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Why The Great String Instrument Bows Come From France

By Expert Author: Nathan Weiss

By R. Klettke

French Bow Makers Have a Long Tradition of Superior Quality

Bows for stringed instruments largely come from Italy, France and Germany. But French bows are, historically and today, what most players prefer.

It is not hard to come up with the names of the great French string instrument bow makers, particularly those who were innovative. Clement Eulry (late 19th and early 19th centuries) devised the metal thumb facing on the frog. In the same era, Francois Lupot first used metal under slide and his bows are highly prized today as they were in his lifetime. J.B. Vuillaume (mostly in the 19th century) had unsuccessful inventions (e.g., a hollow steel bow) but was more a teacher/employer of excellent bow makers, the brothers Francois and Charles Peccatte among them. In the early 20th century, Victor Fetique improvised on the patterns of Francois Nicolas Voirin, whose bows were characterized by a slim, light (52 grams) stick.

What is it about French bows that hold their allure and value today? Why do the accomplished players of fine violins, cellos and violas almost always prefer French cello, viola and violin bows?

To be sure, evaluation of just about anything you would find in a violin shop is subjective. Players speak about the projection of a violin, where the sound is different at a distance of 75 feet as compared to what the violinist hears. Also, the making of a quality bow is entirely by a human, not a machine. The age of the bow (new vs. ten years old vs. vintage from another century) will make a difference, even though some may argue that neither category is necessarily better than the others. In general, the large contingent of those who prefer French bows speak of a finer, rich rounded sound, although there are split opinions on what they prefer from a bow. Players seek either a dark or soprano tonal quality, and few (if any) bows can deliver both with equal strength. A quality bow from France -- or Italy, Germany or Asia -- should to be characterized by density, focus and coherence. French bows deliver more consistently on each of these.

French bows also differ from, say, English bows in that those from the U.K. tend to be heavier, too soft or clubbier. The French bows tend to be made with Brazilian wood known as Pernambuco, a wood so dense it does not float.

Of note: To fine instrument collectors and investors, antique French bows appreciate more quickly in value (in part due to the higher-rate of breakage of bows, making them more rare every year). This of course adds to the perception that French bows must be better because they fetch the highest prices on the market, even when those prices are not directly tied to the actual sound of the bows.

The long line of French bow makers illustrate why musicians prefer their handiwork. The country, unlike elsewhere, has a national tradition of bow making, as successive generations received their craft from those who preceded them. To use the phrase they may well prefer, their bows have a je ne sais quois that has been 400 years in the making.

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