A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Bowing

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From volume 1 of the work.

1502930A Dictionary of Music and Musicians — BowingPaul David

BOWING. This term is used in a twofold sense, corresponding to the German terms 'Bogenführung' and 'Strichart' respectively. In the first it designates in a general way the action of the bow on stringed instruments, and in that sense we speak of a style and method of bowing, or of the bowing of a player. In the second it means the particular manner in which a phrase or passage is to be executed, and the signs by which such a manner is usually marked; and in that sense we speak of the bowing of a phrase or passage.

1. Bowing (Bogenführung). While the left hand of the violin-player fixes the tone, and thereby does that which for the piano-player is already done by the mechanism of the instrument,—and while his correctness of intonation (supposing his ear to be accurate) depends on the proficiency of his left hand, as with the piano-player it depends on the tuner's proficiency,—it is the action of the violinist's right hand, his bowing, which, analogous to the pianist's touch, makes the sound spring into life; it is through the medium of the bow that the player realises his ideas and feelings. It is therefore evident that 'bowing' is one of the most important and difficult parts of the art of violin-playing, and that the excellence of a player, and even of a whole school of violin-playing, to a great extent depends on its method of bowing. The progress of the art of bowing closely followed the gradual perfection of the bow itself. As long as the stick of the bow was stiff and unpliable and the hair could not be made tighter or looser at pleasure, we can hardly speak of an art of bowing; for that art can only be practised with an elastic bow, which yields to the slightest pressure of the fingers. As long as the violin-player had merely to double the singers' part, no other nuances but piano and forte were required from him. These the stiff bow could produce, but nothing more. When at the beginning of the 18th century the violin began to emancipate itself from the position of a mere accompanyist, and entered on its glorious career of a solo-instrument, under such masters as Corelli and Vivaldi, it was only by the use of an elastic bow that it could acquire the faculty of producing various nuances and shades of tone. Tartini was the first to make the stick at all elastic, and must therefore be considered the next great advancer of the art of bowing. His work, 'L'Arte dell' Arco,' probably gives us a correct idea of the bowing of his time. A full broad tone, a variety of combinations of tied and detached notes, arpeggios with firm bow (no 'springing bow' as yet),—are the main features of his bowing. The full development, however, of all the powers of the violin was only possible with the modern bow, as first made by Tourte of Paris. The thin, bent, elastic stick of his bow enables the player to follow out the slightest gradations of tone from the fullest forte to the softest piano, to mark all kinds of strong and gentle accents, to execute staccato, legato, saltato, and arpeggio passages. It cannot be said that the classical Paris school of violin-playing availed itself of all these advantages of Tourte's invention; their bowing does not show very great progress beyond Tartini and his school, and even Spohr does not advance materially upon them. But with Paganini a new era opened in the art. He uses freely almost every imaginable movement of the bow—he adds to the firm slow staccato the quick staccato of many notes—he develops the movement of the wrist to the highest perfection, enabling him to execute all kinds of bowing with the utmost celerity. But it cannot be said that this method of bowing was altogether favourable to a good musical style of playing, which requires as its first essential breadth of tone. Now this can only be produced by a perfectly quiet management of the bow, hardly compatible with Paganini's style of bowing.

It is the merit of the modern German school, represented chiefly at the Vienna and Leipzig Conservatoires, and by the greatest of modern violinists, Joachim, to have combined the fundamental qualities of all good bowing with the advantages to be derived from Paganini's style, without following onesidedly, as the modern French school has done, his brilliant but extravagant example, and thereby losing the true dignity of style handed down from Corelli and Tartini to Viotti, Rode, Spohr, and our day.

2. Bowing (Strichart). To the correct and truthful rendering of a musical phrase or passage on a stringed instrument, it is essential that an appropriate bowing should be chosen, or, if already given by the composer, be strictly adhered to. This appears self-evident, if we consider how one and the same passage, bowed in two different ways, may produce two entirely different effects. A succession of notes, intended by the composer to be played as a legato passage, and therefore with as little changing of bow as possible, would, if played with detached strokes of the bow, entirely lose its character. And again, to give a well-known example, what would become of the light and sparkling passages of one of Mendelssohn's Scherzi, if the staccato notes were played legato? Its character would be destroyed so as to become almost irrecognisable. True, the old masters left it more or less to the discretion of the performer to choose an appropriate bowing for the different parts of their compositions, and trusted to their artistic feeling and tact in this respect. Nay, if we go back to Handel and Bach, we often find what can only be called a mere sketch of a passage. Bach, in his celebrated Violin Solos repeatedly gives long successions of chords in three and four parts, merely adding the word 'arpeggio,' and leaving it to the player to execute them with a variety of bowings of his own choice and invention. However, the modern masters—partly since Mozart and Haydn, and absolutely since Beethoven—have given up this imperfect way of notation, just as they gave up writing figured basses instead of explicit accompaniments, and at the present time a composer very rarely omits to indicate the bowing with which he intends each passage to be executed. With the tendency of all modern composers since Beethoven and Schubert to bring the characteristic and descriptive power of music more and more into the foreground, it was but natural that the advanced technique of modern violin-playing should have developed a great number of new varieties of bowing, in order to do justice to all the subtle nuances which were to be rendered.

In orchestral performances and in the playing of chamber-music it is chiefly uniformity of bowing which is to be aimed at, and which alone ensures a well-balanced unanimous effect. The undeniable excellency of the orchestral performances at the concerts of the Paris Conservatoire, at the Gewandhaus-concerts in Leipzig, at the Crystal Palace Saturday Concerts, and similar institutions elsewhere, is owing at least as much to the enforcement of uniform bowing on the part of the conductors and leaders of the bands as to the careful observance of the pianos, fortes, and other dynamic signs.

A number of signs are used in musical notation to indicate various ways of bowing: (1) a slur ͡   indicates that all the notes under the slur are to be played in one stroke of the bow; legato. (2) A slur with dots, .͡..., means either staccato or saltato in one stroke; while the absence of a slur indicates that every note is to be done by a separate stroke. (3) Dots or dashes over the notes (. . . or ' ' ' ) mean sharp short strokes, either with firm bow (martellé) or with springing bows (spicato or saltato). (4) ⊔ or ⊓ means a downstroke, from the nut of the bow towards the head; ∨ or ∧ an upstroke.

[ P. D. ]