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Saving the Music Tree

Artists and instrument makers have banded together to rescue Brazil's imperiled pernambuco, the source of bows for violins, violas and cellos

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The office of the botanical research station of the Center for Cacao Research, a farmer’s cooperative outside Porto Seguro, Brazil, is a small, whitewashed and mud-spattered cinder block house with bare tile floors and a poster on the wall that welcomes visitors with a helpful hint: “If bitten, go straight to hospital. Remember to take the snake with you for identification.” The five visitors who paused in front of this placard on a balmy midwinter morning in June 2002, though not wearing the rubber boots highly recommended by another poster “to prevent accidents with snakes,” were undeterred. They had come a long way, two of them from as far as Germany, and there was something on the grounds they wished to see. Led by the center’s director, José Roberto de Melo, the men ambled up the wide dirt drive past a row of greenhouses and through a grassy field dotted with spreading trees, and then down a fire road into the forest. Soon, even that avenue gave out, and the men struck off through the brush single file along a winding and barely discernible trail. Two of the cooperative’s workers took up the lead, wielding machetes and wearing regulation high rubber boots, and another brought up the rear, alert for predators and, of course, cobras.

To enter a Brazilian rain forest is to trade one sensory realm for another. The trees close in high above and a twilight descends on the forest floor, and the world of sight quickly gives way to one of sound. The effect is eerily like the dimming of house lights in a concert hall in the moments before the musicians begin to play. As the men walked, the swooshing of vegetation threw a whispering shadow around their steps and the echoing chatter of parakeets and the call of crickets sparkled like stars in a firmament. When the men had spent most of an hour on the trail, de Melo stopped and laid his hand proudly against the trunk of a large tree. “Here,” he proclaimed. “Do you recognize it?” To the untrained eye, the tree’s gray-splotched bark seemed little different from that of myriad other trees the group had passed, and its lowest identifying leaves were lost in the stratosphere of the canopy. But the visitors did indeed recognize the tree immediately: an especially large and old specimen of Caesalpinia echinata, known commonly as pernambuco or pau-brasil.

The visitors had an intimate connection with this species. They were archetiers, craftsmen who make bows for violins, violas, cellos and basses, and wood from the pernambuco tree is the only known material, synthetic or natural, out of which a bow maker can construct a top-quality, performance level bow. For centuries, trees like this one had been harvested from the Brazilian forest and shipped to Europe and North America to be turned into bows. These particular bow makers, though, had not come to harvest the tree. They’d come to save it. Pau-brasil is today becoming scarce, so scarce that wood dealers must trek deep into the forest, just as these men had done, to find the remaining mature specimens. So scarce that international organizations have been debating measures to restrict the wood’s use worldwide. And so scarce that bow makers from around the world have mobilized, starting an organization called the International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative (IPCI), with the mission of rescuing the species. In the process, they hope also to rescue their profession.

Jostling through the underbrush, the bow makers gathered around the old trunk like siblings posing at a family reunion, and a camera flash thundered through the twilight.

The bow is the cinderella of the orchestra, the overworked and overshadowed helpmate of its more glamorous partners. Few people, even among lovers of classical music, think of the bow as an instrument in its own right, but players of stringed instruments know better. “Some people think a bow is only wood and hair,” says Günter Seifert, violinist with the Vienna Philharmonic and head of the Wiener Geigen Quartet. “But the bow can be more essential to expressing the soul of the music than the violin is.” For this reason, pernambuco bows are used by almost all serious orchestral and chamber musicians, whether they be professionals or amateurs, and by most advancing students, who learn early in their education that “it’s better to have a fine bow and a mediocre violin than a fine violin and a mediocre bow.” Seifert notes that some virtuosos often play on a range of instruments but insist on a single favored bow.

A bow may be favored for many reasons. Daisy Jopling, 35, a violinist in Triology, an avant-garde string trio based in Vienna, Austria, has sat on her fragile 150-year-old German bow, and in the heat of one mid-rehearsal argument (a hallmark of the trio’s creative ferment in its formative years), she even threw it. So she respects it, first of all, for not breaking. But she also remembers the first time she laid it on her violin’s strings. “Friends, when they heard me playing, said, ‘What’s happened to you? You could never have played that passage that way before!’ You see, it’s only a bow. But it changes things.”

Other players might quibble with such claims, though their qualifying tends to reinforce the rule. “People who say that the bow is more important than the instrument, this I don’t believe,” says cello virtuoso Heinrich Schiff. “Sometimes you depend on the bow more than the cello. Sometimes it’s the other way around.” This from a man whose cellos are Antonio Stradivari’s 1711 “Mara” and Domenico Montagnana’s 1739 “Sleeping Beauty,” two of the most revered instruments in the world.

On November 24, 2002, Schiff lugged his Sleeping Beauty onto the stage of the venerable Konzerthaus in Vienna to play a Bach suite and other selections in a concert that also featured the Wiener Geigen Quartet and Triology. The Konzerthaus is one of the preeminent domains in the music world, and the night’s performers were among that world’s celebrities, but the declared stars of the evening were the pernambuco bows the performers were using. Seifert debuted his composition “The Pernambuco Waltz,” and before the intermission, the lights stayed low and taped calls of Brazilian jungle birds filled the hall as an image flashed on a screen over the stage: a photograph of the five men posing beside a pau-brasil tree in a forest half a world away.

Those same bow makers were now seated in the audience. One of them, Klaus Grünke, took the podium to incite in the general public, for the first time, the urgency bow makers have been feeling for years. “We have the chance now to react and serve as an example for others, a chance that may never come again,” he said. “All of us, musicians, bow makers, instrument makers and music lovers alike, have profited from the wood pernambuco for centuries. It is time to give nature something back.”

Klaus Grünke, 46, is one of IPCI’s founders. He lives in Bubenreuth, Germany, a small village north of Nuremberg that is a center of instrument making. His shop is a clean, functional space, heated with a wood stove and lit with north-facing windows. A profusion of chisels, planes and knives inhabits the workbenches, and a basement storeroom holds a cache of seasoning pernambuco wood, already cut into bow sticks. As befits the atelier of a traditional craftsman, the Grünke shop is multigenerational; Klaus’ father, Richard, and his brother, Thomas, work at adjacent benches. Atoy bench sits between them, scaled to the early efforts of Thomas’ 3-year-old son, Raphael, and 5-year-old daughter, Lilian. But the lineage is more than familial. An apprentice from Brazil also works there under Klaus’ tutelage, and former apprentices include Thomas Gerbeth, now a master maker in Vienna and the organizer of the November benefit in the Konzerthaus.

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