Tossy Spivakovsky, Introduction to the Curved Bow for playing Bach’s violin solo works

On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the death of Tossy Spivakovsky
(December 23, 1906 – July 20, 1998), who became one of the first violinists to interpret the “Sonatas and Partitas” for violin
solo by J. S. Bach with the curved bow, I present this transcript of his introductory speech, which was released recently together with the live recording of the “Chaconne” on the label DOREMI.


BACH Bow Tossy Spivakovsky
VEGA BACH Bow of Tossy Spivakovsky


“The six works for unaccompanied violin by Bach demand of the executant a mastery of seemingly insoluble technical problems such as multiple stops and polyphonic voice progressions. It is sometimes thought, erroneously, that Bach intended all such chords to be arpeggiated. But one can clearly see from Bach’s own handwriting of these works that the composer distinguished broken from unbroken chords quite explicitly. When he wanted them arpeggiated he wrote the sign “arp.” with the respective chords. All chords, as in [those without] such special indications, were of course meant to be played unbrokenly, all notes sounded simultaneously. Therefore the well known sound of notoriously breaking or rolling all chords causes distortions of what is written and is not only unpleasant to listen to but also from a musicological point of view incorrect.

By means of the recently manufactured curved bow patterned approximately after the Renaissance or early Baroque bow the violinist is nowadays able to play even quadruple chords unbrokenly. It might be said that it is anachronistic and therefore incongruous to use a curved bow on a modernized violin with its lengthened neck and bass bar. But this objection is not valid. The violin with these lengths and proportions sounds only fuller, stronger and more resonant. The tone quality remains the same. I think, very little would be accomplished when playing 18th century music to use the old adjustment on violins.

There is of course no tradition of performing Bach’s Solo Sonatas. The manuscripts of these six works remained unpublished throughout Bach’s life. They were performed for the first time more than a hundred years after his death. Thus, the public only gradually learned to know about these works and this happened at the time when the romantic spirit was at its height, a period rather far removed from the essence of Bach’s polyphony.

Therefore the way the violinist played these works at that time, the second half of the 19th century cannot serve as a model for performance of Bach. Indeed according to the latest research it went quite contrary to the composer’s intention.

So, I am using such a curved bow, now.”


Live Broadcast, Swedish Radio, Stockholm, January 26, 1969
DOREMI, Legendary Treasures, DHR – 8025