Friday, December 7, 2007

The Baroque Bow

I found a baroque bow!!

My two bows: Basil de Visser (top) and Roy Quade

In the past few months I have received several shipments of baroque bows from different makers. The shipping company really is beginning to know me!

But: WOW! They really are all very different.

There are no original cello bows left from the baroque era. That means that the few bow makers who specialize in bows from that era, have to loosely modify a copy of a violin bow, in combination with getting their ideas and inspiration from old drawings and paintings. The result is that I have not seen a single bow that looks even remotely like another one.

Tips left to right:
Basil de Visser, Stephen Marvin, Pieter Affourtit (2 bows).

Starting this project, I had no idea how much variety there was in baroque bows!

Of course I know how different one bow is from the next bow, with any bow, including our contemporary bows. I also know how much one bow can change the sound of an instrument so very much. No one will ever tell a player after a concert how much they enjoyed the bow, but will often compliment on the sound of the instrument. That the bow is for a very large part responsible for that does not cross many people’s minds. I experienced that strongly when I purchased my Roy Quade bow a few years ago. I suddenly got so many compliments on the sound of my cello!

Frogs left to right: Roy Quade, Basil de Visser, Stephen Marvin, Pieter Affourtit (2 bows). See how differently the baroque bow hair is attached in the frog?

When students, who just spent what is for them a significant sum of money on a cello, want to save money on a bow I usually strongly urge them to reconsider that thought and buy a better bow. It really does make a great difference.

Frogs Left to right: Roy Quade, Basil de Visser, Stephen Marvin, Pieter Affourtit (2 bows).

I can safely say that I did not expect an “easy ride” looking for a suitable baroque bow. But what I did not anticipate is that I ended up not only looking for a baroque bow that just “felt right” and brought just the right sound out of the cello, but that I had to decide what kind of “model” I would like to play. Would I want an early baroque bow or a late baroque bow? A low frog or a high frog? A short bow, a long bow? A clip in frog, a cremaliere frog or a screw frog? How “authentic” did I want to go? Did I just want a bow suitable for Bach, or did I want to play
Boccherini and Vivaldi with it as well?

Frogs, top to bottom: Pieter Affourtit (2 bows), Stephen Marvin, Basil de Visser, Roy Quade.

What I did not anticipate either is how competitive these baroque bow makers are. Most of them claim to be the only one who really knows what he is doing! Understanding a little bit of the history, that is a difficult claim to make. I am very happy that all of them are experimenting, and thinking about it though! It keeps the art of historic bow making so alive.

Bows, top to bottom: Pieter Affourtit (2 bows), Stephen Marvin, Basil de Visser, Roy Quade.

In the 17th and 18th centuries the bow changed every decade or so. Before they developed the screw mechanism in the frog, people clipped their frogs in. The frog was at one time very low, quite high another time. The sticks were longer, shorter, the tip very pointy or not so much. Most bows arch up (like a bow and arrow bow would). They are much stiffer than our contemporary bows, which are arching down even when tightened and made to be able to bounce more. The baroque bow has a very different weight distribution as well.

The wood used for a baroque bow is mostly different from our contemporary bows as well. Snakewood (letterwood) was very common and many bows have an ivory frog or button. The snakewood is a much stiffer wood than the pernambuco wood of our contemporary bows.

Tips: Basil de Visser, Roy Quade

I decided I wanted the higher frog, and definitely a screw frog. For some purists this would not be the thing to do, but for me convenience is quite important also. With a clip in frog you can not change the tension of the hair. Which is not so bad in climate with a consistent humidity. But here in Edmonton it poses a serious issue. I need to be able to loosen and tighten the bow according to the humidity. I also wanted a bow that could play a wider variety of baroque music, so perhaps a later baroque model would be more suitable.

Generalizing (which I really should not do, but it would take me 60 pages otherwise!) the baroque bow bounces less easily than the contemporary bow. The higher arch makes it really difficult to connect notes as smoothly as a contemporary bow does. This gives you a very different sound, without even trying, than with a contemporary bow. Generalizing again, you have to use a lot more bow with a baroque bow than we are used to with a contemporary bow. Of course the set up of the instrument plays a large role in that as well.

If you are a student playing baroque music, your teacher may have told you to hold your contemporary bow further away from the frog. It is often referred to by teachers as a “baroque bow hold”. This mimics the weight distribution of the baroque bow a little bit and you can’t quite “dig into the string” as much as when you hold the bow at the frog. You will also find that the bow changes are not as smooth, but a little lighter and more easily separated. Try it out the next time you practice Bach or play basso continuo: it really works!

My last shipment of bows I got from the Netherlands. Two bow makers, both friends, which is refreshing in this competitive business, sent me a few bows. Two were quite light and with a very high arch. They were really beautiful bows, but did not give the low strings on my baroque cello any attack. Like most bows I had tried, they were fuzzy on the lower strings. But one bow, by Basil de Visser, immediately responded. It is quite a heavy bow, has a little less arch (especially when loosened) than some of them and is very long. But it works great on both my baroque cello as well as on the Mirecourt cello. I guess it is the same with every bow after all: you really do know right away when you have the right bow!

Performance at the Sugarbowl in Edmonton (paintings by Erik Visser).

I had a solo performance only two days after this last shipment arrived and I decided to use Basil de Visser's bow for it. That is quite risky. Mind you; it was not a high stress performance, but nevertheless enough of a risk for a performer. It felt so natural, so easy! A good sign, don't you think?!

And the Jay-Haide baroque cello? It keeps getting better. I am very happy with it!

Performance at the Sugarbowl in Edmonton (painting by Erik Visser).

The length of the bow did pose one minor issue: it did not fit in my cello case! Nor did it fit in my bow case. I do happen to have a handy husband, who modified my cello case so that it now does fit!

Bows left to right: Basil de Visser, Stephen Marvin, Pieter Affourtit

The four bows that I had in the end, by Toronto maker Stephen Marvin and Dutch makers Pieter Affourtit and Basil de Visser, were all of a superiour quality. I did try many other bows and there were some very mediocre ones that were surprisingly high priced.

There were moments that I doubted myself. Was I being too critical? Had I forgotten what a baroque bow should feel and sound like? Should I change my expectations?

I am glad I was patient. I am also very grateful that the different bow makers were so willing to let me try their bows!

Basil de Visser and Roy Quade frogs

Some very informative sites are:

Stephen Marvin, Canada:
Pieter Affourtit, the Netherlands:
Basil the Visser, the Netherlands:

Roy Quade, Canada:

Roy Quade and Basil de Visser tips


If you are curious about my Mirecourt: I did have my luthier make a new bridge. And... It worked!!!

I have a very difficult time believing that something as seemingly simple could make that kind of a difference. It is true though: it is easy to play now! And I am loving every minute with it!