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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

MORE INSIDE BASEBALL FOR STRING PLAYERS

Susie and I just watched a French semi-documentary semi-fictionalization of the life of Bach on NetFlix.  It was not terribly interesting, save for a great deal of Bach's music ostensibly played and sung by bewigged musicians, but one anachronism really stuck out.  The bewigged violinists and violists were using modern, not Baroque, bows.  Those of you, if there are any, who listen to early music regularly will know that there is a marked difference between the sound of a Baroque violin ands that of a modern violin.  The Baroque sound is softer, less brilliant, less metallic, as it were.   There are two reasons for this.  The first is that the strings of the early instrument are made of animal gut, not of metal.  The second is the nature of the bow.  A modern bow bends inward, so that the hair is pulled tighter between the two ends.  This produces a greater vibration when the bow is pulled across the strings.  The Baroque bow actually bends outward a trifle, with the result that the hair is somewhat looser.  This is exactly similar to the difference between an old bow [as in bow and arrows] and what I believe is called a "compound bow."  The quickest way to tell the difference between the two musical bows is to look at the point.  The early bow has a long graceful point;  a modern bow has a shorter, stubbier point.  This is occasioned by the different way in which the hair is attached to the bow.  The difference in sound, by the way, is not a result in differences in the instrument itself.  There are considerable differences between a Baroque violin and a modern violin, but a Stradivarius with metal strings played with a modern bow will have a quite brilliant sound.

As I have remarked on this blog before, the early music performances in Paris are, by and large, not at all comparable to those in Boston, Western Massachusetts, or elsewhere in America, so I guess it is not surprising that when the French make a movie about Bach, they use musicians playing with modern bows.

4 comments:

Marinus Ferreira said...

Forgive me for saying so, but you mean a 'recurved' bow, or perhaps a 'reflex' bow, not a 'compound' bow. A compound bow is one which includes a levering system (normally pulleys) for managing the tension on the bowstring. Modern competition bows are strikingly intricate pieces of engineering, and were only developed in the 60s. In the past people would also sometimes use 'compound bow' to refer to composite bows, which are ones where the stave is made from different materials glued together (wood and bone lacquered together is one historically common form). In those cases you have a more flexible belly material (on the opposite side from the archer), which as it flexes inwards under the strain of the drawn bowstring, compresses the stiffer back material (facing the archer). This combination of forces leads to a more powerful draw. This technology is ancient--Wikipedia tells me examples date back to the 2nd millenium BC. I have frequently wondered about what combination of accident and ingenuity could have lead to the invention of composite bows.

As for the shape, a reflex bow is one where where the stave, if unstrung, curves away from the archer for its whole length. In effect the bowstring on a reflex bow turns the bow inside out. A recurve bow is one where only the outer parts of the stave curve away from the archer when unstrung. So, when unstrung the outer 'limbs' curve away from the archer and the inner 'grip' bulges out, and when strung the limbs are bent back but the grip continues to bulge out. For the purposes of your analogy, the difference between recurved and reflex bows are unimportant--both share with the modern musical bow the feature that part of the tension is generated by the curve of the bow stave away from the user.

Distinguishing the various terms from each other is all made more complicated by the fact that almost all modern bows are at the same time compound, recurved and composite.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Sigh. As I said, it is the Boston Colloquium all over again. Many thanks for that. It is way more than I have ever known about bows [and interesting besides.] Was this just internet research or are you an archer?

Marinus Ferreira said...

No, but I have an interest in military history, or I used to have when I had more free time.

Unknown said...

I am more than a little mystified by the total lack of comment the latest blogs regarding the momentous news items, one of course being the extremely important Geneva agreement between P5 + 1 and Iran, and the other the extraordinary statement of Pope Francis regarding the alarming growth of inequality between rich and poor. Surely both these events are far more deserving of comment at this time than squirrels or the differences between Baroque and modern string instrument bows.

Robert Shore