A Tale of Two Bow Holds

Since my last post, I have been heavily immersing myself in research for historically-informed violin-playing. Not only have I ordered an urtext edition of some Corelli sonatas for my voice teacher and me to play together, but I have also purchased some primary and secondary reading sources on the subject as well. One of the most helpful and comprehensive of these sources is Judy Tarling’s excellent Baroque String- Playing for Ingenious Learners. I had initially begun reading Leopold Mozart’s excellent treatise on violin-playing as had been highly recommended by one of my previous violin teachers, but I soon realized that I would need a more general “crash course” on the subject in order to gain full knowledge and command of the “tricks and traps” of Baroque violin technique (e.g. Baroque bowing, shifting). Hence, after some heavy investigation, I discovered Tarling’s book, and having enjoyed reading her book The Weapons of Rhetoric (which I reviewed earlier when I started this blog), I decided to order this highly-recommended volume from Von Huene Workshop:


I have just started delving into this monumental modern manual, and so far, I am finding it as reader-friendly and enjoyable as Tarling’s rhetoric book. Eventually, I shall have to write up a whole review of it, yet due to the amount of condensed material within its pages, I am still digesting the first two chapters. Anyway, in reading Chapter 2.3 on holding the bow, I made a highly surprising discovery: The manner of holding the bow was not universal as in modern violin-playing, but rather diverse and varying based upon individual and national factors. In general, as with anything in musicology, generalization is not an option, since — even though there may be general trends (e.g. A given Baroque piece has one and only one given passion) — exceptions always exist. In the case of holding the bow, variations in hand/finger position were the norm until about the time of Leopold Mozart and his monumental treatise on violin-playing. Tarling explains this historical reality:

“Examination of inconogrpahical evidence reveals a variety of holds, with the hand on the bow at various distances from, and adjacent to to the frog. Thumbs are wrapped around the hair, and are placed on the stick. Little fingers go flying or are tucked under the stick …..” (Page 83)

Tarling continues on with an even more intriguing historical fact: During the Baroque era, not only one, but rather two distinct bow holds existed: The French grip and the Italian grip. As their names imply, both bow holds originated and were used in the nationality contained in their names. To begin with, the Italian grip is highly similar to the bow hold used today, with the hand placed a short distance from the frog and the thumb on the wood of the bow stick. By contrast, in the French grip, the player placed his thumb on the frog of the bow, resting it on the hair that protruded into the frog of the Baroque bow. The index, middle, and ring fingers were placed on top of the stick, with the little finger resting under the stick in opposition.

Although clumsy, this particular bow hold allowed for the execution of heavily-accented dance music — the cornerstone of the French Baroque style. This French bow hold was used throughout Europe in the 17th century, in particular by violinists in dance bands. By contrast, the Italian grip only became slowly adopted as the universal standard beginning when the Italian influence rapidly migrated throughout Europe at the end of the century. Still, both forms of grip were still used side-by-side even into the 18th century, despite the French grip’s evident limitations. As Tarling remarks, the survival of the French grip into 1738 — when it was described by Correte in his violin-playing treatise — is highly surprising considering its awkwardness. A more down-to-earth description of the French grip and French Baroque violin technique can be found in this excellent article from the Strings magazine:


So there. Not only did the French have shorter bows than the Italians and different bowing habits from them as well (another great subject for a post), but they also had distinct bow holds, thus further demonstrating that “Baroque music” is not just “Baroque music”. As I learned at my first recorder lesson and in my subsequent research, Baroque music is composed of distinct national styles, with the French style and the Italian style being the “big two.” These styles are structurally and musically distinct from one another, and now I am seeing in both my violin and recorder studies that instrumental technique for both varies. Inasmuch as I had to alter my tonguing to Hotteterre’s tonguing system (complete with French pronunciation) when playing French Baroque music on recorder, I am now going to have to alter my bow hold when playing French Baroque music on the violin. Hmmm, this French Baroque is sure French to me …..

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