Paganini Prelude-Vuillaume Steel Bow

Posted on December 26th, 2009 by


Niccolo Paganini-Unpublished Prelude 1838

From the Collection of Andrew McGee

Instruments-Vuillaume Rolled Steel Bow, Violin-Stradivari 1698

World Premiere recording. PSS 2005

Engineer/producer-Jonathan Haskell (astounding sounds)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Landseer depicts Paganini astonishing a London audience in 1832

Paganini was constantly searchingfor new bow makers. A letter written on Lake Como in January 1824, reports that he had tried a number of bows, presumably all from one maker, perhaps local, which he pronounced all excellently made. His only criticisms were that he would need a broader band of hair and a much greater elasticity for his needs.

Niccolo Paganini 26th February 1834 “Permit me to bring your attention to my opinion of the steel bows invented by M. Vuillaume, which your newspaper has already mentioned…these new bows are infinitely preferable and quite superior to those of wood. They offer an evenness of resistance in the whole length of the bow which I have not found in other bows and also a certain suppleness which enables one to obtain precision in all qualities of sound…”

“Mr. Vuillaume also exhibits steel bows which appear superior to wood ones and which are cheaper.” (St. Flachat-Quoted in J B Vuillaume-Innovator or Conservationist-CDLM P 73) 

Controversy has swirled around the question of the steel bow. However, no one who has expressed an opinion on the subject seemed to actually take the time to try it out. As soon as one does, the reason for Paganini’s approval of Vuillaume’s work isobvious. It is indeed, possessed of souplesse avec tout le longeur and more often has the added benefit of ricocheting longer, and slightly slower, than the Tourte model. The example of this bow owned by Charles Beare also preserves the original tinseling, which gives a very clear idea, of the range of the early 19th century hold.   Fétis noted that Paganini’s bow was of “ordinary dimensions”, but that he used it done up very tight:

“It is probable that Paganini found it preferable for his bounding staccato, which differed from that of all other violinists.” (Fétis 74)

It is possible that Fétis was not seeing what he thought he was, and that far from Paganini playing on a bow of “ordinary dimensions” which he would surely mean a Tourte model, “screwed up to more than the usual tension”, what he was actually seeing was a ‘Swan-head’ or ‘Swan-neck’ bow, screwed up as it was designed to be, which results in the stick resembling the convex shafts of the previous century.

It has long been generally assumed that Paganini was using Tourte model bows, despite the evidence to the contrary from nearly all the iconography except Ingres’s 1818 portrait. A typical example: “Contrary to general belief, the sustained-note way of writing persisted long after the demise of the old bow-in fact, at least until the time of the original edition of the Paganini Caprices. By Paganini’s time the modern (Tourte) bow had long been in general use. Therefore, the sustained type of notation was not exclusively associated with the old bow, and it must have been approximate, the note values not being sustained to their full written value. What the Tourte bow cannot do now it could not do at the time of Paganini.” [Boyden 430] Whilst this statement is undeniable, basic premise of the whole crumbles once the truth, that Paganini did not confine himself to any one model of bow, Tourte or not, is faced.

(Peter Sheppard Skaerved)