How did the French bow conquer the world?

“The violin is a bow”Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755-1824), violinist, composer, and one of the principal architects of modern violin technology said. This talented international and Parisian adoptee leaves us a great deal of work for his instrument, including his 29 concertos and 70 sonatas. And for good reason: It was the golden age of the solo violin. The instrument comes out of the living rooms and settles on the concert hall stages. Viotti, like Kreutzer and above all Paganini, takes violin technique and interpretation to unexpected heights. And they need high-performance tools that display all the subtlety of their new ingenuity everywhere.

From accessory to complete tool

A good violin is good, but a good bow is better. Luthiers have had their work cut out for them, but concert artists are also beginning to realize the importance of the bow. Thus the latter leaves the rank of accessories and takes his place on the luthier’s workbench. Demand exploded and bows left the workshops by the dozen each week: the companies split, and the bowsmith’s career was born.

If Crémone remains the reference in the violin industry, the bow industry is taking a place in Paris. We can also assume that, despite all the small modifications to his instrument, Viotti regularly visited the workshop of François-Xavier Tourt (1747-1835), located on the Place de l’Ecole in Paris. This watchmaker decided to devote his life to perfecting the bow. As his research progressed, he defined his modern form: a delicate balance between weight, height, resistance, and flexibility. Torte was convinced that wood determined the quality of the bow: he then chose the wood of Pernambuco, which combines density and flexibility ideally to best serve his master’s music.

François Xavier Tourte in his Parisian studio, CCA 1818
François Xavier Tourte in his Parisian studio, CCA 1818

The whole of Europe gathers in Paris to stock up on the “Stradivarius de l’archet”. It was Torte who laid the foundation for the French school of modern bow-making, which is still considered today the best in the world. This French school in turn trains bow makers from all over Europe. Many families will make a name for themselves in this region, like Peccatte, Voirin or Sartory… These are the best French bow making watches.

Mirecourt, the cradle of the best braces

If Paris is the center of all innovation, many archers have been trained at Mirecourt in Lorraine, the French capital of Lutheran since the 17th century. A native of this city, Jean-Baptiste Voyom was trained in the best workshops of the region, and brought to Paris the finest craftsmen of manufacture.

The Pays de Mirecourt still maintains its tradition as the cradle of the French violin industry, with Violin Making Museum And the only school in France to offer Lutheran training, founded in 1970 by Etienne Fatillo and Jean Bauer. During the first decade, the Ecole de la lutherie de Mirecourt also trained bow makers, but this training no longer exists today. Bow makers are trained directly in the luthier workshops, and dispatches are carried out as in the past: from adults to apprentices, working at the workbench.

Violin bow, attributed to Famil Adam, inv. 1972.5.1
Violin bow, attributed to Famil Adam, inv. 1972.5.1

– Museum of the French violin and bow industry

“Even today, it is an oral transmission profession,” explain Anne Sophie Trevin Responsible for the collections at the Mirecourt Violin Museum and former violin maker. This makes it possible to regulate the number of trained bow makers according to demand. While in France every year dozens of lousy stylists drop out of school, arch makers are not superfluous. Initially, you have to create a name and build a network, but once you install it, it works and today is all over France. »

They are about 90 in France, hardly a few hundred worldwide, supporting a craft in which practically nothing has changed for two hundred years. The know-how, which almost disappeared at the beginning of the twentieth century, witnessed a real renaissance in the seventies. “There were only three bow makers in France at that time “, he told Eric Fournier, Bow maker in Brittany. “There has been an interruption for several decades, because knowledge fades with the old. New generations have had to reshape tool strokes and ways of doing things themselves by observing Tort’s bows and other Bekat bows that are two hundred years old and still in very good shape. And that’s also our goal: To make bows that will survive for two hundred years!”

Today’s craft of excellence is threatened

The goal was achieved, if we take into account the reputation of French bow-making today. Production is artisanal, very little mechanical, and manual labor on the noblest materials remains the norm. For a new generation like Eric Fournier, bow making has never reached such a level of excellence.

“The bow maker could never devote himself to one thing for several months: the weekly production at Tourte’s time was twice our annual production. Nowadays the bow maker makes the bow from design to finish, and he can spend time on it, take better materials, and adjust, And work on the details.”

Craftsmanship from 5 to 10 bows per year and the market has resisted the industry of the profession since the sixties.Europe of medium bows, a mass production, according to professionals, allows to diversify the offer rather than a threat.

“French bow makers are in great demand, because their expertise is in harmony with excellence. Therefore, the ‘Asian competition’ is not one. Fortunately, it exists because it allows the democratization of bows at affordable prices”, explain Catherine Barwin, bow maker at Mirecourt. The only real threat to the profession, according to her, is the scarcity of raw materials. Because the arch consists almost entirely of materials now classified as “protected types”:

“In Sagittarius, only horsehair remains accessible Catherine Barwin Jokes. “Lizard, tortoise, quail, ebony, ivory, and of course pernambuco wood, are classified today by the Washington Convention. She explained that regulations have become so restrictive that getting supplies is an obstacle. For Pernambuco wood, archers are not planning beyond the stocks they were able to make prior to 2007 (the year the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora banned all exploitation). But the general scarcity of all other components of the arch also leads to higher prices for raw materials. For a good arc, I get it for 300 to 800 euros. On the other hand, for baguettes, we’ve all been reduced to depleting our stocks because there hasn’t been any supply from Brazil since 2007.”

Some materials are gradually being replaced, such as ivory with composite resin, and many bracket makers are working with alternative raw materials such as other types of wood or carbon fibres. In the face of imperfection that could drown out an entire career, does urgency make musicians embrace new material? “It’s a very conservative environment,” Catherine Barwin explains. “We give ourselves a good bow as if we were giving ourselves a piece of jewelry. It is hard to imagine musicians abandoning old manufacturing techniques and materials.”

The Pernambuco wand is like a Stradivarius violin after all. An idea of ​​sound, vibration, relationship deeply rooted in the collective imagination. Give it up not for tomorrow. So, the future of the bow industry is Gordesian knot? Let the conclusion be Svetlin Roussefffirst violin solo from Orchester de la Suisse Romande:

“For me it is a triangle, a marriage of three between the instrumental, the violin and the bow. The latter is of paramount importance both for the aspect of “comfort”, i.e. ease of play, flexibility, ability to bounce, balance, and above all – for the qualities of the resulting sound: depending on the chemistry with Machine and person playing, this can translate into consistent richness, and therefore greater power and range, much wider range and ultimately a richer and more versatile overall result.So it’s hard to compare a carbon fiber bow that performs well and is potentially more reliable to play In the open air, with an old stick like a tort that will give another dimension to the sound and allow other emotions to be conveyed..”


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