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Monday, June 05, 2006

Bach Bow: Bonafide or Bogus?

There has been much debate in the twentieth century regarding the so called "Bach Bow." People on both sides of the debate feel that the issue is resolved, and that it's strange that people in the other camp don't agree with their own. Here I am going to try to present both sides as best I can, with the info available to me.

There are very good arguments on both sides, which is probably why the debate continues. However, it should be noted that the believers in the Bach Bow are decidedly in the minority. Now, what is the Bach Bow, you ask? The Bach Bow, or curved bow, is a violin bow that is curved outwardly so that the hair of the bow can touch all four strings at once, allowing the player to perform true four note chords. To see such a device, the ones made by Michael Bach (no relation to J.S.), are available at Bach.Bogen. Interesting thing about the Bach.Bogen is that even though there is much on the site about Baroque and Classical repertoire that was supposedly written for the curved bow, Michael Bach, in a master class with Janos Starker, admits that he invented it for the performing of modern music. He even seems a bit surprised that Starker suggest it for the use of J.S. Bach's cello suites. There are other modern curved bows, such as the Vega/Bach bow made for violinist Emil Telmanyi, but it is not commercially sold, to my knowledge.

It is called the Bach Bow because the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, as well as the solo Cello Suites, contain four note chords that are possible to perform two ways: one, with a curved bow, playing all the notes at once, or two, broken up by playing the notes separately, which is how one does it with a modern bow. I'll get more into the details of the debate later, but suffice to say, the supporters of the curved bow use anecdotal evidence, period paintings and engravings from Germany that show curved bows, as well as Bach's violin music to argue for their curved bow. The argument actually has two flavors, one that says that Bach had to conceive of a bow for his music, or that it was standard in Germany during Bach's time to use curved bows that required thumb pressure to keep the bow hair taut, but that it was unpopular outside of that relatively small region during that era. More on this later.

The modern French and Italian bows we use are curved inward towards the hair and are much more useful for fast playing, as they wouldn't bounce as much as a curved bow would, though they don't allow for the playing of more then two notes at a time. This means that whenever a violinist sees a chord in the music, he must arpeggiate it, whether he likes it or not.

So, who's right? Let's take a look at the evidence.

1. Bach's music.
Supporters: The music contains four note chords. At points in the original scores, Bach writes "arpeggiate" and at other places does not. This means that he intends for some chords to be broken and others played as normal chords, which is only possible with a curved bow. Therefore, there must have been a curved bow at the time capable of playing four strings at once.
Detractors: There are places in the music where he wrote beams and barlines that would be idiomatic of writing for a player using normal violin technique. He was thinking linearly, not harmonically, so there's no reason to think those chords are block chords. The curved bow, therefore, is not a necessity.

Well, in this argument, which is correct? Well, yes, the score does say "arpeggiate" in certain places. However, does that mean that he intended all other chords to be block chords? Not necessarily. After all, Bach could have meant for the chords to be played as groups of two notes, with the bottom two notes (or top, as the case may be, depending on where the melody goes) played first, then the other two. This is normally how a violin player plays a chord. Now, with the passage marked arpeggiate, he could have meant that the chord was to have each note played individually, such as one would do on a guitar or keyboard. It's an entirely different effect from the standard way a violinist would play a chord. So, it's not necessarily indicative of writing for the curved bow.

2. Interpretations with the two bows.
Supporters: Hearing broken chords is not what Bach would have wanted. He was a musician who enjoyed cleanliness of performance, demanded the most of his performers, wrote what the ideals he heard in his head, and found whatever he needed to make his ideas reality. He would not have put up with the non-polyphonic bows, but would have sought out or made a bow that would have fulfilled his vision. Therefore, modern interpretations with modern bows do not hold to his vision, creating an inferior musical experience.
Detractors: Bach understood very well the idioms of his time, bound himself to them and yet always made the most out of them, and always made sure that what he actually expected out of performers was possible. He would have understood what the violin was capable of, himself being a violinist, and would have accepted the sounds it afforded him. The renditions by Rudolf Gaehler illustrate this clearly, as he plays unsubtley, vulgarizing the music by playing jarring four note chords, then switching back to single note lines, and keeps dissonant notes sustained that were meant to fade into nothingness. Modern violinists with their modern bows are much more able to create subtlety, with their focus on the linear line rather than the harmonic implications of every chord.

Well, what we have here is two arguments in one: What type of composer Bach was and how this impacted what he composed, and the interpretations as a result. As for the first argument, yes, Bach did have great ideals in his head. He wrote beautiful, long, flowing lines that would make a singer or wind player pass out if they tried to play them as written. He simply didn't care that they had to breathe. However, he always conceded and edited his music or allowed for breath marks for the sake of the performer. We have no record of him making a wind instrument capable of his melodies, he always settled for what was at hand, making the most of it. His music was difficult, yes, and was very interested in the logical limits of what a given instrument could do (he wrote trumpet parts going into the 21st partial, which is insanely difficult for any brass player), but always conceded to reality. We have records of only one instrument that Bach made because he couldn't get the sound he wanted out of any other instrument; the Lute-Harpsichord. It was a harpsichord with a bowl back, gut strings, and no dampers on the strings. It sounded very much like a lute, and the lute repertoire could easily be performed in it. However, we have records of this instrument existing, and Bach having it built, though there are no surviving examples of one. We do not have any evidence that Bach ever had a curved bow built for him, and as far as I know, never wrote about a curved bow. If it was so important to the performance of his solo violin music, why would he not write of it?
The second argument is that the interpretations with the curved bows are lousy. I have never heard Telmanyi's interpretation, but I have heard a bit of Gaehler's. The problem is not in the bow, but the fact that Gaehler is just an ok violinist. He's not Heifetz, he's not Perlman, and he's not Stern. He's not bad, by any means, he's just not great. His interpretation lacks subtlety because he's just not as top notch as they are. If Itzhak Perlman were handed a curved bow, I'm sure he could do wonders with it. I would love to hear Telmanyi's interpretation and stack it up next to Gaehler's, but I have yet to get a copy (it's about $40, which I don't feel like spending right now). So, in short, one cannot dispense with the idea of a curved bow based on the interpretations at hand. There are two that I know of. We'll need to wait until someone like Joshua Bell decides to experiment with a curved bow to really be able to tell whether the Sonatas and Partitas by Bach are better with or without a curved bow.

We also have to remember that we can't always guess what Bach would have wanted with his music. Human beings are complex and things that composers are quite ardent about in one area they may be lax about in others. Bach's intentions, since he did not write them down, are unknown to us. Did he like or dislike broken chords? I don't know. I doubt anyone does.

3. The paintings
Supporters: Period paintings from Germany clearly show curved bows being used by string players. So, 1. It was normal to have bows capable of playing chords, but almost no music demanded it, thanks to the largely contrapuntal writing of the time which did not demand individual players be able to play complex chords on their own, though some did take advantage of the capabilities of such a bow, or 2. The bows were arched to keep tension of the hair, much like a bow for a bow and arrow, and was simply a precursor to the more modern Tourte bow. Though, if one desired, he could simply slacken the hair, and use it for chordal playing, which is what Bach probably intended.
Detractors: The paintings rarely show bows arched enough for the type of chordal playing necessary for four string chords. And even then, they also show rather inaccurate instruments, being very cartoonish and unrealistic. The notion that these bows were meant to play polyphonic music comes from a rather literal interpretation of these paintings.

Well, here we run into an interesting issue, and possibly the strongest evidence for the supporters of the polyphonic curved bow. There were indeed bows at the time that were arched. Waidler makes rebec bows, and arched bows up to 71 centimeters, which is about 27 inches. That is plenty long enough to use as a violin bow, and from the picture that I've seen, it leaves a good four inches of space between bow and hair. It's possible that Bach could have used such a bow for his sonatas and partitas. However, no surviving evidence shows this to be the case. Also, Waidler's bows are Renaissance copies, not Baroque, and also, I don't believe that they are copies of German design. From what I know, Bach never wrote about any kind of special bow for his music. Also, all surviving bows from Baroque Germany are not as arched as they appear in the pictures, and are not curved enough for polyphonic playing were not intended for use on violins. As for those highly curved rebec bows, it was undesirable and indeed bad technique to push hard enough to play on three strings at once. So, unless Bach had been presented with or sought out an old very large rebec bow, and never wrote about it or told anyone who kept diaries, it's looking like this is not the solution.
It's possible, however, that there are no surviving bows due to the complete abandonment in the Classical of all Baroque idioms. It could have been that German string players, not wanting to appear behind the times, abandoned their arched bows, and went with more modern Italian and French bows. After all, if no one cared about these bows, and they were confined to a relatively small region to begin with, then it's conceivable that they existed but disappeared. After all, early brass instruments are quite rare, with only a handful still existing from the prized Nurnburg artists of the late Renaissance and early Baroque. And there are no surviving examples of Bach's lute-harpsichord, which has much evidence supporting its existence. Still, direct evidence supporting a bow capable of, and intended for, four note chords doesn't exist. There are accounts, such as that of Georg Muffat's, that Baroque German violinists kept tension of the hair with their thumb. However, this does not prove that they were capable of chords, but simply that the hair was kept tight with the thumb. It is possible that an author, not knowing what is essential to report, would report something so curious as that. However, I think he would have been more keen on reporting that the violins were making a strange sound, that of four note chords. But that report does not, to my knowledge, exist.

So, who's right? Well, the case isn't looking very good for the curved bow. I want it to have existed very badly myself, but the evidence is pointing in the other direction. To sum up:
1. Bach made a big deal about inventing new instruments or using them for that which they weren't normally intended. He didn't write about any curved bows, or at least no such documents exist.
2. No surviving polyphonic bows exist, and there is no contemporary literature that I know of that speaks of four note chord playing.
3. The paintings are accurate in showing arched bows, but they just aren't as arched as they appear in real life.

So, while it would take a lot of extremely delicate circumstances for the Bach Bow to be a reality, it seems that it probably did not exist. Oh well, it's still interesting, anyway.

If you're interested in the early days of the Bach Bow speculation, you should check out Albert Schweitzer's fantastic biography on Bach, specifically volume one. He was an ardent supporter of the Bach Bow, but his ideas have since been rejected by most of the musicological community. A shame, though, that more people don't at least give the curved bow a chance, even though it's a 20th century invention. It would certainly make for an interesting alternative for a lot of violinists.

Of course, as a guitarist, I think that the sonatas and partitas work best on a guitar, with its expanded range and ability to play six note chords. But, then, I am biased.


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