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Instruments of Mass Seduction II

The Horn

Horn repertoire really begins in the Middle Ages with different calls signaling various aspects of the hunt. Horns figure prominently in the Baroque brass music of Gabrielli and are featured instruments in concerti of Vivaldi. Handel fashioned a Concerto for Two Horns and Orchestra from thematic material used in Water Music. The Haydn brothers, Joseph and Michael, each wrote concerti for the horn as did Telemann. Leopold Mozart wrote a horn concerto and also composed a piece for hunting horns, blissfully out of tune and evocative of the chase, but it was his son Wolfgang who wrought the first important body of work for this most aristocratic of brass instruments. The Mozarts had a good friend named Ignaz Leutgeb, a horn player that they had met in Salzburg who subsequently opened a cheese shop in Vienna. Leutgeb had once borrowed money from Leopold and returned the favor by letting the always hard-up Wolfgang live with him for a period in the 1780’s. Wolfgang composed three concertos for Leutgeb (those known today as #1, 2 and 4) as well as the Quintet for Horn and String Quartet. That he was quite fond of his horn-playing friend is evident by the scores of these works. In the first concerto, for example, the first movement is an allegro and is clearly marked as such in the score and all of the orchestral parts. However, Mozart marks the soloist’s part with a puckish Adagio! His dedication for the Concerto #2 reads:

Wolfgang Amade Mozart took pity on
Leutgeb the Ass, Ox and Fool,
Vienna, 17 May 1783

And there are also comments written into the margins of the solo part such as “Bravo, poor little man” and “…finished? Thank heaven! Enough, enough…” The concerto known as #3 was probably written in 1788 or 89 and not for Leutgeb (the inclusion of clarinets into the score indicates a later time of composition). All of the Mozart horn pieces (there is also a fragment of a concerto) emphasize the melodic larghetto quality of the instrument and are consistent with contemporary reports of Leutgeb’s virtuosity, which was particularly admired for its phrasing and ability to sustain a lyrical passage.

But Leutgeb was not the greatest horn player of his time. That distinction went to Jan Vaclav Stich who escaped a life of serfdom in Bohemia and reemerged as Giovanni Punto in Paris. Mozart heard him perform in 1778 and wrote to Leopold “…Punto plays magnificently…” It is conceivable that Wolfgang wrote his Sinfonia Concertante in E Flat (K297b) with Punto in mind. This craftsman surely had a great influence on the young Beethoven and the two performed the latter’s new Sonata for Horn and Piano together in Vienna (and later in Pest) in 1800. The Beethoven sonata is much more strident than any of the Mozart horn works and capitalizes more on the powerfully martial effects available to a skilled performer. It contains passages of rapid arpeggios on the open notes of the horn reminiscent of the concerti of Punto himself. Punto is reported to have written 14 concertos but only seven survive intact and at least one of these is of dubious authorship. Beethoven is also the first composer to employ the horn in a full orchestra setting for coloristic effects, writing the devilishly high horn calls at the conclusion of the first movement of his Symphony #7. Other significant pieces of the period are the Schubert song Auf dem Strom for Soprano, Horn and Piano, the Concertino for Horn and Orchestra by Weber and the Sonatas for Horn and Strings of Luigi Cherubini.

Mendelssohn incorporates powerful horn calls in his Symphony #5 (Reformation) and writes delicately for horn quartet in his transcendentally beautiful Nocturne from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Schumann wrote two significant works for the instrument, the Konzertstueck for Four Horns and Orchestra and the seldom performed but very lyrical Andante and Variations for Two Pianos, Two Cellos and Horn. Brahms, whose father was a journeyman horn and double bass player, fashioned his Four Songs for Women’s Chorus, Two Horns and Harp and the mighty Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano, the greatest chamber piece in the entire horn literature. All four of the symphonies of Brahms have horn solos, with the second featuring two extended passages of solo work. His Piano Concerto #2 begins with a horn stating the main theme and the Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra incorporates a bucolic theme that Brahms first heard played on a giant Alpenhorn during a walk in the mountains. Anton Bruckner was particularly enamoured of the horn. His Symphony #4 begins with a solo horn call and features the entire section in the third movement. The other famous elongated horn solo in the Romantic repertoire is the opening of the second movement of the Symphony #5 of Tchaikovsky, a melody which resurfaced 100 years later in the John Denver song “You Fill Up My Senses”.

In the second half of the 19th century the horn section of the orchestra grew exponentially. Gone were Mozart’s two horns, replaced by a standard four horn grouping in the symphonies of Brahms, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky. In opera, horns became central to the musical landscape of Wagner and there are eight complete parts in his “Ring” cycle (sometimes they are treated as four pairs and sometimes as two quartets). The solo horn is featured prominently in Tristan und Isolde, Siegfried and Goetterdaemmerung, whose “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” and “Siegfried’s Funeral” sections place tremendous demands on the solo player. There are 12 horns in Tannhaeuser and Tristan used to play the offstage fanfares but even these forces pale before the 20 horns required to perform a true version of Strauss’ Alpine Symphony. Groups of six horns are common in orchestral writing at the beginning of the twentieth century in such works as Also Sprach Zarathustra and Don Quixoteof Strauss, the Symphonies # 2 and 5 of Mahler, and many works of Delius including Brigg Fair, Mass of Life and Dance Rhapsody #1. Eight horns appear in Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Scriabin’s Prometheus, Prokofieff’s Ala and Lolly, and the Symphony #1 of Mahler, where the composer wished the entire section to stand at the end of the finale in one of the most glorious visual and aural effects in all of classical music ( a score direction oddly eschewed by many modern conductors). The Fifth Symphony of Mahler includes a movement (the third) which is a quasi-horn concerto complete with soloist (actually shared between two parts) and the fourth movement of the Symphony #7 is an Andante Amoroso for horn and orchestra. There are also occasional works with three horn parts, such as the character of the wolf in Prokofieff’s Peter and the Wolf, and the horn sections of Hindemith’s Die Schwanendreher and Strauss’ opera Intermezzo. Bantock, in Fifine at the Fair, uses his six horns as two groups of three, a unique application of personnel deployment.

The twentieth century is rich in solo horn repertoire. Reverie for Horn and Piano by Glasunoff and Villanelle by Dukas are two of its most beautiful pieces. Strauss, whose father was a horn virtuoso, wrote two concerti for horn and orchestra, the first a true virtuoso piece with pyrotechnical effects and the second a more cerebral integration of horn and ensemble. Paul Hindemith specialized in writing sonatas for unusual instruments with piano accompaniment (he wrote sonatas for alto saxophone, viola d’amore, English horn and tuba) and not only wrote a powerful Sonata for Horn and Piano but also a Sonata for Althorn (the closest American equivalent would be the marching band instrument known as the mellophone) and Piano which includes a poem which must be recited by hornist and pianist, and a Concerto for Horn and Orchestra. The main theme of Maurice Ravel’s Pavane pour une Infante Defunte is introduced by a high solo horn. Other important works of the century are Nocturne for Horn and Piano and the Concerto for Horn and Orchestra by Gliere, Music for Horn and Piano and the Concerto for Horn and Orchestra by Thea Musgrave, Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano, subtitled “Hommage a Brahms” by Gyorgy Ligeti, Sonata for Horn and Piano by Halsey Stevens, the two concerti of Malcolm Arnold, and Elegy for Mippy (his dog) by Leonard Bernstein.

The “French” horn was so named because it developed from the trompe de chasse, or hunting horn. Before 1780 horns were coiled instruments with no opportunity to perform outside of one fixed key. Different notes were produced by changing the position of the lips (embouchure) and by placing the hand inside of the bell. This type of instrument, known as the “natural” horn, was not adaptable to key changes and so several different horns of varying lengths were used in a given piece, with long rest periods incorporated into the music so that the switch could be accomplished. In 1780 Joseph Raoux invented the crook system which allowed for greater flexibility. A section of curved pipe, or crook, was inserted into the specially bent main tube and each crook represented a different key. This facilitated the process of changing keys, but has left the modern player with a major burden. Since the key was changed on the instrument itself, composers began to notate all horn music in the same key, leaving a modern hornist responsible to transpose in their head the notes on the paper to the actual notes that he or she must play. Some composers are sensitive to this unique problem, but most are not and the sight-reading of horn music is correspondingly difficult. The modern valve horn, capable of playing in any key, came into common use in the middle of the nineteenth century, around the time of the composition of the Brahms trio, although some players retained the crook horns until well into the twentieth century. The modern double horn, combining the horn in F with the one in high B Flat, is now the standard instrument. Thus Mozart’s concerti were written for the natural horn, but are almost always played on the modern instrument. Period instrument performances of the symphonies of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann and even Brahms use the natural horn. Wagner writes for both natural and modern horns in Tannhaeuser and Benjamin Britten, in the extremely moving Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, has one horn player play both instruments in the same piece. The horn is considered the most difficult of all of the orchestral instruments to play well (Arthur Nikisch presented the first horn player of the Berlin Philharmonic with a gold watch after he played the solos in Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel flawlessly three concerts in a row) and therefore many hornists become specialists in either the higher or lower pitched literature. A low toned hornist, for example, would occupy the fourth horn chair in a standard orchestral set-up.

Franz Strauss was the great horn virtuoso at the end of the nineteenth century. He was the principal horn of the Hofoper in Munich and premiered the extremely important solo parts in Wagner’s operas Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger and Parsifal at the nearby Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Strauss was also a composer of horn music and wrote both a Concerto for Horn and Orchestra and a Nocturne for Horn and Piano. His son, Richard, composed many significant solos for the horn in his orchestral music, the most evocative of the memory of Franz being in the song September (with words by Hermann Hesse) contained in the collection entitled Four Last Songs. Dennis Brain came from a famous horn playing family and was its third generation representative. He was principal horn of the RAF band during World War II and then went on to become principal in the Philharmonia and Royal Philharmonic orchestras. Brain’s playing was the ultimate in refinement and upper class grace. He insisted on retaining his crook horn (an original Raoux-Millereau) and so his sound was small but very distinguished. His recordings of the Brahms symphonies with the Philharmonia under Toscanini stand as the most beautiful horn solos ever captured by the medium, and several composers wrote pieces for him. He is the dedicatee of the Hindemith concerto and of the Britten serenade. He recorded virtually all of the horn repertoire in his very brief career. Brain was killed at the age of 36 in a traffic accident. His sudden death inspired the creation of one of the most moving pieces in all of chamber music, the Elegie for Dennis Brain for Horn and Piano by Francis Poulenc. This intense piece is an emotional journey from anger to grief to remembrance and finally to peaceful acceptance. It is one of the most challenging works in the horn repertoire and is similar to Poulenc’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano which he wrote upon the death of his friend, the composer Arthur Honegger or the Sonata for Violin and Piano commemorating the death of Garcia Lorca. Brain was particularly noted for his articulation during faster passages, where he always hit every staccato note exactly. If there was a downside to his art it is that he never varied his tone to suggest the raw power inherent in his instrument. He would probably not have been a prominent interpreter of his own Elegie, with its garment-rending exploration of the depths of human grief.

Aubrey Brain was part of the second generation of the horn playing brood. His father, Alfred Edwin Brain, was considered the top soloist of his day. Aubrey’s brother Alfred II lived in America where he first appeared with the New York Symphony Society (later the Philharmonic) and then went on to a career as a soloist in Hollywood, recording the Haydn Second Concerto in 1950. Aubrey’s two sons were great musicians, Dennis with the horn and Leonard as an oboist, and his wife Marion composed music, including the cadenzas that he used in the Mozart concerti. He was the first to record a Mozart concerto (in 1927) and produced two versions of the Brahms trio, the second with Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin (1933). Aubrey invited Dennis to play with him in Busch’s chamber orchestra and they recorded a Mozart divertimento together. He was principal of the London Symphony and the BBC Symphony orchestras. Mason Jones can first be heard on recordings as a student at the Curtis Institute of Music where he played third horn in the student orchestra under Fritz Reiner in the golden jubilee concert of the pianist Josef Hofmann. Even while at Curtis, Jones was a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra and, after a stint in the Marine Band during the war, became its first chair, a position that he held throughout the 1950’s and ‘60’s. He wrote his own cadenzas and performed equally well on the natural horn, which he used to record sections of the Mozart concerti under Ormandy. Jones also recorded the Hindemith sonatas with Glenn Gould.

Barry Tuckwell came from Australia to become the solo horn of the London Symphony from 1955-68. His career as a soloist has been one of proselytizing for the horn repertoire and he has gained a wider public acceptance for the desirability of the horn as a recital instrument. Thea Musgrave wrote her concerto for him. He retired in 1997 to devote himself to teaching at the Curtis Institute. One of the great documents of the last century is the video of Mstislav Rostropovich performing the Concerto # 1 for Cello and Orchestra with the LSO in the 1950’s. The young Tuckwell is the brash goader seated at the back. Gerd Seifert was the principal of the Berlin Philharmonic and possessed a very powerful technique aptly suited for the larger sound necessary to correctly perform Bruckner and Wagner. Hermann Baumann is a masterful European soloist who has recorded exceptional versions of the Strauss concerti and has been a pioneer in the revival of the natural horn. Dale Clevenger is principal of the great Chicago Symphony horn section and a soloist on record in the Mozart concerti. New York at the end of the 20th century was blessed with a fine collection of hornists. Julie Landsman was principal at the Metropolitan Opera and a teacher at Juilliard. William Purvis is also at Juilliard and has recorded a very satisfying combination of the Brahms and Ligeti horn trios. Robert Routch is equally at home in classical and jazz venues, being both principal at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and an ex-sideman for both Gerry Mulligan and Ornette Coleman. His recording of the Poulenc Elegie is unmatched. David Jolley is a first chair player and founder of the unique, conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. He premiered the Horn Concerto of Ellen Taffe Zwilich and, along with Routch, taught at the Manhattan School of Music.

Lowell Greer is a specialist on the natural horn. He not only has brought this type of playing to a new higher standard but has become an expert in the construction of these elegant old instruments. He has been able to tame the beast of intonation, so difficult in these imprecise souvenirs of another era. Norman Del Mar emerged from the horn section (he was second to Dennis Brain in the Royal Philharmonic) to become a celebrated conductor and a true scholar of musicology. His three volume biography, Richard Strauss, A Critical Commentary of His Life and Work, is the standard on the subject. He is also the author of a biography of Hindemith and a manual on the art of conducting. His book, Anatomy of the Orchestra, has become a classic text. Gunther Schuller played horn in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for fifteen years while teaching at the Manhattan School. At the same time he began a long career as a jazz musician and composer, performing with Miles Davis and writing for John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet. In the late 1950’s he gave up his career as a performer to concentrate on composition and academia. He taught composition at Yale and was appointed chairman of the composition department at Tanglewood. He became president of the New England Conservatory in 1966. Schuller coined the phrase “third stream music” to describe his fusion of jazz and contemporary classical methods of composition. His large body of music includes two horn concerti as well as Trois Hommages for Horn and Piano, each dedicated to a different composer (Delius, Ravel and Milhaud). He is the author of a modern work on the subject of performance, entitled Horn Technique, as well as studies of the swing era and the roots of early jazz.

Glenn Gould once remarked that the reason he retired from the concert stage so early was that he was sick of the audience waiting “…just to hear the horn player flub up.” The horn is an extremely difficult instrument to play well, but when it is handled properly it is capable of extreme power, grace and beauty.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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