Benoît Rolland mostly works on commission. Each bow is created for the performer’s playing style and the tonal characteristics of his/her instrument. Benoît harmonizes the design of the stick with his selection of a woods to achieve the desire personality and response of the bow.
Benoît Rolland works alone on each bow as an art piece combining music and sculpture.
The Rolland Model
What we call the “style” of a bow describes a set of design characteristics that identifies the aesthetics of an artist, independently from any stamped mark. Expert attribution of bows is based largely on recognizing these traits (shape, inclination of lines, chamfers, etc.) with a focus on heads and frogs.
Each important bow maker of the past created his personal model distinctive from that of other makers. A “personal model” combines a “style” and a set of technical characteristics in a bow. To an untrained eye the differences may be subtle, but to professional and experts they are as unique as signatures. A skilled bowmaker’s design evolves throughout his life while keeping a fundamentally constant core that represents the essence of his artistic personality.
By the time he was named Best Artisan of France, Benoît Rolland had already developed his personal model. Continuous study of the old masters is central to his evolving design. At various stages in his development, the styles of Dominique Peccatte, François-Xavier Tourte and Nicolas Maire have influenced his bows. He now likes it to simply convey a strong and sober feel. Beyond aesthetics, Rolland bows uniqueness lays in their playability and sound potential.
Hallmarks of the great French tradition are evident in every Rolland bow: elegance, purity, strength of line, feel and response. Benoît Rolland is considered as both heir and innovator of this French school, because he has combined continuity of tradition, artistry and creativity. Over more than 1,800 bows, Rolland demonstrated how heritage and innovation can coexist in the most traditionalist of arts.
In 2008 Benoît Rolland created a new line of Pernambuco bows: the Signature line. These bows, which offer an extended playing and sound potential in selected woods, complement the wide range of playing styles that the Rolland bows already proposed.
Playability & Sound
Strength and power with a sensation of flexibility are classic characteristics of a fine French bow. Such combination brings out the warmth of an instrument. Stiffer bows are often easier to play at first while being brighter in sound (yet more nasal). Fine flexible bows are more subtle but allow a wider range of expression and technique with no sacrificing power. Rolland bows have this type of personality.
Another remarkable feature is their evenness. They are responsive along the entire length of the bow. Every stroke will be secure and stable. Sautillé, spiccatos, and staccatos are easy to play.
The playability of a bow results from the critical union of the wood’s inherent qualities and the particular shape imposed upon it by the maker with the tapering and the camber. Musicians often comment on the “effortless” experience of playing with Rolland bows, which enable them to negotiate long and difficult pieces without fatigue. Benoît Rolland indeed designs his bows to prevent stress on the arm muscles. “Effortless” playing does not mean that the bow is more compliant. It means that the player’s energy, rather than being dissipated by the bow, is transmitted straight to the music.
Rolland bows are designed for playing under a medium hair tension. Over-tightening the hair will drastically change their playability, degrading timbre.
In the recent years, Benoît Rolland focused his research on the sound potential of the bows. Though it is not an acoustic instrument, the bow plays an active part into organizing the circulation of vibrations between itself, the instrument and the body of the performer. In addition to this mechanical function, the wood stick has a sound of its own. Rolland analyzed these factors and many others. He is now able to predict the “sound” of a bow interplaying with an instrument.
The French Tradition
A musician can sense whether a bow belongs to the French, German or British traditions. He may do so instinctively; yet, such perception has an underlying of technical reasons. The shape of a bow reveals a certain understanding by the maker of both the craft’s technique and the music as developed within each culture.
The French bow making tradition originates in Mirecourt, a small village in the Vosgian mountains, somewhat like Cremona was a cradle for violin making. Most of the French bow makers, who later established their shop in Paris, were first trained in Mirecourt. In 1976, Bernard Ouchard had been the last master from one of the historical families of makers to teach there; Benoît Rolland was his first student. Benoît remembers him vividly:
“He was a kind and sensitive man, caring though rough, who expressed himself best through his love of music; he owned 250 classical records. He was one of the first to propose Tourte as a model.
He accomplished the task of passing on the French tradition of bow making to us, always with a great humbleness. Had it not been for his intelligence and true devotion, a lot of this knowledge would have been lost.”
In France, the rules for becoming a master in the craft have long been set by custom and historical heritage. No one can be a self-proclaimed “Master”. The nation-wide competition for Best Artisan of France is held every four years, and the demanding requirements for previous achievements limit candidacies. The additional higher title of “Master of the Art of Bowmaking” (Maitre Archetier d’Art) was only awarded a few times throughout history. A master must fully comprehend the history of his craft to project himself, and his craft, towards the future. It is then his duty to progress, to bring the art to the new standards of his time, uniting tradition and innovation, and to thus acquire the musicians’ recognition. Teaching is an additional requirement.
Best Artisan of France in 1979, Maitre Archetier d’Art in 1983, as he was going through all these steps of assessment of his work, Benoît came to understand what makes the essence of such a tradition. He published a first article on the subject, “Bow Heirs”, in The Strad, April 2003 and is currently synthesizing his research in a book. He is investigating not only the legacy of the main masters, but also the sociology of the craft and its relation to music.
Francois-Xavier Tourte, by the end of the 18th century, gave its definition to the classical bow that became a French art reference, very much like the violin had been fostered in Italy. Great French bow makers like Peccate or Sartory developed this craft during the 19th and 20th centuries.
They left us a patrimony of bows that is stunning and delicate.
Fine bow-heads are naturally fragile. A lucrative commerce around lutherie, based on the value of some pieces, adds to the frailty of bows: original parts are replaced or substituted, bows are “married” to produce a complete pricey piece.
We need to protect the patrimony of bows and play them with precaution as long as possible because they tell us about human talent for beauty and music.
In a spirit of both learning from the ancient masters and allowing the best examples of bowmaking to be played and preserved, Benoît Rolland undertakes some restoration tasks. He sometimes, yet rarely makes whole replicas of the finest French bows.
At Rolland studio, creating a bow starts with understanding what tools were specific to the French tradition of bowmaking. Benoît Rolland makes most of his tools himself, and keeps various historical tools for restorations and replicas. He uses hand tools in all steps of the work for the quietness they afford and the direct physical control of the work that they allow.
Benoît Rolland rigorously selects his woods for crafting bows. His usage of the wood, of which he gathered only a modest stock, has always beeing guided by a principle of respect and moderation.
Some of his most precious Pernambuco wood comes from the Victor Fétique’s stock that he acquired in 1979. At that time, the Fétique family wished to transfer their craft heritage to a young maker who would pursue the tradition. The selection of a candidate and the commitment to bowmaking that they required were both extremely stringent. Benoît met their standards and after two years of intense labor could acquire the tools and wood that he still uses.
To complete this source, Rolland purchased selected logs of Pernambuco during the first years of his career. He planned the drying and preparation of the wood over his entire life in order to give the best possible natural care to the wood. Patiently waiting for the proper time to open a log, he then cut from it and stored each plank himself, allowing it to dry during many years. After evaluating the boards, he drafts the sticks that they can give best: the wood piece sometimes bears only one valuable stick and some lesser sticks. Rolland is utterly cautious in his use of Pernambuco wood and the sticks that he does not use himself are saved for apprentices.
By now, only excellent or outstanding parts of the wood, in terms of their musical qualities, are sculpted into Rolland bows. The woods are chosen not only for their beauty, but first according to the response and sound potential that their fibers offer. From the moment of opening a log to finishing the bow, each wood piece is purposely selected and prepared to serve the goal desired in each bow.
Frogs are carved from selected raw blocks of ebony, harvested in different countries. Very old ebony enters in Rolland’s gold mounted bows. The profound color of the frogs and their patina come from the natural quality of the ebony, simply polished.
For Information about the Pernambuco issues, visit our page “Pernambuco.”
Varnish and Finishes
Once the wood is turned into a bow, attention focuses on the perfection of the finishes, one of the highlights of Rolland bows. Benoît does not use any chemical dies or acids on his bows. Natural resins are prepared at the studio for a light French polish of the stick. The gentle action of natural light and handling will eventually darken the color of the stick, reflecting the years of practice. Eugène Sartory never dyed his wood; most of his bows now exhibit a rich patina, some of them being extremely dark, thanks to the combined actions of natural light, use and time. Nevertheless, some woods permanently retain their original color. For instance, we can still see some bright Tourte or Pajeot.
As every part of the bow, the hair is carefully chosen from select white stallion bundles, mostly from Mongolia and Siberia. Horse hair is so far irreplaceable due to its very particular grasp of the string. Research continues for finding a suitable substitute. For horse hair as for every natural resource, the principles guiding Benoît Rolland’s use are moderation and care. His respect for nature goes hand in hand with his admiration for human creation of beauty: he shows an equal awareness for preserving natural resources and for conserving the human knowledge necessary to the crafting of great art works.
Metals and precious supplies
The precious metals (gold, silver) in Rolland’s bows come from France, for their higher carat’s standard and particular nuance. The metals are prepared, sometimes even melted, at the studio for special pieces.
The bow combines precious materials enhancing its overall beauty. Valuable supplies such as elephant ivory, tortoise shell and mother of pearl traditionally come into the structure of the bow or its ornamentation. However, many of these supplies are now protected and their use regulated; mammoth ivory is thus a preferred source, and its use is authorized.
Benoît Rolland collects mother-of-pearl from many different origins, harvested some himself, and takes a particular care in composing an assortment that brings luminosity to the frog, but also reflect a stylistic choice: ancient cuts of pearl for restorations, contemporary look for some Rolland models and overall matching with the spirit of the woods paired.
You may also notice that Benoît Rolland uses different wrappings ( or lappings). The choice for a specific wrapping is mostly an aesthetic one, but the balance or design of the bow may also impose it. To create the best harmony in each bow, Rolland decides for the suitable wrapping:
- pure silver thread
- silver or gold over silk thread
- 18 carats gold thread
- ancient style wrapping, either alternating silver or gold over silk thread with colored silk thread (Rolland's model)
- on rare occasions, authentic whalebone from ancient stocks was used