What few people think of when watching a symphonic orchestra is the modernity of the predominant instruments: the bows. The violin tends to be synonymous with antiquity: we imagine that, for lack of mechanisms, screws, and springs, it’s the oldest instrument of the orchestra. Its historical stability – crystallized in the design that we have known since the middle of the 16th century, at the cusp of the Italian Renaissance – contributes to the creation of this impression, but the truth is that the principle of rubbing a string to extract from it a prolonged vibration is, according to historical evidence, the most modern of all.

When the first pictorial and documentary evidence of the bow was born, around the 10th century A.D., the hydraulic key organ had already been in existence for at least twelve centuries and ancestors of the oboe and clarinet were already played in ancient times. The flute was more than 30,000 years old, as was the hunting bow that undoubtedly offered the first sound of a tensed string; percussion was a million years old. When Turko-Mongol musicians of Central Asia discovered around the 9th century that the horsehair they used to restring their lutes produced prolonged sound by friction when adhered to the rod with which they hit their strings, a rapid evolution began. Improvements converted the rubbing stick into a bow of loose horsehair interlaced with the tensed horsehair of the strings. The primitive bow was born, fastened by its hairs to a primitive pear-shaped violin that was played vertically, supported on the lap. From fabulous Central Asia, traversed by the Silk Road, by agile Mongol horsemen and Venetian and Arab merchants, the beginning of the rubbed string – invented by Ibn Sinâ in Bukhara, according to the chroniclers – emerged from the Mediterranean, passing through Muslim and Byzantine networks and heading towards China.

We can always see that musical practice incorporates and develops advantageous instrumental innovations with great speed. (Look at the recent history of the Peruvian caja or cajón). The Byzantine connection passes through Venice and places the bowed instruments in the hands of the most talented designers of all time. The Italians study and improve the angles, the tensions, the fastenings, and the pins, but the rabâb, Arab cousin of the mediaeval violin, invades the Iberian Peninsula and gains territory towards the north. By the 17th century, France, Lombardia, Galicia, Alsace, and England are already completely invaded. Innumerable variations of very specific construction are noted, crystallizing over time into two families: viola da braccio and viola da gamba, fretless and fretted, respectively; lyres and rebecks of all shapes and sizes that disappeared with troubadour paraphernalia. The extraordinary thing about this history is to see an instrumental accessory – one that manages to draw prolonged sound from a string that was previously pinched or struck – traverse such diverse periods and geographic regions. It is as if it were possessed by the spirit of the horse whose mane gave birth to the miracle of the modern bow. From the distant Samarkand arrived a steed… (To be continued.)

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

About pauldesenne

Composer / Writer
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