The fabulous tale of the bow

Violin, viola, cello and double bass are the four bowed string instruments of a symphonic orchestra. They all have a common trait: a wooden stick almost magical which is called the bow…

The bow is shaped like the weapon, as we can guess with its name. The musician's bow. It's a wooden stick either straight or slightly curved, whose two ends are linked by a strand (most often made of horsehair). The bow rubs the instrument's strings to create a vibration. This vibration's sound is amplified by a soundbox. 

Archet du XVIIIe siècle, conçu avec du crin de cheval et une hausse en ivoire.
Archet du XVIIIe siècle, conçu avec du crin de cheval et une hausse en ivoire.  © Getty

This rubbing of the bow allows the musician to maintain the sound, to make it last longer. This capacity of legato was why people started to say that the sound of the bowed string instruments is the closest to the sung human voice.

And if the bowed string instruments are of varied shapes and sounds following the cultural eras, the musician's bow on its part stays pretty much the same for all the instruments wether it's a rebec Arabic-Andalusian, an Indian sârangî, a Chinese erhu...

This universality of the bow is quite unsettling, isn't? How come we find it all over the world? Is its invention older than the one of our dear violin's, or even of the viola's whose family of bowed instrument first appeared in the 15th century?

We must admit that the place and date of birth of the bow remains a mystery, as great discoveries often are... Here are however four theories regarding the origins of the famous musician's wand.

The myth

3 000 years before our era... Ravana, demoniac king of the Island of Lanka (actual Sri Lanka), a giant with ten heads and twenty arms, with eyes red like copper and teeth as white as the moon, invents the first bow: the ravanastron (or Ravanhatta)

Ravana est un démon figurant dans le Râmâyana, texte fondateur de la mythologie hindou.
Ravana est un démon figurant dans le Râmâyana, texte fondateur de la mythologie hindou. © Getty

Trips, oh trips

Musicians, instruments and music styles travel. As India has been doing business since forever with its neighbors, we can only imagine the ravanastron and its bow was known of the Persians, Egyptians, and Greeks. 

And yet... there is no trace of any bowed string instrument in the Greek or Roman Antiquity, nor even in Egypt, despite all the studies and research that were done on this civilizations. Sure, we found harps, kitharas, lyre (of the plucked string instrument family)... but not one bow.

Instruments à cordes pincées de la Grèce antique : lyre, barbiton et kithara.
Instruments à cordes pincées de la Grèce antique : lyre, barbiton et kithara.  © Getty

The musician's bow therefore slowly but surely traveled from the East to the West, since no trace of its use has been found his the Western regions before the Middle Age.

There comes a second theory: the bow would have been brought during the time of the Crusades, between the 11th and the 12th century. Artists, poets and troubadours who travel with pilgrims would have thus discovered and brought back with them the rebab, a bowed string instrument commonly used in the Islamic region.

Yet, if the bow conquered the heart of the European musicians through the Eastern rebab, he could have thus be introduced into the West even before the Crusades. For in the 8th century, the Moors conquered Spain and theyr had their own version of the rebab, their own bowed string instrument: the rebec.

Rebec
Rebec © Getty

The bow could have therefore entered Europe via the Iberian peninsula and gave birth to a "western" version of the rebec, the vielle, and then turned in the 15th into the family of violas (viola da braccio, viola da gamba, violone and viola d'amore), ancestors of our violin.

Let's not forget France...

We have explored until now the probable Asian origin of the bowed strings and therefore the one of the bow's. But is was without accounting for the Breton crwth... Mentioned for the first time in the 6th century in the writings of the Bishop of Poitiers, Venantius Fortunatus, the crwth is a bowed instrument and was used by the Breton bards, long before the conquest of Spain.

Was bow brought by pilgrims or travelers? Imported by the Moors? Were there parallel inventions of bowed string instruments at different times, in different places? No need to choose, those theories are not necessarily incompatible.

Représentation d'un instrument à cordes frottées sur un parchemin du XIIe siècle.
Représentation d'un instrument à cordes frottées sur un parchemin du XIIe siècle.  © Getty

The wand chose its musician, Monsieur Tourte

It's almost impossible to talk about the bow without mentioning its most famous craftsman: François Xavier Tourte, humbly called the "Stradivarius of the bow". We are now at the end of the 18th century and this originally clockmaker starts his quest for the perfect bow. 

He experimented all the type of hairs, woods and shapes and came to the conclusion that the wood with which the bow is built determines its quality. 

The best wood would be the one from Pernambuco, a state from the North-East of Brazil. As for the best shape, it would be concave. This type of bow, called the bow of Tourte, is still today popular among the musicians.

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