The fascinating history of bowed instruments – the most modern of the orchestra – is the story of the evolution in the design of two halves: bow and violin. Traversing Christian and Muslim, oriental and occidental worlds since 1,000 A.D., this saga reveals above all the insatiable quest to replicate the human voice – the ultimate goal of the most refined violin technique. The acrobatics of the modern bow, whose capacity to bounce at high speeds is merely decorative, should be valued only in contrast to the great art of maintaining a seamless melodic line – clearly the final purpose of its evolution to this day. This fact is demonstrated in the design of the bow, whose continual transformation came to an end around 1800, when the French craftsman Tourte found the definitive solution to the problem of the bow’s mechanical instability curtailing expression: he inverted its curvature towards the string and transformed the cart into a Ferrari. (Some, quite rightly, might still prefer horses.)
Until then, the bow was shaped somewhat like a hunting bow in dozens of models. Its slightly arched stick with a center of gravity perched clumsily far from the string gave it a certain agility, a capacity to spring, but it lacked the stability and depth required by the long singing lines fancied by the composers of Mozart’s era – the dawning of cantabile. By the time Tourte’s modern bow – imitated by everyone to this day – achieved better adherence by uniformly distributing the pressure that the violinist put on the string without trembling or bucking, producing a prolonged and homogenous sound yet conserving its springing nerve, the violin had already been established in its current proportions for two hundred years. Mediaeval European iconography offers an entire bazaar of experimental rebecks and violins that tend to evolve towards the predominant hourglass shape with a steep bridge, permitting free bow action from all angles on individual strings. From rhythmic instruments noted for their volume in dance forms, scrubbing rustic drones simultaneously on multiple strings, the extended family of bows became over time an instrumental chorus with a great capacity for timbre fusion and precise articulation.
To highlight and refine these very penetrating voices, the best craftsmen of the Italian Renaissance – Nicolas Amati and Gaspar de Salò – invented the definitive shape of the violin before 1600. Nobody can explain how these tiny cases can support hundreds of pounds of string tension and project a sound at once so potent and so sweet. Nobody knows how those geniuses, whose traditions reached their zenith with Stradivarius and Guarnerius in the 18th century, came across the geometric secrets of construction and the alchemy of varnishes that give the unmistakable sound to these revered objects, depositaries of the highest spirituality, where physical and sonic beauty come together. Recently, in New York, I had the good fortune to play a Stradivarius cello for several hours. I was out of practice, but despite this, the cello played itself. It knew all the music. Without exaggerating, I can say that it had a soul as well as a sublime voice. A mystery. “I’ll take it,” I told luthier Christophe Landon. “I need it immediately.” “No problem,” he answered. “That’ll be four million dollars.” A trifle.
Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland