Pierre Tourte was the father of the great Parisian bow maker Francois Tourte (1747-1835). It was Francois who worked assiduously to improve the techniques of bow making and explore the nature of the many rare tropical hardwoods being imported into Paris from the French holdings of the West Indies and South America.

We know very little concerning the details of the life of Pierre Tourte[1]. He is listed in the 18th century records as a carpenter working in the Faubourg St Antoine, a new suburban area, east of the Bastille and outside the walls of Paris. This new district had particular Royal privileges of commerce, (together with the “Quinze Vingts” hospice and the Notre-Dame cloister). Shops in this location were not subject to the strict mandates of the very powerful Parisian trade corporations and their rules of the division of labor into distinct trades.

Because of this arrangement the district of the Faubourg St Antoine supported the many specialist trades of crafts people such as musical instrument making, rope, making soap making, carpentry, box making, frame making, marquetry and small metal works of various kinds. Many apprentices, some of whom were furloughed from the armed forces, were responsible for the menial tasks within the musical instrument business such as the making of tuning pegs, buttons, tailpieces and bows leaving the luxury items to the established masters of the trade. Under the rules of the City of Paris corporations the workers in these zones were not allowed to add any makers mark to their work. Many worked on a contract basis to the larger shops, who then applied their own brand stamps or labels to the imported work.[2]

The Paris musical instrument museum has a hurdy gurdy (Vielle a Roue) made by Pierre Tourte that carries his hand written label dated 1730. This instrument is particularly important as it indicates Pierre’s expertise in both metal and woodworking, two crafts that have to be combined to achieve its construction. The tools required and knowledge of fine metal working are likewise required to make the equally difficult mechanism of the new design of violin bows, which were replacing the simple clip-in frogs of the traditional model. This conjunction of trades was illegal in those workshops subject to the strict rules of the City of Paris Corporations. and Pierre’s ability to control the entire production of the bow and achieve the fine tuning of balance and weight must have given him a great business advantage just at the time of changes in musical style and fashion.

These 18th century French bows hint at the spirit of the times. They take advantage of the new and exotic materials then being imported into France from the new colonies of the Guyana’s. Tourte’s snakewood is of the highest quality from old growth trees. It is worked and treated in a precise style using the classical motifs of the fluting of Greek columns allied with fashionable verve and style in the shaping of the tips and buttons. The iron bow screws carry a precisely swaged thread that is larger in diameter than its shaft, which aids the precision fit of the tines of the bow frog to the stick The thicknessing of the sticks shows an appreciation of the opposing forces of torsion and elasticity and their balance points are wholly precise and exacting so that the whole machine allows the player to mold and form the attack and the manipulation of tones at will.

Some years before the career of Giuseppe Tartini Francesco Maria Veracini introduced the long bow with its high head onto the concert stage The Veracini bow exhibited an advance in design with its so called “swan head”breaking step from the traditional baroque model with its short stick and lower pike head. This new bow designed by Pierre Tourte proved to be the perfect tool to enable musicians to adapt and explore the musical inventions of Corelli and bring them to an eager and wider audience. The development of the swan head bow was a leap of faith from the point of view of design engineering and it used the properties of durability of the new range of woods that were being imported into France from the Americas. Guyana Snakewood is an extremely dense and stiff wood that presents many problems when it is used for violin bows. If the sticks are made too strong the tension of the hair and the torsion in the stick during playing are enough to overcome the cohesive strength of the wood’s structure and the head of the bow may break at its neck across the narrowest part of the swan head where the wood’s grain is shortest. In order to alleviate this Pierre Tourte utilized fluting of the bow stick in order to increase the overall elasticity of the stick. This concave fluting that follows the eight graded facets of the stick reduces the overall weight of the bow and yet maintains its lateral stability. Many of the pre-Tourte bows had flutes that ran the entire length of the bow with a change in profile at the highest hand position around three inches in front of the frog but this causes the finger grip on the bow to be uncomfortable. In those bows of Pierre Tourte that I have seen there is no evidence of lapping and the first part of the stick has a simple octagonal profile with the fluting commencing just in front of the highest hand position. These carefully graded flutes are resolved at the tip of the swan head and end in a graceful fluted shoe that perfectly accommodates the wedge and mortise of the bow hair. This detailing is expertly attained and has a strength of character that no other maker thought fit or was able to emulate. To obviate the common problem of breakage of the head he made the thinnest part of the stick somewhat behind the neck of the swan head so that this area of flexibility would break the focus of the rebound response of the bow. This fine tuning of the stick leaves much of the fine articulation up to the dexterity of the player and creates controllable nuances in the sound that the bow can draw from the instrument’s strings.

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[1] Bernard Millant, Jean-François Raffin and the historian Bernard Gaudfroy published the information that they were able to find in their work “l’Archet Français”
[1] The edifice called the Quinze Vingt was founded in the year 1260, when King Louis IX of France built a hospice on the rue Saint Honoré to be able to care for the 300 poor blind people in Paris. At that time people counted in dozens or scores, therefore the name Quinze-Vingts (fifteen-twenty) (15 x 20 is 300) relates the number of the blind who were part of the institution. In 1780 the institutional component was transferred to the Rue de Charenton