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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Bow makers are far flung and work independently. But they share a common genealogy, going back more than 200 years to another atelier, set beside the Seine in Revolutionera Paris, where the modern instrument bow was invented by an artisan named François-Xavier Tourte. According to sketchy historical documentation, Tourte was a lifelong illiterate and an avid fisherman who brought skills to the bow trade he’d learned during his earlier apprenticeship as a clockmaker. There were bows before Tourte, of course—they’ve been applied to stringed instruments since the reign of the caliphs in Arabia in the seventh and eighth centuries, and those used during the Baroque period preceding Tourte’s time have many similarities with the modern bow. But Tourte compiled a series of innovations—most his own but some from others—into something new and powerful. His model was concave, with the wood bent into its shape over dry heat in a process called cambering. It had a higher head than earlier bows, to hold the horsehair away from the stick; a ferrule, or metal ring, to press the hair into an even, flat band; and a screw mechanism to draw it to the desired tension for playing. Most important, Tourte standardized every measurement of the bow, determining the optimum dimensions and weights, the logarithmic curve and precise taper of the stick. His invention earned him the honorable nickname Stradivari of the Bow.

Many string players consider that faint praise. In concert, the delicate interplay of materials, strength, resilience and balance that Tourte worked out gives performers a magical tool, allowing them to both dance and dig, to execute delicate and difficult phrasing, bouncing off the string with a strong attack in one place and, in another, settling into the string to draw the sound out of the instrument’s belly. That sound emanates in part from the bow, for in addition to its acrobatic talents, the bow resonates. Its frequencies interact with the instrument’s own to create a distinctive tone. (“It’s 50 percent of your sound,” Jopling says.) This constellation of virtues spurred Giovanni Battista Viotti, the 18thcentury violin virtuoso who is rumored to have consulted with Tourte on the bow’s formulation, to declare: “Le violon, c’est l’archet”—“the violin, it is the bow.” The bow is so crucial that much of the music of Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert and their musical heirs would not be performable without it, at least not in a way we’re used to hearing.

“For modern techniques, the modern bow is required,” says Rudolf Hopfner, director of the instrument collection in Vienna’s KunsthistorischeMuseum. He presides over an extensive collection of wind, keyboard and stringed instruments there, and of bows, including those of the Baroque and modern periods as well as the “transitional period” that fell between them and ended with the advent of Tourte. “The Baroque bow is superior to the modern bow for the music of its time,” he says. “But if you think of Paganini and all the tricks of his day, you couldn’t get that bounce and ricochet with the Baroque bow. Just as you can’t play the chords of Brahms or Sibelius with a transitional bow. Their music has a drama and power that can only be achieved with a Tourte.”

Fine bows are among the last few non-ornamental items in Western life produced by hand by an individual, not out of nostalgia but because that remains the best and fastest way to produce them. Bow makers work today very much as Tourte worked, with tools and techniques passed from master to apprentice through the generations. The apprenticeship is as arduous as the bow’s standards are rigorous, and only a relative handful of craftspeople ever become master makers. In addition to reinventing the bow, Tourte may be said to have established the working standards for a nascent profession. Just as his bow has come down through two centuries without significant alteration, so, too, has the job of the archetier.

Those centuries may be coming to a close.

On an early sunday morning in the fall of 2001, a year before the Vienna concert, Klaus Grünke and Josef Gabriel, a fellow bow maker from Germany, stood in a light rain outside the locked doorway of a Beaux-Arts building near the Parc Monceau in Paris, waiting tensely. Soon, other bow makers began arriving, greeting each other in French and Spanish and English and German and Portuguese. Someone produced a key to the building, and the group filed upstairs to take seats around an enormous boardroom table. The table belonged to Comurnat, an organization that forges a vital link between the conservation of wild species and their commercial use by enlisting craftspeople into the cause of the materials they depend on. Comurnat’s founder and director, Marco Ciambelli, has an intimate understanding of the plight of such craftspeople—his family had been tortoiseshell workers in Italy and France for generations before the material was restricted in 1989 to protect the sea turtle, which caused the atelier Ciambelli gradually to collapse. Through that business, and even before he started Comurnat, Ciambelli was acquainted with bow makers; for centuries they had used tortoiseshell in some of their finest bows. In the fall of 1999, he met with a small group of French bow makers in a Montparnasse café to relay a concern. He had learned that CITES—the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora—might soon consider listing pernambuco on one of its appendices. CITES puts the weight of international law enforcement behind the conservation of plants and animals by regulating their international trade. Placing any species on the most severe of its three appendices would make its commercial use as restricted as that of ivory and tortoiseshell. Ciambelli strongly suggested to the bow makers that, given the risk to their profession, they should organize and find concrete ways to advance the conservation of pau-brasil. The result was the conservation initiative, IPCI.

Although CITES has not, as of early 2004, listed the pernambuco, the bow makers’ fears of losing the use of the wood remain strong. At the meeting in Comurnat’s offices in the fall of 2001, debates over the fine points of strategy and budgeting were made all the more urgent by a sense that the stakes could not be higher. “Well,” Grünke had said to Gabriel as they stood in the rain waiting for things to get started, “today we find out if the profession is to survive.”

Before the conversation in the café, the profession had been sailing along peacefully with little warning that an iceberg lay in its path. Bow making was in fact enjoying a renaissance, after the damage inflicted by the upheaval of two world wars. The wars had fractured the old European bow-making dynasties, whose secrets were in danger of being lost forever. Since the 1980s, though, a new generation of archetiers has rescued that knowledge by apprenticing itself to the last of the oldtime masters. The younger men and women have since mentored each other and set about producing some of the best bows ever made. New bow-making centers have sprung up in villages where nothing of the sort existed before the wars: Bubenreuth, Germany, and Domingos Martins and Guarana, in Brazil. Port Townsend, Washington, a seaside town on the Olympic Peninsula, has by happenstance become (along with nearby islands) the home of Charles Espey, Paul Siefried, Ole Kanestrom, Chris English, Morgan Anderson, Peg Baumgartel, Robert Morrow and enough other legends and strivers in the trade to make it the undisputed center of American bow manufacture.

Even before the refinements of François-Xavier Tourte, bow makers used a host of valuable materials: pearl, ivory, silver and gold, silk, ebony, whalebone and tortoiseshell. When tortoiseshell was listed by CITES, it was easy for bow makers to give it up because its use was entirely ornamental. The same went for elephant ivory, for which bow makers substituted fossilized mastodon tusk. But one material, the wood for the stick itself, was irreplaceable.

“People think gold is precious,” Charles Espey, 57, once told me. “It isn’t. You just go to the store and ask for it. The stick is a different story. You’d go to the ends of the earth and crawl on hands and knees to get that stick.”


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