Thursday, October 27, 2011


It was November of 1983 in Paris and a small man of perhaps seventy sat bundled in trenchcoat and scarf on the Metro line Port de Clignancourt. Held securely in his hand like a sheaf of arrows, were a dozen violin bows, each in a wrinkled brown paper sleeve, the bundle secured with rubber bands. Arriving at Metro Simplon he came out into the drizzle of rue Joseph Dijon and at no. 9 he climbed the six flights of stairs to my attic workshop. After he had caught his breath he started removing the envelopes and laying bows out on the bench; ten Eugene Sartory violin bows in perfect condition. One for every five years of Sartory's working life starting in 1895 and ending in 1940. We talked of his visits to Sartory's shop as a teen-ager, Sartory's different bow stamps, Sartory's affiliation with Emile Germain, and of Jules Fetique, Gillet and others who worked for him. We traced the maker's development over the years seen in those ten bows, the long nosed heads of 1895 and the lovely heads of 1905 morphing into the wide and heavy heads of 1930. After discussing some repairs to be done on a Pajeot, he went on his way leaving me the bows for two weeks to study. I had asked him some questions on Sartory's early work some weeks earlier and this was his answer.

Stephane Thomachot and Jean Trible

Jean Trible, or 'Monsieur Trible' as we knew him, a Parisian bow collector and retired violinist in the national symphony, supported and inspired several generations of bow makers. It was Trible who left an incredible Persois at Stephane Thomachot's shop nearby on the Rue de Clignancourt. This bow completely changed our perception of how a frog could be shaped and soon I had radically changed my style on the inspiration of that one bow. And I was not the only one. Then there was his Tourte, 'le chat' with the clear marks of a cat's incisors on each side of the head! Monsieur Trible would show us a bow and get an impish look on his face; it was sure to be a fiendishly obscure maker to identify. But for him, bow making was an ongoing tradition and he commissioned a bow from each of us in the younger generation just as he had from Sartory, Lamy fils, Ouchard, Richaume, Millant and others. He was not without his quirks. He confided that since he hadn't the skills to work on his bows and yet wanting to be involved in their care, he would sit in the evenings and polish the tips of his bow's screws with a bit of emery paper. But his insistence on carrying a sizeable fortune in bows on the Metro without a case, often a number of Peccattes or Tourtes, was probably reasonable. The 18th arrondisement was relatively rough and a nice case might have been tempting to some.

I last saw Jean Trible in 2003 when Stephane Thomachot, Noel Burke and I had lunch with him. He was living in Normandy and with his health failing rarely made the trip to Paris. Two years later he had passed away, the end of an incredible link to the past. Not long ago we had a bow maker's session with Bernard Millant to hear his recollections of his early days in the trade and his apprenticeships in Mirecourt, where he both refined his violinmaking and also learned bow making with the Morizot family. He talked about the difficulties of starting his own violin shop in Paris across the street from his father and uncle, Max and Roger Millant. In those hard economic times shortly after the second world war, Millant was 23 years old and wondering where his direction lay when completely by chance Jean Trible stepped into his shop. Although I knew that the two were friends I was moved to learn that Trible had been a catalyst for Millant's passion for bows as well.

Jean Trible with Noel Burke

Friday, October 7, 2011


For a bow maker, the selection of the Pernambuco stick is the most important element in matching a bow to a player. Some time ago, the violinist Jan Mark Sloman and I started a dialogue and at the end of each telephone call or email I went to my store of sticks held in racks. Promising sticks were examined and in the end half a dozen sticks had his name penciled on them. When the time came to start work on his bow the first task was to decide on the right one. Sloman wanted a rich and dark underpinning to his Vuillaume's sound and I decided to use a wood of a somewhat lower density than the wood I usually use. He also wanted a bow that could respond to his entire repertoire and so finding these qualities through increased flexibility was not a good option. This stick had to be very strong so it could be taken down to fine diameters but I also wanted some complexities in the grain especially down near the frog. I found a great stick and began planing it out, fitting the tip plate, and mounting the frog. I pictured the process on this same bow in an earlier post called "ebouchage' or roughing out.

Unfortunately, at this point I began to question my original choice. The stick's response was slower than I had hoped for and I also wondered if the sound was going to be right. So the stick was put back in the rack and I selected another. But this stick did not reach expectations either. So I found a third stick that filled the original requirements of lower density, excellent strength and a complex grain structure. It also had a nice little pin knot just beyond the winding and came from my first trip to Brazil in 1984. In one of our conversations Jan had mentioned that his friend, the late Sergio Lucca, believed that most great bows had a pin knot. So this seemed like a good omen and I also agree that a tiny knot adds a certain nobility to a stick. As the stick took shape it felt good but it was even lighter than I expected and to give it the right level of resistance I made it about one tenth of a millimeter larger than I expected in some areas. My experimentations with light frogs that have no under-slide appear to create conditions for brilliance in the sound. Since this was not the direction we wanted to go I made a normal weight frog with silver under-slide.

In making a bow there is a period of polishing and varnishing when one has to control their impatience to know what a bow will really be like, especially in terms of sound. When the bow was finally completed and the hair received it's first rosin I played it for the first time and compared it to another bow with unlined frog I had in my shop. I knew the first bow had a rich and focused sound so I hoped the new one would exceed it in these qualities. Instead the new bow's sound seemed very broad but with a razor sharp definition or zing and a tooth to the sound not unlike a reed instrument. With my violin it was not possible to hear its full potential at the lower end but I began to doubt my original intuition for the stick. But the stick's playing qualities felt good and I was very curious to find out what Jan would think. To give him the same frame of reference I had experienced, I sent him both bows without indicating which bow was the new one. On the first day he wrote back saying "the unlined frog bow is fabulous for me...'. So I had to resign myself to the fact that I had failed in my stick selection after all, although not for lack of effort. At the end of a week however, Sloman came to the conclusion that the bow I had made for him really did bring out what he was looking for, a full, dark lower end combined with a 'sizzle' that gave the sound definition. And so goes a lifelong process of discovery; making a bow in response to an individual player and their instrument.