Bows from the Time of Beethoven and Paganini

Symposium “Le violon, c’est l’archet” (Vienna, 19 September 2012)

Claire Holden


This symposium at the Collection of Historic Musical Instruments in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna was a rare and extremely valuable opportunity both to examine the various bow models in use in early 19th-century Vienna and to explore the stylistic implications that might be drawn from their playing characteristics. The symposium was organized by the University of the Arts in Berne in collaboration with the Kunsthistorisches Museum and several of the papers featured the research of Berne’s Ein Bogen für Beethoven project led by Kai Köpp.

Scholarship to date has afforded great significance to the development and dissemination across Europe of the Tourte-model bow and the bowing techniques of the Rode-Viotti School. This symposium aimed to demonstrate that standardisation of both bow models and schools of violin playing was still a considerable way off during Beethoven’s lifetime.

The day began with an overview on bow making in Vienna before 1800 presented by Rudolf Hopfner. There are several difficulties in tracing models of Viennese bows of this period, not least because so few have survived. Those that have survived are difficult to attribute and date, and the assumption is that they were made by local violin makers rather than dedicated bow makers. Many of these bows were made with locally available woods such as larch, and it was only as bow mechanisms became more complex with screw mechanisms and as non-European woods started to be more commonly used that bow making evolved into a separate profession. Detailed information was presented on a series of 18th-century German and Austrian bows of different forms and made from a variety of materials, illustrating the development of transitional bows in the region and providing delegates with a sound base from which to consider the papers that followed.

Two of these papers concentrated on instrument and bow developments in France. Bernard Gaudfroy’s session The Bows of François Tourte. The Final Development of the Violin? examined illustrations of violinists and their bows from a variety of sources, including treatises and biographies, and considered the historical, political and musical factors which influenced the dissemination of the Tourte-model both within France and across Europe. Benjamin Herbert’s paper French Revolution and Instrument Making about 1825 was an exploration of post-revolutionary French attitudes towards musical instrument technology in general and the violin in particular. In this context the invention of the Tourte-model bow was portrayed as being one element within a culture of technological advancement driven by the musical demands of the period rather than an isolated innovation. Herbert also considered whether cultural and political factors would have identified the Tourte-model bow so clearly as a symbol of French nationhood that its appeal in other European countries and Vienna in particular may have been limited.

Silvia Rieder presented a paper on The Bows of the Munich Court Orchestra. Portrayed by Peter Jacob Horemans (1700-1776) in which she traced bow developments through portraits and musical still life paintings from the Munich Court at the time of Elector Max III Joseph and Karl Albrecht.

Kai Köpp presented three papers during the day expounding the research of the Berne project. The first of these, Bows Around 1825 from an Organological Perspective outlined the stylistic features of bow models which would have been used around this time. In addition to surviving examples, bow makers’ catalogues and contemporary descriptions provided fascinating illustration of the many options available to 19th-century performers. Economic factors may have been a consideration for some players, given that Viennese French-model bows retailed for up to three or four times the cost of more traditional bows made with simpler mechanisms and from local wood. It was also noteworthy that the provision of conservative, non Tourte-model bows persisted in bow makers’ catalogues until c. 1900.

There then followed a joint presentation by Kai Köpp and Hiro Kurosaki in which the playing characteristics of twelve original bows were described and demonstrated. They showed that the lighter tone and lifted qualities of the more conservative model bows would have produced very different effects to those produced by players of the Rode-Viotti School using Tourte-style bows. The different characteristics of the various models are a key consideration in understanding the application of bow strokes and articulation, and consequently this research will be especially valuable to HIP string practitioners.
The last of the Bern research papers focused on the bows used by both professional and non-professional musicians around 1825. The different attitudes and priorities of dilettantes and professionals were explored, the implication being that it was common for dilettantes to use much more conservative equipment than professionals. Portraits, illustrations and written descriptions of revered virtuosi of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were examined, shedding light on the models of bows used by key performers including Spohr, Clement, Romberg and Paganini.

The afternoon was rounded off with a vibrant round table discussion which brought together bow makers, performers and scholars to share their comments and observations with the conference presenters. There was then an opportunity for violinists to experiment with the original bows which had been assembled for the symposium. There were approximately twenty original bows, many of which had been used for the research of the Berne project and were in a variety of styles from open-frog transitional bows made of local wood to French-style ferruled bows and two examples of ‘Viennese’-model bows.

Thanks to the Berne research project, a much clearer picture now exists of the violin bows that were available in early nineteenth-century Vienna and its outcomes will provide valuable information of interest to both the scholarly and HIP communities. However, many questions remain about the stylistic implications of hitherto overlooked bow models and the association of different bow types with specific repertoire.

The day concluded with a concert given in the Musical Instrument Collection by Hiro Kurosaki, playing a Franz Geissenhof violin made in Vienna in 1806, and Linda Nicholson, playing a Viennese Stein piano from 1819. Their programme included Beethoven’s Sonatas in D, op. 12 No. 1 and in G, op. 96, and the Variations in F on a theme by Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia by Rudolph Erzherzog of Austria. Kurosaki elected to use a different model bow for each of the three pieces and to adopt some of the bow strokes described in treatises of the period. The concert was an enjoyable and illuminating end to the symposium, drawing together the three key elements that ran throughout the day: organology, musicology and performance.

This article was published by DISSONANCEonline in October 2012. More information about the project Ein Bogen für Beethoven (University of the Arts Berne) can be found here.

by moxi