A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Bow

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BOW. The strings of the various instruments of the violin tribe are made to vibrate by friction with the hair of the bow. Like the violin, the bow went through many progressive phases, till, at the end of last century, it acquired its present shape, which seems to leave no room for improvement. The bow with which the Rebec (the oldest stringed instrument played with the bow with which we are acquainted) was played, had the form of the weapon from which it derived its name. The stick was much bent, and a cord or string was tied from one end to the other. (Fig. 1.)

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In pictures of the 13th century we notice something like a nut and head, and hair was possibly used in place of the cord. The bow now gradually loses more and more the actual bow-shape (Figs. 2, 3, 4); the head is distinct from the stick, and the nut is no longer a portion of the stick, but is attached to it by a wire. On the top of the stick a narrow piece of indented iron is fixed, on which the wire is hooked, and thus the hair made tighter or looser at pleasure. (Fig. 5.) The next step consisted in the substitution of a screw for the wire and indented iron, by which the tension of the hair could be perfectly regulated. This was Corelli's bow. (Fig. 6.) It was made of light wood, the stick perfectly straight, hardly if at all elastic, and very short. Tartini's bow (Fig. 7) was considerably longer, the wood thinner, and more elastic.

Towards the end of the 18th century Francois Tourte brought the art of bow-making to perfection, and created a model on which no improvement has been yet made. In fact his bow combines all the qualities required to enable the player to follow out every conceivable nuance of tone and movement—lightness, firmness, and elasticity. The stick of the modern violin bow (Fig. 8) is made of Brazilian lance-wood (Duguetia quitarensis) or of Snake-wood (Brosimum aubletii); it is cut straight, following the grain of the wood, and afterwards slightly bent by exposure to heat. Although many trials have been made no wood has been found to possess the necessary qualities in the same degree as those mentioned.

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The nut (c, Fig. 9) is made either of ebony or tortoise-shell. For violin, tenor, and violoncello bows white horse-hair is used; for double-bass bows (which are made of beech wood) black.
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The hair (b) is inserted in the head (e) and the nut of the bow, and can be made tighter or looser by turning the screw (d). The hair from the tail of stallions is preferred, as being stronger, more even, and free from greasiness. The friction on the string is increased by the application of rosin. From 175 to 250 hairs are put into a violin bow. Tourte fixed the length of a violin-bow to 29–29½ inches, of a tenor bow to 29, and of a violoncello bow to 28½–28¾. The bows of Tourte's own make are still considered the best, and command a high price; though not a few modern bow-makers have turned out very good bows, which frequently go under his name.

[ P. D. ]