This illustration and text come from the Methode by Michelle Corrette, published in 1741. The work remains the earliest extant treatise that deals with every technical aspect of playing the violoncello. This section details the variations in the manner of holding the bow that Corrette found acceptable.
The areas that he prescribes for placing the right hand upon the bow are familiar: A player may hold the stick at the frog, or may “choke” the bow higher on the stick. The exact distance depends on the balance point of the particular bow, which in any case would be different from that of a Tourte-style stick. I caution against taking Corrette’s illustration where “ABCD” are concerned literally, that is, placed almost in the middle of the bow. I rather believe he means to clearly indicate a position on the stick away from the frog, not an exact placement.
What is extraordinary to me is the instruction Corrette gives for placing the fingers. Here is a complete translation of the paragraph, taken from Charles Douglas Graves’s Ph.D. dissertation, The Theoretical and Practical Method for Cello by Michel Corrette: Translation, Commentary, and Comparison with Seven Other Eighteenth Century Cello Methods (1972):
It is necessary to hold the bow in the right hand. One may hold it in three different ways. The first, which is the way used most often by the Italians, is to place the second, third, fourth, and fifth fingers on the stick at points A, B, C, and D with the thumb below the third finger at E. The second way is also to place the second, third, and fourth fingers on the stick at A, B, and C, the thumb on the hair at F and the little finger poised on the stick opposite the hair at G. The third way of holding the bow is to place the second, third, and fourth fingers on the side of the frog at H, I, and K, the thumb underneath the hair at L and the little finger on the side of the stick at M. These three different ways of holding the bow are equally good and it is best to choose that with which one has the most power. To play the cello it is necessary to have power in the right arm to pull out the sound.
As a twenty-first-century reader I can relate to a few things in the above, such as the emphasis on power. I especially like to recall this passage, and many others like it, when confronting period performances in which a string sound is produced by a fast-moving bow and that resides rather away from the bridge, two trademarks of a sound lacking in boldness and focus, or put bluntly, power. I also appreciate Corrette’s reminder that the bow is to be held by the right hand. One wants to cover all the bases, and surely Corrette feared his reputation would suffer should a misguided student hold the bow with the left hand and profess the master’s Methode to be his guide.
But I must admit that neither I nor anyone I know and admire, living or deceased, active or not, ever held the bow in any of the three ways Corrette describes, each of which seems completely alien to me (the first, “Italian” manner would be familiar were it not for the thumb’s placement beneath the stick, surely causing the player to grasp the string rather than apply light pressure from opposite directions, as most of us do). Similarly, I don’t know anyone who plays with an underhand grip on the cello on a regular basis, or who plays the Arpeggione, for that matter. The Early Music Movement has left a few devices to collect dust, it seems.
I simply hold the bow the way I hold any bow, though somewhat higher up the stick (not as high as some of my colleagues). I place the fingers on the stick, with the ring and index fingers sometimes touching the hair. What is important to me is to have some contact for each fingertip. I aim to maintain a great deal of flexibility in my fingers, using them as over-active articulators to find as much “language” in the music, spoken rather than sung. As I’m alluding, the technical aspects here are products of a musical ethos. I agree with Casals that every note is important, but I wager that even he would concede that not every note is equally important. Those that are of lesser importance should be carved away to put those of greater importance in relief, and I find the qualities of a baroque bow, when used in this manner, to render it a superb carving knife.
In fairness to Corrette, I would grant that the placement of the fourth finger should be a subject of some consideration. While I certainly can’t endorse a fourth finger that is permanently situated behind the stick, that is, on the side of the thumb, I do suggest that the fourth finger can be quite useful on top of the stick. In this position it assists both in balancing the bow and in producing well-defined articulations.
It is also important to remember that Corrette’s Methode, as well as in others that followed during the second half of the eighteenth century, contained some directions which are contradictory and may seem anachronistic. These include fretting the cello for students (stickers had not been invented yet) and proposing the use of an endpin (!!!) for such players, as well as various systems of fingering and ideas about bow-strokes, vibrato, ornaments, and more. For those looking to find the “right” way of doing things, I suggest looking in another century, or better yet, not at all.
The point here is that just as we do not have a universally definite idea of the shape and size of pre-Tourte bows, owing to the lack of surviving samples, we also do not have a clear idea of how they were used. Nor should anyone toil under the misconception that any example we do have can be assuredly brought to bear on every player in every musical center during every decade of the so-called “baroque period” in an attempt to attribute it to a “baroque style.” These are simply possibilities, sometimes representing trends and preferences that took could be found across Europe, and at other times illustrating the personal tastes and even idiosyncrasies of their author. The creation of Art is an exercise in possibility, and perhaps the lack of a definite guide that fits every composer’s work should be seen as liberating. Maybe true “Authenticity” is about what is possible, not what is definite.
However, I committed to recounting some personal experiences of using a baroque bow, and would like to sum up my blog posts on the subject with these.
Over the past month I have performed a Vivaldi sonata on a standard cello using a bow by Peccatte; the Beethoven “Triple” concerto with a period cello but with the Peccatte; and toured with a program that included a Vivaldi concerto in F, RV 410, played with a baroque bow, which incidentally is cambered. Obviously I’m enormously fortunate to be able to play on a post-Tourte bow such as the one I have. But I must say that it felt clubby during my Vivaldi sonata. The ideas I have practiced expressing using the lighter, thinner baroque bow I use presented themselves in an outsized fashion. That elusive space between the notes was harder to conjure with a bow that sits on the string so magnificently and draws out the best my cello has to offer. I could do less “carving” with it, so left to its own devices everything sounded equally important. Though, this due only to my technical shortcomings, as nothing should be left to its own devices. I think I could train myself to play the Vivaldi as I believe it should go with the Peccatte. It just may not be the way I really want to play it.
On the other hand, the bow was fantastic for the Beethoven. I felt confident that I was “okay” for using the Peccatte because bows on which it is modeled were being produced when Beethoven composed the concerto in 1803. I own an original transitional bow, attributed to Dodd, and it sounds lovely. But the later bow offered that and more, and I saw no need to suffer the loss of those attributes the other bow provided so readily.
The Vivaldi concerto felt right with the baroque bow in a similar way. There was no need to overpower an orchestra, and the intricate articulations and phrasings, which require such well-defined characteristics to set them apart from one another, worked very well. However, I have to mention that on some occasion I practiced a particularly difficult passage (below; no thumb!) using the modern bow and wouldn’t you know it, it worked even better. I was tempted to switch bows just for these few measures!
I think it comes down to this: if you are interested in performing on period instruments, a baroque bow is, of course, a must. You wouldn’t play with the New York Philharmonic using a baroque bow, so you shouldn’t play in a baroque group using a modern bow. The reasons for this may include visual ones, but they go hand in hand with sonic and ensemble purposes, too. On a much more lofty level, it is of immense value to use the closest equipment to that of the composer’s when playing his music, and a good bow (of any period) can teach the player a great deal.
Not all players who use baroque bows play them on period instruments, for a variety of often very legitimate reasons. I would like to encourage them onwards, but especially where the bow is concerned. Simply put, just picking up a baroque bow is not enough. There are numerous examples of very fine musicians demonstrating engaging ideas arrived at using a modern bow, but doing so on a period bow. That they are great players is plainly evident. But I can’t help but wonder if they sound as they would had they used any bow. I think they are unintentionally misusing the baroque bow, not in a technical way, but in a deeper, more inquisitive and self-informing way. The bow is not an end, but a means to an end. Using a baroque bow, just like playing without an endpin or on gut strings, does not guarantee justice be done to Bach and Vivaldi any more than playing on steel strings with a modern bow guarantees that one’s Schnitkke sonata represents the composer’s intentions. But both open the door to understanding the world the composer and his performers inhabited, and afford us the opportunity to step into their shoes and find commonalities that link us to our forebearers. Once in these shoes, we can both express ourselves and do so in a way that I believe would ring true in the composer’s ear, and that is truly authentic, in every sense of the word.
The above illustrates some of the many reasons to experiment, to patronize the wonderful archetiers working today and test their various period models, long and short, cambered and not. I wish you success in finding bow that, just like a modern bow, stands out amongst the rest and becomes your most important expressive tool and a partner in your musical journeys.