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The

in

use

French

viol

of

the
solo

bow

playing

of the
17th
and
18th
centuries
JOHN

HSU

de viole,very little has been


performing of Frenchpi&ces
done by performers today to try to define, reconstruct,
and recapture the basic approach of French viol
bowing beyond following the rules of bowing given by
Rousseau,' and the notations and directions given by
composers of pidces de viole in their music and
avertissements.
Granted that it is important to recognize
that due to the underhand bow grip of the viol bow the
up-bow is the strong stroke, the opposite of violin
bowing in which the down-bow is the strong stroke,
and that certain rhythmic patterns were customarily
bowed in certain ways by the French players, it is even
more important for the present-day viol player to
recognize the basic tonal ideal of French viol playing,
in contrast to violin playing of that period which was
associated with Italian music. Although both the viol
and the violin are played with a bow, the mere reversing of the direction of bowing and the learning of
bowing patterns for the viol will not help us to realize
and capture the flavour of Frenchviol music unless we
understand the tonal quality and inflection for which

Frenchplayersof the 17thand 18thcenturiesstrove.

Let us first identify the basic bow stroke of French


viol playing and the sound ideal of the Frenchplayers.
(1636) says,
Marin Mersenne in his Harmonie Universelle
in describing the spinet, that 'it blends particularly
with the viols which have a percussive and resonant
sound like the spinet. One can say the same thing of
the harpsichord. .. .'2 Hubert Le Blanc in his Defensede
la bassede viole (1740) has this to say about the bow
stroke of the viol, comparing it with the basic Italian
violin bow stroke: 'These bow strokes are simple, with

the bow strikingthe viol stringas thejackspluck the


harpsichordstrings,and not complexlike thoseof the
Italians,where the bow, by the use of smooth and

well-connected up- and down-bows whose changes are


imperceptible, produces endless chains of notes that
appear as a continuous flow such as those emanating
from the throats of Cossoni and Faustina.'3 These

documentsshow us in unmistakabletermsthat for a


MadameHenriettede France(daughterof LouisXV),paintingby
(detail)
Jean MarcNattier(1754), Versailles.

Jean Rousseau, in his Traite'dela Viole,says that bowing


is the soul of viol playing. To put it in less poetic
language and in more practical terms, we may say that
the essence of French solo viol playing depends on the
proper use of the bow. Yet in the revival of viol playing
in this century and in the renewed interest in the
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hundred years or more Frenchviol players used a basic


bow stroke that was in character similar to the

plucking of the harpsichordand spinet, and not a

smooth bow stroke without an initial attack like that of


the Italian violinist.
The way to pluck with the bow is clearly described

by Etienne Loulid in his Mithode pour apprendreajouer la


viole, under coup de poignet:

Up-bow

When you want to begin with an up-bow, the wrist


should be bent somewhat inward. Press the string with

the hair at the tip of the bow by leaning the middle


finger rather heavily on the hair as though you want to
grate or scratch the string. As soon as the string begins
to sound, relieve the tension on the hair, that is to say,
do not press [the middle finger] as heavily; at the same
time, reverse the wrist movement so that it leans very
slightly towards the right. Continue the up-bow
direction and keep the same wrist position. The rest of
the arm, from the wrist to the elbow and from the
elbow to the shoulder, should follow the movement in
succession.

Down-bow
When you want to begin with a down-bow, the wrist
should be bent somewhat outward and turned very
slightly towards the right. Press the string with the hair
of the bow very near the hand by leaning the middle
finger rather heavily on the hair as though you want to
scratch the string. As soon as the string begins to
sound, relieve the tension on the hair, that is to say, do
not press [the middle finger] as heavily; at the same
time, push and straighten the wrist and even lean it
very slightly towards the left. Continue the down-bow
direction and keep the same wrist position. The rest of
the arm, from the wrist to the shoulder, should follow
as though it were a single piece yet without stiffening.4
Loulie's direction for the coupde poignetis meticulous.
It underscores the flexible movement of the wrist and
arm in drawing the bow and the alert action of the
middle finger on the hair in achieving the plucking
character of the sound. Therefore we can consider the
coup de poignet the basic bow stroke of French viol
playing. The varying amount of pressure exerted on
the hair of the bow and the varying speed with which
that pressure is released will result in different kinds of
plucking. Using words as an analogy, we can say that
the basic bow stroke always enunciates a word beginning with a consonant, though it may be either hard or
soft.
Jean-Baptiste Forqueray stresses that the action of
the middle finger on the hair is also responsible for
achieving expressivenessand nuance:
It is the action of the third finger of the bow arm that is
the prime mover of expressive playing, and that gives
character to all music. For this purpose, the firstjoint
of the third finger should rest crosswise on the hair of
the bow and always remain in that position. The finger
pushes the hair on the string in order to draw more or
less sound by leaning or releasing imperceptibly,
which results in loudness and softness. Above all,
Monseigneur, be sure that the thumb lies gently on the
stick. If it presses too hard, it makes for harsh articulation and overburdens the bow on the string, which one
must absolutely avoid."

In describing Marais's playing, LeBlanc tells us that


all of Marais's bow strokes were an outgrowth of the
plucking bow stroke: 'Using a smartly-drawn and
plain bow stroke which resembles so much the
plucking of the lute and guitar, the kind of sound that
le Pare Marais had in mind for his pieces, he varied it
into six different kinds of bow strokes. These
encompass a range of expression that one can
reproach the harpsichord for lacking.'6How this basic
bow stroke can be varied into other bow strokes is
partially answered by Loulie when he says: 'A bow
stroke-especially a long one-may be considered to be
composed of three parts: the beginning, the middle,
and the end. This is not to say that all bow strokes have
all three parts. For one knows that there are some that
have only the beginning'.7 Perhaps the coupe or sec
listed in his Mithodeis the bow stroke with 'only the
beginning'. On the other hand, the enfli may be
considered the bow stroke without a beginning, about
which Loulie says 'one must not scratch the string but
must begin by making as little sound as possible and
increase the sound while pushing or pulling the bow'.*
Maraisis explicit in indicating where such a bow stroke
is wanted in his music by placing the letter 'e' above
the note or soon after it, depending on where the swell
is to take place. The soutenuis a bow stroke in which
'one sustains the amount of sound that is at the beginning throughout the middle and the end'.9 It is merely
the basic bow stroke with minimal release of the initial
tension after the string begins to speak, and with the
tension maintained throughout the entire length of the
bow. How Marais classified his different bow strokes
into six types we will never know, but we do know that
they all have the same origin. It is by varying either the
beginning, or the middle, or the end of the basic bow
stroke that other bow strokes are achieved. The variety
of bow strokes is so great that Rousseau says that the
bow can express all the passions that are associated
with singing. Of course in this he is referring to the
French singing of that period with its subtle and
sensitive enunciation of the words along with the
proper application of agr'ments,and not the Italian
manner of singing where the voice 'produces endless
chains of notes that appear as a continuous flow such
as those emanating from the throats of Cossoni and
Faustina'.
Thus in our attempts to recapture the musical
rhetoric of French viol playing it behoves us to learn
both to pluck with the bow, and to control with care
and subtlety the tension and release of that plucking so
that it has the expressiveness and inflection of singing
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as well as the 'percussive and resonant sound' of the


harpsichord and spinet. The plucking aspect is not
only different from the basic bow stroke of the violin
family of instruments, but also different from the kind
of viol playing described by Ganassi in the 16th
century, and the more lyrical way of playing English
consort viol music. Of course the smooth bow stroke
and the stroke that begins with an imperceptible
silence are part of the vocabulary of French viol
playing, and in slow and expressive pieces they are
used with great frequency. However, they should not
in general predominate over the basic plucking bow
stroke, and pedagogically should not be used as a
point of departure.
As with any instrument that has a long history,
evolution of performing technique and style is
inevitable. It is the performer's responsibility to use
the proper technique in playing any given piece of
music. Violinists today who are knowledgeable about
the evolution of the technique and style of violin
playing would think it inconceivable to apply modern
violin technique in playing the baroque violin, or
playing romantic works on the modern violin using
the technique expounded by Leopold Mozart. Should
we then not resist the use of modern cello technique as
well as 16th-century viol technique in playing French
viol music of the 17th and 18th centuries?
John Hsu is the Old Dominion Foundation Professor of
Humanities and Music at Cornell University and a resident
artist at the Aston Magna Foundationfor BaroqueMusic. His
recordingsinclude Pi&ces de viole (Musical Heritage Society,
14 Park Road, Tinton Falls, New Jersey 07724), thefive
Suites by Antoine Forqueray,MHS 1455-1456 (1972,first
complete recording);five records of works by Marin Marais,
MHS 1809, 3078, 3246, 3298 and 3356 (1973-6); and
music by Marais, Jacques Morel, and Charles Dolle, MHS
3709 (1977). He is at present preparing thefirst modern
edition of the completeinstrumentalworksof Marin Maraisfor
Broude BrothersLtd ofNew York.
I Jean Rousseau, Traitedela viole(Paris, 1687), pp. 107-115.
2 Marin
Mersenne, Harmonie Universelle
(Paris, 1636), p. 107.

... elle se mesle particulierement auec les Violes, qui ont le son de
percussion &8de resonnement comme l'Epinette. On peut dire la
mesme chose des Clavecins ...
3 Hubert Le Blanc, Defensede la bassede viole contreles entreprises
du
violonet lespritentionsdu violoncel(Amsterdam, 1740):
... ils sont simples (donnans leur coup sur la corde de la viole,
comme fait le sautereau sur celle du clavecin), et non pas complexes,
tels que ceux i l'italienne, ou l'archet par tire et le pousse, unis et
lies, sans qu'on appercoive leur succession, produit des roulades de
sons multiplies Al'infini, qui n'en paroissent qu'une continuitY,tels
qu'en formoient les gosiers de Cossoni et de Faustina.

Etienne Loulie, Mithodepour apprendred jouer la viole (Bibl. Nat.


Paris, MS fonds fr. n.a. 6355, fol. 210-222):

Pousser
Quand on ueut commencer par pousser il faut que le poignet soit a
demi ouuert, presser la corde que (sic) auec le crin du bout de
l'Archet en appuyant un peu fort le doigt du milieu sur le crin
comme si l'on uouloit ecorcher ou gratter la corde fermer le poignet
en le renuersant tant soit peu a droite et tout cela presque dans le
meme point de temps, et si tost que la corde a commence a parler il
faut soulager le crin c'est a dire ne pas appuyer si fort; continuer a
pousser en laissant le poignet dans la scituation ou il se trouue; il
faut que tout le reste du bras depuis le poignet jusqu'au coude suiue
le poignet et depuis le coude jusqu'a l'espaule c'est a dire que le bras
deueloppe successiuement.
Tirer
Quand on ueut commencer par tirer il faut que le poignet soit a
demi ferme et tant soit peu renuerse a droite, presser la corde auec le
crin de l'Archet tout proche de la main en appuyant un peu fort le
doigt du milieu sur le crin comme si l'on uouloit gratter la corde
auec le crin, ouurir le poignet en le redressant et meme le penchant
tant soit peu a gauche, et tout ?ela dans le meme point de temps, et si
tost que la Corde a commence a parler il faut soulager le crin de
l'Archet c'est a dire ne pas appuyer si fort continuer a tirer en
laissant le poignet dans la scituation ou il se trouue il faut que le
reste du bras depuis le poignet jusqu'a l'espaule le suiue comme s'il
etoit tout d'une piece sans pourtant le roidir.
5 Yves Gerard, 'Notes sur la Fabrication de la Viole de Gambe et la
Maniare d'en Jouer. D'aprbs Correspondence Inedite de Jeansur la
Baptiste Forqueray au Prince Frederic de Prusse', Recherches
Musiquefrancaise
classique2 (Paris, 1961-62):
C'est le jeu du troisiame doigt de l'archet, qui est le grand mobile de
l'expression, et qui caracterise toute la musique. I1 faut pour cela
que le crin de l'archet soit pose en croix sur la premiere jointure du
troisiame doigt, et qu'il ne quitte jamais cette position. Ce doigt
appuye le crin sur les cordes pour tirer plus ou moins de son, en
l'appuyant ou le relachant imperceptiblement ce qui fait
l'expression, le doux et le fort. I1 faut surtout observer,
Monseigneur, que le pouce de l'archet soit molkment place sur le
bois. S'il est trop appuye, il donne beaucoup de duretepi l'execution
et &crasel'archet sur la corde, ce qu'il faut absolument eviter.
6 Hubert Le Blanc, op cit:
... par les coups d'archet enlev s, et tout en l'air qui tiennent si fort
du pince du luth et de la guitarre, sur le modle de quoi le' Pre
Marais a compose ses pi&ces,auxquelles, quoiqu'il les ait varibes de
six coups d'archet diff6rens, on peut reprocher une partie du
manque d'expression du clavecin ...
In talking about playing music, the word 'enleve' means to play
brilliantly, hence in this case it makes more sense to translate the
bow stroke as 'smartly-drawn' rather than 'raised'. 'Tout en l'air'
can be translated as 'unsupported', in this case unsupported by the
ornaments of the left hand such as the vibrato, hence a 'plain' bow
stroke. However one chooses to translate these terms, the fact
remains that Le Blanc is describing a bow stroke that resembles
plucking.
' Etienne Loulie,
op cit:
Un coup d'Archet-particulierement les grands et long-peut etre
considerb comme compose de trois parties; du Commencemt, du
Milieu et de la fin. Ce n'est pas a dire que tous les Coups d'Archet
ayant ces trois parties car on uerra qu'il y en a qui n'ont que la
premiere...
8 ibid:
... il ne faut point gratter la corde il faut commencer par la faire
sonner le moins qu'il est possible et augmenter la force du son a
mesure qu'on continue a pousser ou tirer l'Archet.
9 ibid:
C'est soutenir la force du son au milieu et a la fin comme au
commencemt.

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