Richard Gwilt - Historical Bows

The Background

It's slowly becoming clear that our understanding over the last 50 years or so of what a baroque bow is has been not quite accurate, and pretty misleading. The standard explanation goes something like this:

a baroque bow is lighter and shorter, has a flowing tip, the stick is straight or convex, as opposed to the concave camber of a modern bow and is made of snakewood rather than pernambuco.

And such a description is most often accompanied by an illustration rather like this:

Well, this is OK as far as it goes. But the kind of ‘baroque’ bow pictured here is most likely something that might have been around in the 1730s or so. Maybe appropriate for the last quarter of the baroque period. Using a bow like that (say 70cm long, weighing 50 grams or so) to play Monteverdi or Castello is arguably further from historical accuracy than playing Bach with a fully modern bow.

In fact, the truth of the matter is that it’s really difficult to establish any kind of reliable history of the bow - of what sort of thing might have been used when. But not impossible - there is some evidence.

Let's start with the 17th-century, where the situation is this:

  1. there are as good as no datable bows from the 17th century.
  2. almost all 17th-century paintings depicting a bow - regardless of country - show the bow to be about the same length as a violin (or even a bit shorter).
  3. Many of the bows in these paintings, especially in the first half of the century, are extremely light in colour - unlikely to be snakewood.
  4. Likewise, many of these bows look quite thick, again suggesting a light-weight indigenous wood.
  5. All of these bows have clip-in frogs. There are no screw frogs in the 17th century.
Put this together, and add some information from the few written sources, and it seems:
a) that bows were short throughout the 17th century - roughly ‘as long as your violin’, that is to say about 2 feet
b) that for at least the first few decades (and in some areas almost certainly longer), the bows were made of indigenous woods.
Of course, one must be very careful with iconographic evidence. How accurate is the depiction, is the subject current (or a copy of an older painting)? The questions are many. But I feel it's hard to argue with the general tendencies. When all depicted bows are short, I reckon bows were simply, well, short! At some point, it becomes clear that snakewood was being used - both in pictures (Tempel 1671) and text (Talbot c. 1690).

As we move into the 18th century, the situation remains far more unclear than often thought. We do indeed have surviving bows - almost all snakewood - but datable pretty much only by circumstantial evidence. The iconographic evidence becomes if anything muddier - we see bows of very differing lengths and materials, which could either mean that painters were using older pictures as models, or (more likely?) that during this time there was a multitude of different styles of bow being used. We have reports from around the middle of the century that Locatelli preferred a short bow (define ‘short’). Leopold Mozart in 1756 (and other treatises) are still illustrating low-tipped short clip-in frog bows. Robert Seletsky in his Articles New light on the old bow writes very clearly about the issues. (Early Music vol. 32/2, May 2004 and vol 32/3, August 2004)

What remains clear is that the screw-frog was not common till the second half (or later) of the century - so probably only really used by the time we begin to see ‘transitional’ bows. But there's another can of worms - what on earth is a ‘transitional’ bow. Transitional from what to what? As far as one can tell, there was a long slow gradual move towards slightly longer and heavier bows with a higher tip, matching the stylistic changes in music. Is Mozart ‘transitional’ music?

(For those curious to know more about the precise evidence, have a look at my site, A Timeline History of the Violin Bow. Here there are a couple of essays about the baroque bow - its development and technique, and a graphic timeline putting things in chronological perspective.)

My own approach to bow-making, and the models I offer are based on these observations. Concretely, for the 17th century it means that I have spent a lot of time experimenting with different woods, and the slightly different forms we see in the pictures. Here, for example, are three different pictures, showing differing bow-forms, and my version:
Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball, 1628, Pieter Claesz,

plum, with boxwood frog

The Concert, ca. 1615, Leonello Spada

ironwood, with ironwood frog

Young woman playing the violin 1624, Orazio Gentileschi (1593-1652) Italy

cherry, with ebony frog
While there are quite distinct differences to be had depending on the exact construction and material, all these short bows are very lively and articulate, offering an exciting window into better understanding this early music - and how to play it!

Last year (2022) the historical violin world experienced an “important moment”. Namely a portrait of a violinist came to light, attributed to Cesare Gennari (nephew and pupil of Guercino), thought to be dated about 1670, and believed to be none other than Arcangelo Corelli.

I can say nothing about the attributions - not my areas of expertise - but the portrait certainly has similarities to the well-known later portraits of Corelli. In any case, it is fascinating and informative for many reasons. A rather low position for the violin (quite typical for the 17th century, but quite an eye-opener to think that Corelli might have played like that), a rather old-fashioned bridge, set quite far back (around the bottom of the f-holes, a plain gut G-string - and look at that bow (and bow hold!). Assuming around 20.6cm for the violins lower bouts, then the bow is around 64 cm long (longer than many depictions from around this time, apparently (as far as one can see) has the frog quite high up the stick (about 4 cm from the end of the bow - if indeed the bow ends at the edge of the portrait - and has a rather elegantly swung tip. The details are not crystal clear, and of course the painting is a portrait, not a musicological documentation, so fine details like thicknessing and camber must be re-created - but there seems to be enough information to suggest a possible ‘embodiment’ of this bow. Here is an example, made of snakewood with a snakewood frog:


Coming to the 18th century, the evidence suggests that most 'baroque'-style bows (short-ish, flowing, relatively low tips) were still using a fixed clip-in frog. So, working mainly with snakewood, I make similar models as for the 17th century - just a little longer. See the Bows.

And then comes the inevitable follow-on of the longer bow with a slowly ever-higher tip. The longer stick, to support the greater gap between tip and hair, pretty much has to become cambered, at which point the tip is freed to develop as it will. With the longer hair, and the greater sensitivity of the bounce in the stick to the hair-tension, the screw-frog becomes more or less essential.

Richard Gwilt - Tel. +49 (0)2243 911829 - Handy (Mobile) +49 (0)1525 394 1771 - Email: