Chapter 2.2

The cello bow

The cello is the instrument whose range most closely approximates the human voice. Its size, form and the way it is held lead to erotic associations that we will not go into here.

The fact is that most cellos, even very good ones, have obvious weaknesses. A wolf tone is not unusual. Most cellos have one. Those without one often sound bad over whole registers, producing weak basses or thin trebles. Others sound good over the whole range of the instrument, but produce a small sound. As previously mentioned, it is seldom possible to compensate for an instrument's weaknesses with a particular sort of bow. Volume is often a problem. A cello has a hard time making itself heard in a duo or trio with piano. In orchestras too, a few pairs of cellos confront a whole gang of violins, although the cello is no louder than a violin.

A small digression is indicated at this point on the distinction between carrying power and volume. What I understand by volume is what the player hears. Carrying power is what the audience hears. Where volume comes from is relatively clear. The more powerfully the instrument is built, and the greater the pressure on the strings, the louder the instrument. Carrying power, on the other hand, has to do with certain sound quality, which is difficult to describe. A baroque instrument, for example, often has the same carrying power as a modern one, without being anywhere near as loud. In my opinion, the bow has little to do with carrying power, save as a bow well suited to an instrument brings out the best in it. But the bow has a lot to do with volume. The heavier the bow, and more pronounced the response, the louder the sound. Of course the bow can be too heavy and the response too pronounced, in which case the instrument squeaks and protests.

Although most 19th century cello bows weigh between 76 and 80 grams, 85 grams is not unusual today. In any case, cello bows that are both old and heavy are much in demand. At the same time, heavy bows are a disadvantage in fast passages simply because they require more weight to be moved and kept under control.

An important difference with respect to violins and violas is that cellos are played in a vertical position. The difference is especially apparent when the bow is played at the tip. As the player approaches the tip of the bow, the pressure from the bow hand diminishes significantly. This has to do with leverage. The force exerted at the frog is about four times greater than at the tip. In the case of the violin and viola, gravity, that is, the bow's own weight, helps compensate for this loss of pressure. But gravity is not much help on the cello. This may be a reason why cello bows are about three centimeters shorter. In any case, it is especially important that the tip of the bow have a good contact with the string. The contact has to do with bow response.

As with the bass bow, but in a less extreme form, response in cello bows is also more important than damping capacity, and for the same reasons.

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