Making the Bow

Photo by John GoodmanPhoto by John Goodman
By Ivelisse Estrada

A violin bow is a delicate tool made up of few parts. The gracefully curved stick, carved from one piece of wood, attaches to a horsehair ribbon; a tiny screw adjusts the tautness of the ribbon by moving a small piece of ebony called a frog. Bow makers craft these tools by hand. Performance-quality bows, which allow professional musicians to play violins, violas, and cellos, are made of pernambuco heartwood. Unfortunately for bow makers, the pernambuco tree is endangered; as a result, so is their livelihood. Journalist Russ Rymer RI ’10, the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Fellow and himself an amateur cellist, has been following their story since 2001. Now he is writing a book, “Out of Pernambuco: Music, Craft, and a Disappearing Tree.”

Rymer was working on another musical topic when he decided to pick up the cello. “I was 47 years old—I’m coming late to the cello,” he says. In the course of learning the instrument and talking to people, he heard about the troubling scarcity of pernambuco wood.

The Tree That Changed Music

At one time, the pernambuco tree—named pau-brasil by the colonizing Portuguese—grew abundantly in Brazil, especially in the once vast Mata Atlântica, or Atlantic Forest; in fact, the country may owe its name to the tree. Pernambuco wood yields a deep purple-red dye, which was in high demand in Europe. Consequently, a lot of imported pernambuco was in Paris in the late 18th century, says Rymer, when an enterprising bow maker named François Xavier Tourte decided to use it.

Tourte, a former watchmaker, had reconfigured the violin bow with a host of innovations—and his adoption of pernambuco revolutionized not only his craft, but music in general. “You wouldn’t think that there was this one tool so intrinsic to a form that we’re all familiar with: classical music,” says Rymer. “But the bow came along at a time when music was changing radically and became integral to that change.”

Current fellow Emily I. Dolan RI ’10, a musicologist who is working on a book about the history of orchestration and how the consolidation of the modern orchestra changed musical thought and practice, says that the pernambuco Tourte bow played an important role in both the standardization of the orchestra and the “evening out,” or smoothing out, of individual instruments. “The Tourte bow allows the player to produce an even tone from frog to tip,” she says, “just as the mechanization of the woodwinds—something that really took off in the 19th century—helped equalize each pitch, so that all
 notes could be played at the same volume.” This, in turn, helped shape the orchestra.

Rymer explains that earlier bows allowed a completely different articulation—a softness at the beginning and end of each note—whereas the new music demanded a strong attack. Pernambuco’s physical characteristics, its heaviness, springiness, and sound transmittal properties, allowed both long legato passages and what Rymer calls “Paganini pyrotechnics.” Of several musical innovations that allowed later classical music, Tourte’s bow is considered the most important. “Composers listened to what the bow was capable of and wrote music for it,” Rymer says. “Romantic era music and later, if it involves string instruments, is written for this bow.” The tool remains virtually unchanged even now: Tourte’s charts are as much a part of the modern bow maker’s workshop as his tool kit.

The Last Craftsmen

For many years, scientists have been fascinated with pernambuco wood’s special properties and exactly what makes the wood sound so good. Every aspect of a pernambuco bow has been tested, its inner properties analyzed by high-tech meters designed to test airplane aluminum for flaws. And yet, the people who best understand the wood may be not materials scientists or acoustics engineers but the bow makers who take years to learn their craft.

One bow maker whom Rymer met while researching his book had a curious method of determining whether a piece of wood would produce a good bow. “He picked up a shaving from the floor, ran it through his fingers, and then tasted it,” Rymer recalls.

Bow making is a lifetime apprenticeship. “The variability of the pernambuco wood means that the artisan’s task when making a bow can’t just be format and formula,” says Rymer. “They’re taking what Tourte gave them but accommodating the mystery of the wood.” He maintains that these bow makers, along 
with other instrument makers, are the last people creating an essential durable good (that is, not a luxury or ornamental item) from beginning to end by hand, individually, in a way that’s been passed down from master to apprentice. They are among the last craftsmen.

Indeed, their centuries-old tradition may be coming to an end as the supply of pernambuco wood dwindles. Dolan says, “It is hard not to see poignant parallels between the challenges faced today by the pernambuco tree, artisan bow makers, and classical music more generally. They may all be under threat of extinction.”

Environmental Crisis

Exploitation of the pernambuco tree dates back centuries, to the days when it was highly sought after by Europeans for its dyewood. That exploitation continued apace once pernambuco became the preferred material for musical bows. “It’s a difficult wood,” says Rymer. “The old formula for pernambuco bows was 8 to 10 tons of raw wood for a single 70-gram bow.” An entire tree could be cut down without yielding any bow-quality wood. Thanks to a more scientific approach to bow making, that old formula no longer applies, but wood waste is inevitable: Only the heartwood is suitable for a performance-quality bow.

Yet the real threat to the pernambuco tree is not bow making but deforestation. As entire sections of forest have been razed—usually to make way for eucalyptus and other cash crops—old-growth pernambuco trees have been felled at alarming rates. “I’ve heard stories of them pulling these enormous—house-sized—tractors out into the forest,” says Rymer. “They’d position them a kilometer apart, connect them with chains, and then just drive.” The old Mata Atlântica has given way to roads and plantations.

Pernambuco likes to grow in the forest among other trees; one has to hunt for it. “Their really dense wood comes from their struggling for light in the forest, twisting and turning and trying to get their own few pitiful leaves up high above the canopy, so that they can get some sunshine,” Rymer says. For this reason, planting pernambuco in a field doesn’t seem to yield the same quality of wood, just a pleasant round tree.

Once the hallmark of the eastern coast of Brazil, pernambuco is now so scarce that its wood must earn certification from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species before it can be sold.

Lasting Repercussions and New Hope

And this is where the bow makers’ problems may just be beginning. These artisans, once afraid to publicize the pernambuco crisis for fear of being blamed for it, have made great strides in helping to secure the trees’ future by calling for a moratorium on the acquisition of new wood. They believe that pulling together the existing stock will give them enough wood to last 30 years— which they hope will be sufficient to bring the tree back from the brink.

Bow makers are quickly becoming not only the end users of the wood, but also its stewards. In addition to raising awareness of the problem, these artisans donate one dollar from each new bow purchase for pernambuco restoration, and they have been traveling to Brazil to spearhead important scientific research, tree planting, and forest conservation efforts. An international bow makers’ organization has partnered with an agricultural cooperative in the cacao-growing region of Bahia, Brazil. Cacao thrives in the shade; the subsistence farmers who grow it receive money for using pernambuco trees as overstory rather than cutting them down to sell. “Classical music’s future may rest on chocolate bars,” jokes Rymer.

All these efforts look promising at the moment, but their success can’t be known until the newly planted trees have reached maturity, in 30 years. In the meantime, the bow makers wait.

Telling the Story

While the future of violin bow makers hangs in the balance, Rymer focuses on bringing their plight to a larger audience. At the moment, many musicians who depend on the bow for their art aren’t aware of the problem. The far-reaching book Rymer is writing traces the history of pernambuco from its discovery in the New World to its clash with the global economy that now threatens it. Research for the book has taken him to the receding forests of Brazil, to American motels where wood dealers have stashed contraband wood under their beds, to musical workshops around the globe, and finally to the Radcliffe Institute, where he now works on his manuscript.

Rymer feels extraordinarily lucky to be at the Institute, where so many fellows’ interests coincide with his. He has connected with Dolan on instrumentation, with Heather Paxson RI ’10 on issues of artisanship, and with others on such matters as the prayerful aspects of work and the history of industrialization. “There are so many angles of view here from people of stunningly diverse backgrounds that after my talk they were just feeding these things into my thinking about this project,” he says. Then he quips, “I’m so grateful to Radcliffe for engineering this program so beautifully around my needs.”

Search Year: 
2010