From Cramer to Tourte in France

In late-18th-century Paris, violinists favoured the Cramer bow – a German model that the Mannheim violinist Johann Wilhelm Cramer had famously introduced to the French capital in 1769. The unique feature of this model is a head profile that swings out in two directions, often combined with an elegant frog of ivory, as numerous French and German examples show. According to the contemporary French violinist Michel Woldemar, the Cramer model was used by most players in Paris until the revolution of 1789. But by 1802 Woldemar reports that it had been dismissed completely in favour of the new model by François Xavier Tourte.

It has long been assumed that the rest of the musical world unanimously followed the preference of Parisian string players, and that all professional musicians soon changed to the Tourte model. However, recent research at the Bern University of the Arts clearly shows that this was not the case, and this preference was reported only among followers of Giovanni Battista Viotti. Particularly during and after the Napoleonic wars, musical style was a matter of social and political identity, and this included the choice of sound production – symbolised by the bow. Anyone who did not identify with the revolutionary Viotti school of violin playing – and this was most of the German-speaking world – was likely to have retained a traditional bow model in the early 19th century. This even applies to the defeated German states in the Confederation of the Rhine (see map below), which was created by Napoleon between 1806 and 1813. Research has revealed that the famous Saxon court orchestra at Dresden did not use ‘modern’ bows in the French style before 1851.

However, German traditional bow models were far from being uniform or standardised because they were made to suit the musical demands of different repertoires. Bows were often supplied by makers who were familiar with the requirements of the local musical style. Many German court violin makers were also musicians and would have understood the specific playing qualities necessary for a good bow to perform the local musical repertoire.

  • François Xavier Tourte Cramer model bow, c. 1775
  • Nicolas Leonard Tourte Cramer model bow, c. 1775