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French and Italian Bowholds in the Early Eighteenth Century: Implications for Musical Change within the Dresden Hofkapelle

AuthorsIrving, David R. M.
KeywordsFrench bowhold
French and Italian techniques in orchestras of the early eighteenth century
Possibilities aesthetic
Issue Date2019
CitationZelenka Conference Prague 2019 : (2019)
AbstractFrom the 1670s to the 1760s two different styles of bowhold were described by writers on violin technique; these have become known respectively as 'French' and 'Italian', labels popularised by Michel Corrette in a treatise of 1738. The French bowhold involved placing the thumb under the hair of the bow, or under the frog, with the three middle fingers on top of the stick and the little finger beneath or on the side of the stick. For the Italian bowhold, the thumb touched the stick and all other fingers were placed on top of the stick, resembling the conventional 'modern' bowhold. Treatises and iconography of the period attest to the prevalence of both techniques, with the former associated strongly with the Italian-born French master Jean-Baptiste Lully. By the mid-eighteenth century, the French bowhold seems to have disappeared entirely from 'art music' -- although it may have continued as an unbroken tradition in popular fiddling practice -- and the Italian technique prevailed throughout Western Europe, including France. Reasons for this shift include the prevalence of Italian and Italian-trained violinists, changes in compositional style which required different kinds of technical capacities, and the emergence of new bow designs with diverse lengths and physical properties. Yet the French bowhold was clearly popular, and remained in widespread use from the seventeenth to mid-eighteenth centuries, especially in French or French-influenced musical centres. It is plausible that Jean-Baptiste Volumier and many violinists of the Dresden Hofkapelle used this bowhold, but equally possible that under the directorship of Johann Georg Pisendel from 1728, the thumb-on-stick bowgrip began to predominate. This paper explores the historical evidence for the use of the French bowhold and co-existence of French and Italian techniques in orchestras of the early eighteenth century. It makes a comparative demonstration of the different possibilities aesthetic and timbre afforded by the two approaches, through the test case of a violin obbligato from Jan Dismas Zelenka's Missa Sanctæ Cæciliæ ZWV 1 (the 'Et unam sanctam' movement), in a version from c.1712 and another from c.1727.
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