick bends, the camber, is convex, away from the hair. At the tip, the stick slopes quite smoothly to the hair and has a long, rather pointed end. Bows from the 1700’s, sometimes called sonata bows, are a little straighter with a less pronounced convex camber, or none at all. At the tip, the stick bends gently down to the hair but is still fairly pointed. The tips remind me of a shoe. These varieties of bows, at least the ones that have survived, are most often made of snakewood or ironwood. The less expensive ones can be found in snakewood, which looks a bit like a leopard print. You will also notice that baroque bows do not have the leather grip or wire winding that is seen on modern bows. The ribbon of hair on a baroque bow is thinner than that of a modern bow. During the 1700s, the shape and design of the bow continued to change, resulting in bows known as transitional, or classical, bows. Finally, the modern bow designed by Tourte, in the late 1700s, early 1800’s became the standard.
Both the musical and quantifiable (weight etc.) characteristics of the baroque bow varied over time, even within a specific period. The characteristics were not standardized and have a larger range than those of the modern bow. For this reason, there can be a wide variety of acceptable lengths, weights, and shapes – and musical strengths or weaknesses. The type of bow I outline below falls towards the later baroque era, from Corelli (1680) on. These are what are for sale in the inexpensive range. If you are looking for more details about various styles of baroque bow, try the Tarisio and Corilon webpages.
Several factors contributed to the characteristics of baroque bows of this period. Players expected, and wanted, to have stronger down-bows than up-bows, especially for French dance music of the 1600s. The shape of the tip does not allow for power at the upper part of a bow, like the modern bow does. Thus, the sound produced by a baroque bow as you move towards the tip, tapers more severely than the modern bow. These baroque bows were also suited to solo performances in small spaces, as opposed to the modern demands of large concert halls. Additionally, composers such as Corelli, Tartini, and Bach were writing music that required a longer bow and made more technical demands of the player. Thus, the design of the baroque bow developed to fit the needs of the music of the time.
Overwhelmingly, the experts I have read or talked to say that baroque music is easier to play with a baroque bow. Unfortunately, most of us can’t tryout several baroque bows before buying one. But it does seem that if your baroque bow is not making you more excited about playing baroque music, then it is not doing its job.
Quantifiable characteristics – what to look for and what you will find
Most bow makers measure lengths in centimeters. Below, I give lengths in both inches and centimeters. The characteristics of the modern bow are very standardized. Here is a brief overview for reference. The modern bow has a concave camber; it bends inward, towards the hair, even when tightened. If the hair is loose, and the bow is set, hair down, on a flat surface, the stick will touch that surface at about 2/3 the distance from the frog end. Its tip bends at a right angle from the main part of the stick and meets the hair at a right angle as well. This connecting bit of wood, from the main stick to the hair, is relatively long. The modern bow has a length of about 29 – 29.5 inches (74 – 75cm) with a balance point at about 9.5 – 9.75 in (24.25 – 24.75 cm) from the frog end. For comparison below, the distance to the balance point is 32% – 33% the length of the bow. It weighs about 57 – 63 grams.
The characteristics of a baroque bow (late 1600’s and beyond) are:
There is also descriptive information about the bow that one can consider. To do so, one must keep in mind that the balance point of a bow depends on the combination of bow weight and shape, including length. The feel of a bow depends on the distance between the balance point and the bow hold. So, while baroque bows are shorted, this does not necessarily mean that their balance point is closer to the frog than that of a modern bow. Still, baroque bows are described as "heavier at the frog". The implication is that more of their weight, and hence their balance point, is indeed closer to the frog than that of a modern bow. Finally, the baroque bow hold was often a bit choked up (further from the frog) as compared to the modern hold. This would bring the balance point even closer to the hand. A shift in the balance point towards the frog plus the altered bow hold would make the bow feel very light.
Are there inexpensive baroque bows for sale?
The answer is yes, but finding a decent one is not as easy as it is made out to be. Optimally, you can try out a new bow, but in my experience, it can be difficult to find a baroque bow in a shop. When I asked one well-established luthier, he said I was the first person to ever ask him about it. I live in Chicago where there is a thriving classical and early music scene, a huge number of string players, luthiers, bow makers, and lots of shops catering to students. There are many people who regularly play on baroque instruments. And, it is the home of Rachel Barton Pine. Still, it is difficult to find an inexpensive baroque bow. I spent over a year looking for bows I could try out in person.
In the end, I borrowed one from a fellow student and ordered another from Shar Music during their Black Friday sale. I talked my family into taking a vacation detour to visit Claire Given’s shop in Minneapolis and talked my teenager into visiting shops with me on the Rue de Rome in Paris when we were there on a work/vacation trip. I played five inexpensive (˜ $200), Chinese factory-made bows; a couple inexpensive bows that that had been re-worked (˜ $500); and several hand-made bows (˜ $1500 –$2000), a couple made by Andrew Dipper in Minneapolis and one by Rene-William Groppe, who made the bow used by Rachel Podger. Yes, the expensive, hand-made bows are very nice. These are not the bows a student will be considering though.
Every inexpensive bow I saw was Chinese factory-made. They all had the slipper-shaped tip one sees in a early 1700s baroque bow and were made of snakewood. They had lengths of 26.5 – 26 3/4 inches (67 – 68 cm), corresponding to a late baroque bow. The ribbon of hair was thin like a baroque bow and they had a screw to adjust the hair tension. These are the good points.
As I mentioned above, however, every inexpensive bow had the wrong camber. You will not find the flat or outwardly curved shape that one expects of a baroque bow. Instead, the bows will curve inward like a modern bow. The weights of the bows ranged from an acceptable 50 g all the way to the range of a modern bow, which is too heavy for a baroque bow. The position of the balance point also varied and was generally further from the frog than expected. The camber, weight, and balance point are all critical to how a bow functions. So, the question is, are any of these bows "good enough"?
The bow makers I talked to said the modern camber would make the bow more stable and easier to play. So while not baroque, they would not necessarily be bad for a student. The issue of inconsistent weight and balance point is more of a problem. The one bow I had from Amazon.com was heavy (56.5 g) and had a balance point further out than even a modern bow, nearly 10 inches from the frog! When playing, this bow was very good at doing one thing – sticking to the string. It made a great, monochromatic tone with little effort but was a lot of work to get it to do anything else. The bow from Shar Music felt much better to play. It still had a balance point that was relatively far from the frog (9 7/8 in), but its overall weight was lighter (51.7 g) and within the expected range. What would turn out to be my favorite bow, bought at Atelier Coquoz in Paris, has a weight of 52.9 g and a decent balance point at 9.5 in.
At this point, it will be useful to mention the other, more expensive, bows I tried. Last winter, I had the chance to visit Claire Givens Violins in Minneapolis. This is where I tried my first professionally made baroque bows. They were great. At $2000+, though, they were way beyond my budget. The bow by Groppe at Atelier Coquoz was similar – clearly much better than the factory bows and too expensive for me. If you have the opportunity, though, I recommend trying a professional bow out. Playing a bow with the right camber and one that loses power noticeably as it goes to the tip gives you a feel for what baroque players dealt with. It is really just fun to see how a nice baroque bow can feel.
Claire Givens’ shop had other bows as well that were a step up from the factory-made ones. The bow maker Andrew Dipper had reworked some of the Chinese bows, and they were selling for just under $500. I played several and liked them. At the time, this looked like it would be my best option if I wanted something more than the Shar bow I had. Still, I was not ready to put that much money into something I was just wanting to test out.
As for the inexpensive, factory-made bows, I needed the opinion of an actual baroque player as to whether or not they would do for a student. Luckily, I was able to find such a person: local baroque violin teacher, Isabelle Rozendaal. I took the Shar bow to her; I was sure the amazon.com bow was not adequate, and I had not yet found the one at Atelier Coquoz. As it turned out, she felt the Shar bow was good enough for her to teach me the beginnings of baroque playing. It would probably be a few years before I would have enough technique to need a better bow. (For reference, at the time I had been playing for five years and was learning some of the easier Vivaldi and Corelli sonatas.) This was good news.
For me personally, the only problem was that I didn’t like the bow. It was stiff, like many modern student bows I have played, and I simply don’t like that. Also, the hair had to be pretty tight to be able to play double stops with the upper part of the bow without the stick hitting the strings. This left the lower part of the bow with little give.
By chance, I was in France over the summer and had a chance to look for a bow there. As in the U.S., there are few shops that carry baroque bows. Luckily, I found a couple on the Rue de Rome, the music store center of Paris. One shop I went to was Atelier Coquoz, where I met Orlando, who plays baroque violin. He showed me several bows (including the Groppe) and a few baroque violins. He had two inexpensive bows, and I tried them. Turned out that I liked one of them. It has a less concave camber than most modern bows as well as a decent weight and good balance point, in line with the numbers mentioned above. The bow is somewhat flexible, and when I tighten the hair enough to play double stops on the upper half of the bow, the lower half still has some give. After a year of reading, talking, and searching, for $220, I had finally found an inexpensive baroque bow that I liked.
Summary and Outlook
The reason it is possible to buy an inexpensive, functional modern bow is that the specifications are well established and bow factories have a clear understanding of how to mass produce them. Not all the bows will be good, but it is easy to find a decent, inexpensive modern bow.
For baroque bows, the specifications are simply not well-defined. There was a great deal of variation in good baroque bows. A modern producer could circumvent this problem by picking a certain type, say late baroque sonata bow, and working out some average measurements to use in a factory setting. To some degree, this is what the Chinese bow factories have done. Unfortunately, they are incorrectly adding a modern camber to the bow. The bow weights can be too heavy, and it is likely that the balance points tend to be off because it is difficult to taper a stick to the degree a true baroque bow is. Given the small market for baroque bows and the lack of knowledge among buyers, things may not improve.
Still, it is possible to find a bow for $200 or less that will serve the beginning baroque student. In the U.S., the best option is to buy from a shop or dealer who has pre-screened the bows to some degree. I would also ask questions about the characteristics of the bow and the return policy. If you are a more advanced player and/or have a larger budget, I would try a re-worked bow, like those at Claire Givens.
At this point, I enthusiastically encourage students to buy a baroque bow if they are at all interested in baroque music. Even being an amateur player, I now prefer my modern bow for modern pieces and my baroque bow for baroque music. The differences in what I want to do with the music and what the different bows do well is clear even to me. This could be an interesting direction for some teachers to encourage students to explore. For me, listening to a modern interpretation of Vivaldi’s Concerto in A minor Op. 3. No. 6 versus Rachel Podger’s was a musical education in itself. Trying different bows has expanded my understanding of how a violin works and what a bow can do. And in any case, the more people there are asking for baroque bows the better the market will get.
Thank you to the people who encouraged me to look into this and who have talked to me about baroque bows – my teacher Sam Sharp, bow makers Eric Swanson and Harry Grabenstein, Claire Givens, baroque violinist Isabelle Rozendaal, and Orlando Faneite at Atelier Coqueoz. I have done my best to correctly synthesize all their information; any errors along the way are mine!
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