James Pritchett: Writings on Cage (& others)

On Bach and the curved bow

by James Pritchett

Copyright 1995 by James Pritchett. All rights reserved.

These recordings of J. S. Bach's suites for unaccompanied cello are noteworthy because of cellist Michael Bach's use of a curved bow. This bow is essentially identical in both theory and design to the one known in the violin literature as the "Bach bow" (named for the composer, not the cellist); both are products of a particular line of thinking about the works for unaccompanied stringed instruments. Specifically, the curved bow was designed in response to the problem of performing the chords that occur in these compositions. On a keyboard instrument the performer can play all the notes of such chords all at once, but on a violin or cello this kind of simultaneous playing is impossible. Because of the curve of the violin's bridge, no more than two strings can be played at the same time, so that the three- and four-note chords found in Bach's music must be played in some other fashion. In most performances the chords are arpeggiated: the violinist rolls the bow across the four strings of the instrument, thus playing the notes in sequence. As a result of this arpeggiation, some slight changes in the rhythm of the music are required, and if the chord is written to be sustained for any length of time, only one or two of the notes can be held for the full duration. Nevertheless, this is the style of playing to which audiences have become accustomed.

Two aspects of the design of the normal violin bow make it incapable of playing sustained, simultaneous chords: first, it is straight, and second, its hair is held extremely tightly. Such an inflexible straight line applied to the curve of the violin bridge can only touch it in two places. To design a bow that can play all four strings of the violin simultaneously requires these two features to be altered: the bow must be curved and its hair must be held more loosely. The violin Bach bow -- like its larger sibling, the curved cello bow -- was designed in exactly this way, with a widely-curved wood piece and a mechanism, operated by the thumb, that allows for the bowhair tension to be varied as needed. If the hair is kept taut, it acts much like a regular bow. When more pressure is applied while the hair tension is loosened, the bow wraps around the curve of the bridge, thus playing all four strings at once.

If such a bow was in use in Bach's day, then his sustained chords were quite playable, just as they appear on the page: all notes sounded simultaneously, all notes sustained for the full duration. The musicologist Arnold Schering first suggested in 1904 that this was the historical solution to the problem of the Bach unaccompanied violin pieces; a flood of musicological rebuttals soon followed. The lack of any actual Baroque-era bows of this design is perhaps the most convincing historical evidence against Schering's theory. With the expansion of musicological studies on Baroque performance practice in the middle part of this century, and with the subsequent fashion for "authentic" instruments, the Bach bow has fallen into obscurity. No longer a matter of controversy, its historical inaccuracy is now an established fact. For example, the New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments devotes only five sentences to the subject, three of which simply discredit the whole idea. ("The 'Bach' bow succeeds in playing Bach's violin music only in the image of its 20th-century inventors, not as Bach intended or heard it.") The facts about the bow are buried in a parenthetical statement at the very end; it is as if the author would divulge the particulars only with great reluctance, perhaps afraid of giving too much stature to an obviously absurd notion.

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The most prominent defender of the curved bow was Albert Schweitzer. "Every one who has heard these [solo violin] sonatas must have realised how sadly his material enjoyment of them falls below his ideal enjoyment," Schweitzer wrote in his comprehensive 1908 study of Bach's music. For Schweitzer, there was no question but that Bach meant for the chords to be played as simultaneities and not as arpeggios. He declared arpeggiation "a particularly bad effect, even in the finest playing," and he could not allow that Bach would have "overstepped the bounds of artistic possibility." On this basis, Schweitzer built the argument that violinists must have had bows that allowed them to play the chords all at once: anything else sounds bad, and Bach would not write something that sounded bad.

Schweitzer heard performances of the Bach unaccompanied violin works in which such a bow was used, and hence could report with authority on the musical effect it gave. "Anyone who has heard the chords of the Chaconne played without any restlessness, and without arpeggios, can no longer doubt that this is the only correct and, from the artistic standpoint, satisfactory way of playing it." He loved its softer tone, which is a result of the lower tension on the bow hair. Recognizing that the sound of the curved bow would not carry in a large hall, Schweitzer dreamed of the day when "the works for solo violin would disappear from the programmes of the larger concerts, and be restored to the chamber music to which they really belong." Playing with the curved bow allows for a quieter and subtler style of Bach playing, a style that Schweitzer found particularly beautiful and true.

Poking through the general Bach literature, I picked up a copy of Karl Geiringer's 1966 survey of Bach's music. This book was not written specifically as an opposition to Schweitzer's, but as it turns out, Geiringer's views of Bach and of the curved bow are almost diametrically opposed to Schweitzer's. Geiringer's vision of Bach is heroic: "Johann Sebastian Bach: The Culmination of an Era" his title proclaims, and everywhere in this book we encounter his image of Bach the Titan. His presentation of the solo violin works is an account of drama and decisive action: "Bach, a born fighter who exulted in overcoming apparently unsurmountable difficulties, succeeded in doing the nearly impossible: to write four-part fugues and polyphonic variations for an instrument [the violin] whose very nature seems to exclude such devices."

It is natural, then, that Geiringer would reject the idea that a curved bow was used to play the chords of the unaccompanied works -- this would be the easy way out. Geiringer relegates the details of the curved bow to a footnote. Here, he declares the bow a product of a theory that "can no longer be upheld," and cites a fistful of bibliographic sources to back up the claim. But musicological evidence is not all that he gives. At the end of the note he points out that "the smooth, organ-like tone resulting from performances with this modern curved bow lacks the Baroque passion and fire inherent in B[ach]'s music." This is the explanation of his distaste for the curved bow that rings true to me. Geiringer's Bach, the "fighting" Bach, wrote passionate, inflammatory music, music that proved the ability of man's artifice to surpass the physical limitations of instruments. The curved bow in this context produces a flabby sound that for Geiringer is a whimpering letdown.

While it is obvious that Schweitzer and Geiringer are in opposition, it would be hard to say whether they are opposed on the matter of the curved bow or on the much larger issue -- a moral issue, really -- just what it is that Bach's music is all about. Geiringer loves the fire and passion, the struggle and ultimate mastery that Bach's music represents. Schweitzer's Bach lives within the boundaries of the instruments given him, working with the physical reality of instruments rather than against it. As a result, Schweitzer loves softness of tone and gentleness of execution, where Geiringer is drawn to the high energy of conflict and action. The religious and moral dimensions of their disagreement are readily apparent; choosing a side in this debate is not to be done lightly, and it would be something of an insult to their beliefs to base one's decision purely on historical accuracy.

To cast the debate on the curved bow in such moral terms is perhaps a bit jarring to contemporary sensibilities. We are inclined instead to shrug our shoulders and just listen to the music. There is something compelling, however, about the seriousness, the life-and-death earnestness with which people like Geiringer and Schweitzer approach such a question. Today the question of how to play Bach's music is no longer connected to the metaphysical concern of what it is; instead it has been reduced to a matter for academic specialists in "performance practice." It is quite likely that a musicologist today (such as the Grove author), while agreeing with Geiringer's conclusions, would nevertheless dislike the aesthetic side of his reasoning. In the contemporary view, it is enough to know that the Bach bow is of twentieth century origin, anachronism and modernity being unpardonable sins.

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It would appear as if Michael Bach sides with Albert Schweitzer's view of J. S. Bach's music, inasmuch as he uses a curved bow. But even Schweitzer didn't admit the possibility of this kind of bow for the cello. In having a curved bow fashioned for his performances here, Michael Bach has no musicological allies. However, he has no musicological enemies, either. The curved violin bow is looked down upon as merely a twentieth century invention; Mr. Bach's curved cello bow is, one might say, of the twenty-first century, and thus has no existence at all in the historical debate. It may serve another function: to help remove the focus of your listening from the physical and factual. As you listen to this recording, you can forget the historical questions, the academic questions, the questions of performance practice, the questions of what is authentic and what is mere modernity. Leaving all these merely temporal questions behind, you listen at a higher lever, above the worldly clutter, where you can focus on the timeless. Just what is Bach's music all about, anyway?