Work on the Steel Bow by G.B.Vuillaume (c.1837) and ‘Il segreto’

Posted on May 18th, 2012 by

Steel Bow by G.B.Vuillaume (c.1837)

The original ‘tinselling’-with a ruler for scale. This is very useful, as it gives an indication of the expected hand placement

View of the tip

The tip-none of the design features or particular functionality of the ‘Tourte model’




Niccolo Paganini-Unpublished Prelude 1838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)

Workshop Recording- 21st May 2012 Wapping

Hand-postion on the Vuillaume bow

At the practice desk-Paganini Caprice No 10  and 22 with the Steel bow, held mid way along the tinselling

Paganini-Caprice Op 1 No 10

No 22


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)

Paganini-Il Segreto (Courtesy Bruck-Wurlitzer)

Paganini-Segreto 1823 (Bruck-Wurlitzer MS)

Part of Vuillaumes advertisement for his 'self-rehairing bow' (Collection PSS)

Part of Vuillaumes advertisement for his ‘self-rehairing bow’ (Collection PSS)

FIRST RECORDING Peter Sheppard Skaerved-(Stradivari 1699) (Engineer Jonathan Haskell)


In October 1823, Paganini sent Germi his ‘segreto A’. This was his ‘sketch’ documenting the execution of complex harmonics for a single violinist. (The Bruck Wurlitzer MS). He was famous for implying that there was a ‘magic’ formula for his playing, although Warren Kirkendale pointed out that Paganini used the word ‘magic’ about everything from  violin technique to recipies. But when it came to secrets, his oft-repeated mantra was: “Ognuno ha I suoi sgreti”.  

 The ‘Bruck-Wurlitzer'[of Paganini’s segreto] manuscript in New York includes extra notes, as well as all the standard combinations, such as a fingered 10th (with a fingered harmonic across a perfect fifth, played 1-3, at the bottom of it, played, to add difficulty, in first position on the G and D string.

 What is particularly interesting about this chord, is that the stretch required to get to it instantly puts your hand into Paganini’s [well-documented, unique] hand position, with the centrally placed thumb, or with the thumb sometimes laid flat. Because there is just no other way to get to that stretch; Paganini’s hands were not that big. They were moderate size, like mine. But, like me, he had the ability to open the hand into an hyperextension, like this. The fingered tenth plus the fifth harmonic that features so prominently in the Bruck-Wurlitzer segreto is a good ‘primmer’ for any player to get a sense of Paganini’s hand position, and a way of experiencing its practicality.

 Now another notable feature of the Bruck-Wurlitzer manuscript is a mixture between fingered harmonics  and ‘scratch sounds’ which is not a harmonic, but rather a ‘scratched’ g’ on the D string.

And this is one of the areas that Paganini was most definitely interested in keeping secret. In this Manuscript, which he sent to [his lawyer] Germi, he ordered Germi to destroy it as soon as he had read it. All of the players of the time knew how to play  [fingered harmonic scales], that was obvious, and many of them knew about double harmonics in thirds. That had been written about in treatises for nearly a century before. There was nothing new, and nothing secret about either of these techniques.

 But what it seems that he was very concerned about was about what happened when he got down to the bottom of the instrument, after you got beyond this harmonic (plays), and you need to go further.Here contemporary knowledge failed. His answer was this mixture of harmonic and scratch, which produces the ‘fake’ effect.

 The exploitation of these timbres has returned to the fore in the past thirty years of writing for string instruments. Stimulated by the extreme colours to be found in the music of composers such as Bartók and Berg, the later twentieth century composers rediscovered the full range of textures and effects used by Paganini and his contemporaries and created a complete sonic aesthetic around them. Composer such as George Crumb, Helmut Lachenmann, and Olga Neuwirth have found ways of notating and developing the scratch tones which Paganini used so secretly, and put them under the musical microscope.

 This is why, I feel, Paganini  kept to the front of the stage, turning away from the musicians behind him. In the painting of his 1831 debut in London, ‘The Modern Orpheus’ Paganini is shown standing at the front of th stage, whilst Robert Lindley, Nicolas Mori and Dragonetti straining to see round the front, to try and see what was going on; how was he doing it? This was what, I believe, he did not want the other players on stage to find out. Interestingly, none of his contemporaries in London, and they collaborated with him extensively, seemed to fathomed this technique out. And is worth pointing out this was a distinguished list: Mori, Eliasson, Spagnoletti, Cramer, and Lindley, who worked with him extensively both on the the public stage and in more intimate chamber sessions. None of them used this technique in their works, for all their technical innovations. It was only in the late 20th century, that the technique resurfaced, in public, at any rate.

 Paganini’s use of the double stopped harmonics created such a furore  in Britain that and  anonymous English volume, largely plagiarised from Carl Guhrs Paganinis Kunst die Violine zu Spielen was published (Title). However, it includes the following:  “The method by which he accomplishes this apparent miracle, has hitherto remained a secret, or only known to the few (for it is not impossible that others may have made the same discovery as ourselves). It is the object then to divulge the secret, so that the public at large may have the benefit of it .”


Engineer: Kirsten Cowie