Internet notebook about my work: deep listening to facilitate positive change


Saturday 16 June 2007

Violinists: a threat to species?

CITES in The Hague. “If you think the problem of endangered species is all about tigers, elephants and orangutans, ask a violinist where he gets his bow”, writes Arthur Max from the Associated Press. “The best violin bows”, he continues, “are made from pau brasil, a tree from the Brazilian rain forest that has been exploited for 500 years". It is a good start for an article to get the attention of the reader by framing the trade in endangered species, as the result of the ‘greed’ of violinists. But I feel uncomfortable.

I feel even more uncomfortable when I read in the IUCN media brief:"(Pau Brazil) was once so economically vital for the red dye it produced that it gave its name to the only country where it grows. Bows from brazilwood, also known as Pernambuco, have been coveted by musicians since Mozart's time in the mid-1700s for their sound quality, density, rich color and strength in holding a curve".

”It is estimated that a single violin bow costs up to $5000 and uses 1 Kg of wood". "Attempts are underway to re-plant this species, although it is reported that plantation-grown wood is considered of inferior quality by bow makers". “This beautiful timber is valued and used worldwide. No comparable substitute is known for the making of bows for string instruments and therefore demand is likely to remain high internationally,”
says the IUCN spokesperson in the IUCN News Release.

A day later I listen to the BBC and hear Richard Black on the same subject: “Top-flight violinists will be able to travel unhindered by endangered species restrictions after a compromise was reached on the wood in their bows”. And he continues: “The CITES meeting approved Brazil's proposal to put trade restrictions on the wood after a deal was made to exclude finished products. Conservation groups were disappointed that a bid to protect endangered cedar species failed. Latin American and Caribbean countries, which are home to cedars of the Cedrela genus, accused the European Union of not consulting them adequately before proposing trade restrictions. With no support from the range states, the EU was forced to withdraw its proposal, which would have put these species on Appendix 2 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).”

So what really is the case? I make some phone calls, look in a few books, surf the web and here is my side of the story. The demand for bows from brazil wood started long after Mozart passed away. Since the Middle ages violin bows were convex. Corelli was the first violinist to play with a straight bow – these are the bows Mozart has known and played with: made from ‘snake’ wood (Piratinera guianensis), imported from Africa. The problem was they did not produce much sound and easily broke.

The French watchmaker Tourte – yes a contemporary of Mozart, but he lived much longer - made the first concave bow (see illustration below), that allowed for more sound, more virtuoso techniques and was strong enough. He was the first to use the pau brazil. Tourte cooperated with violinists such as Ludwig Spohr and Adolphe Kreutzer until in the beginning of the 19th century the bow, as we know it today, emerged.

The bow was further perfected by the famous violon maker Vuillaume, who also started experimenting with hollow steel bows. Violinists such as Baillot and Charles de Beriot were adepts of this type of bow. Others, such as Kreutzer and Paganini favoured the pernambuco bow. In the end the latter became most popular. The second half of the 19th century saw the emergence of the modern symphony orchestras and was a big boom for the (semi) industrial production of musical instruments and the use of brazil wood for bows on a growing scale.

It takes at least thirty years before a tree can be harvested. Most plantations of foundations of (mostly French) bow makers are of recent date, so of course the quality of wood from those plantations at the moment is still a problem. Moreover to make a good bow, the wood needs years of processing and drying. TRAFFIC estimates that huge quantities of Pau Brazil are in France and Germany. Definitely true: each bow maker has a stock of old wood. The older the wood, the better. A bow maker in town told me “when a bow maker dies, his widow is besieged by colleagues who want to buy his stock…!” That is also a reason why bows by Tourte, Vuillaume and their students are so expensive. And 19th century bows are still in high demand. Violinists prefer them over a newly made bow.

Since a few decades experiments with alternatives have led to a growing production of new bows from fiberglass and carbon graphite (see illustration at the left). Through a quick call to the local conservatorium here, I learned that they have become increasingly popular with young students. Pau brazil being an endangered species is one of the reasons, the fact that they are far much cheaper (€ 100-200) is another reason.

My own bow is more than a hundred years old. Yes, it is made from pau brazil, cut from the forest at least hundred and fifty years ago. My father gave it to me when I played my first violin concerto. Ask any professional violin player, he will do his concerts with an old bow, maybe practice with one he bought brand new. The threat to pau brazil (Caesalpinia echinata), has been until the 19th century the dye industry, and afterwards mostly habitat loss due to indiscriminate logging of the Mata Atlantica, as a whole. It is too easy to blame the threast to pau brazil on the demand from violinists. But of course we have to deal with the threat.

What is needed - except for trade restrictions on pau brazil - is a global marketing campaign for alternative bows. That a Tourte bow is better than a new glass fibre one, is an idea just between the ears of old fashioned violin players! As CEPA exerts, we have here an internal mission: IUCN, TRAFFIC and other conservation groups will be more effective to protect the species by communicating and marketing the various alternatives to the brazil wood bow.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Why don’t you give us an example how to market alternatives to brazilwood, instead of elaborating about the history of the violin bow!”