Friday, August 19, 2011

François Tourte and the Making of the Modern Bow

Written by Andy Fein, luthier at Fein Violins
 and Angie Newgren

The 18th century was a period of great productivity in the arts and commerce. Many changes were going on: World trade, the French Revolution, the  end of the Baroque period and the beginning of the Classical period (circa 1750). For string players, luthiers and bow makers, the advance in playing techniques demanded better and different equipment. Bows underwent a profound change, from the Baroque bow, which was the standard, to the "modern" bow, which we now use.

Up until the middle of the 18th century, bows were more of an accessory for a violin instead of an integral part of the instrument's sound. Bow makers were continuously experimenting with different techniques and materials, but they never went too far out of the "guidelines" that were documented for bow making.

The baroque style bow was usually made of snake-wood (a stiffer and denser wood) rather than the modern bow which uses pernambuco (Pernambuco Blog).  Baroque bows were shaped into a convex curve, which is the opposite of how today's bows are shaped. The bow was arched more extremely, looking more like the bow from a bow-and-arrow. The hair on the bow was bundled, and only half the amount we use today was put on a baroque bow. Lastly, the length of the hair was only about three-quarters of the length of our modern bows.

 François Xavier Tourte was born in Paris in 1748. The Tourtes were a well known French bow making family. François's father (Nicolas Pierre Tourte) taught him and his brother (Nicolas Léonard Tourte) to be bow makers. François Xavier also apprenticed to a clock maker as a young boy. Learning these crafts early, F. X. Tourte became extremely skilled and later would be known as the creator of the true model of modern violin bows.

Tourte pére (Nicolas Pierre Tourte)  died in 1764, leaving François and his older brother in charge of the business. F. X. Tourte had made "Cramer" model bows (a transitional model between Baroque and modern bows), which had been in strong demand since 1775. F. X. Tourte had used many kinds of exotic woods, but around 1775-80 had settled on using pernambuco. More expensive than other woods, it possessed every quality he was looking for in a bow: rigidity, responsiveness, elasticity and a beautiful sound.

Luckily for Tourte, he was able to select from incredibly large quantities of pernambuco for his bows. There was a  high pile of pernambuco logs that covered 168 acres in Paris during that time. One estimate is that, to find a great piece of pernambuco for a bow, Tourte (and later other Parisian bow makers) would sort through eight to ten tons of Pernambuco.

Cramer style transitional bow (Baroque to Modern) 

In 1782, violin virtuoso Giovanni Battista Viotti arrived in Paris in hopes of finding a bow maker that could improve the bow in terms of material as well as form. Viotti, who had asked several bow makers for help, heard of the Tourte brothers' reputation and found François's work to be exactly what he had been searching for.

By the early 1800s, François Xavier Tourte, with Viotti's input, had made major and profound changes to the bow:
- He lightened the weight of the head of the bow while still keeping its strength.
- He changed the arc of the bow from convex (away from the hair) to concave (towards the hair). This brought the center of gravity closer to the frog of the bow, making it stronger and more responsive.
- He established an optimal distance between the stick and the bow hair.
- He invented the ferrule and the spread wedge, which made the hair come out of the frog in a flat ribbon instead of bundled.
-He cut straight sticks for the bows, and only curved them after shaping them (previously, sticks were cut with their curved shaped). This allowed the grain to run uniformly along the length of the stick, improving the bow's stiffness and strength.

Tourte bow

With these changes, F. X. Tourte created bows that would eventually become the model for the modern bow. Many of the things we take for granted today, the curve of the bow, the balance of the stick, etc., took Tourte years to perfect. The slightest change to a bow could leave it with unbalanced weight; too heavy, too light, too weak or too strong. His early work as a clock maker served him well also. Because of that, he was able to do extremely precise work developing the hair tensioning mechanisms as well as adding beautiful details with tortoiseshell, ivory, silver, and gold.

From a luthier's point of view, the interaction between Tourte, the bow maker, and Viotti, the violinist, is really quite beautiful. Neither artiste could accomplish his goals without expertise from the other. Even in the 21st century, the best of violin and bow makers relish and respond to their interactions with players. Neither craftspeople or players can exist and progress without the other.

F. X. Tourte continued to make bows until his mid 70s. He died in 1835, at 87 years old. François Tourte's bows still stand as a guide for present and future bows. His painstaking work in the modifications of what we now call "Baroque violin bows," gave us a reason to modernize our instruments, and gave us the opportunity to play them with many different techniques that could not be accomplished before his time.

Cello bow by Francois Xavier Tourte, Tortoiseshell frog, Gold mounting


  1. Yes, really good article except for the pictures of the Vega bow. Baroque bows were (are) nothing like that. The arch might get to 1 1/4 or 1 1/2 inches from the hair in the center of the bow. Not nearly as extreme as pictured. The Vega bow was a really interesting experiment in the 1950s, but it's clear that is not how baroque bows worked. A convex-arch bow does make it possible to play chords with less force than a modern bow requires, but only incrementally so. Bows in Bach's time were not really designed to put hair on 3-4 strings at once. If anything it is likely that Bach was familiar with a short, light Italian-style bow which wasn't optimized for chords but excelled at fast string crossings and intricate maneuvers that Bach requires. Ironically, the best analogue to a Bach bow today might be the very light (50-55) carbon fiber sticks made by Arcus. They are whippy and extremely quick. Very high tech but arguably more authentic for playing baroque and early classical music than a Peccatte or Sartory type bow.

  2. The man with showing the funny bow to Einstein is Otto Büchner, Professor in Munich and my mothers violin teacher. He called his bow "Rundbogen" and it was pure fiction and should not appear on an otherwise intersting site

  3. The man with showing the funny bow is Otto Büchner, Professor in Munich and my mothers violin teacher. He called his bow "Rundbogen" and it was pure fiction and should not appear on an otherwise intersting site. He worked closely together with Karl Richter, famous Bach conducter with absolutely no idea and even honest interest in research in how music was performed in Bachs time