This week we practiced our embachure with a show that saluted the French Horn. Browse nine selections below.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) Horn Concerto No. 3 in E-flat, K. 447 Horns are ancient instruments. People buzzed their lips to produce sounds through actual animal horns for millennia before they created horns out of brass. But even the modern horn took a while to catch on as a musical instrument. Horns were mostly used as a noise-making novelty during the hunt, whereas predecessors to the trumpet and trombone were used to make music. It wasn’t until the 18th-century, when French instrument makers began to tweak the design, that the horn began to be used musically. This famous horn concerto by Mozart is one of the earliest solo showcases for horn, and the music alludes to the instrument’s hunting past. The opening of this Rondo finale is made to sound like a hunting horn call. All of Mozart’s horn concertos were written for his good friend, horn player Joseph Leutgeb. Mozart even left friendly insults and gibes to Leutgeb in the manuscript score!
Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) Der Freischutz: Huntsmen's Chorus Weber’s opera Der Freischütz, sometimes translated as “The Freeshooter” or “The Marksman,” is one of the most important German-language operas from the early 19th century. Heralding the maturity and sophistication of Weber’s work, a diverse range of operatic types and styles are woven together into an unprecedented totality of art. Two of the opera’s most well-known scenes epitomize the ingenious contrast Weber creates between two musical and dramatic spheres. The music of the rural Bohemian village where the opera is set, which includes this Huntsmen’s Chorus, is diatonic, lyrical and symmetric, with folksong-like melodies. Rustic horns evoke an idyllic and pastoral life of virtue and simple pleasures. However the music of the infamously spooky “Wolf’s Glen scene” is chromatic, minor, and strange. Woodwind instruments are directed to intentionally play in weak registers, and a chorus of demonic forces sings monotonously, while some characters don’t sing their lines at all.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) Romance in F, Op. 36 When a new fully-chromatic valve horn was introduced by Heinrich Stolzel in Prussia in 1814, it was by no means unanimously hailed as a game-changer for horn music. Many composers preferred the unique colors and registers of different notes and keys specific to the valveless natural horn, and thought sacrificing these for the ability to play seamlessly in all keys was detrimental to the musical capabilities of the french horn. This tension between the old and new played out most intensely in France, and led to a whole spate of novel repertoire for the horn as a virtuosic solo instrument in its own right. These works tended to be short character pieces suited to chamber music concerts rather than grandiose concertos. While Saint-Saens indicated his preference for the natural horn, he recognized the changing musical landscape and wrote works for the valve horn as well.
Richard Strauss (1864-1949) Horn Concerto No. 2 in E-flat A span of sixty years separates Richard Strauss’ first and second horn concerto. The first concerto, cataloged as his eleventh work, shares the characteristics of an early Romantic sonata, when the classical form was being expanded into a grand concert fantasy. The second concerto, written when the composer was 79 and had enjoyed an illustrious career as a conductor, composer and opera director, is more pensive and free-flowing. The second concerto is the first of a whole series of compositions for wind instruments, which also includes an oboe concerto and a double concerto for clarinet and bassoon. Most of these late works are retrospective, referencing early works in Strauss’ extensive oeuvre.
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op. 31 Benjamin Britten wrote this Serenade while recovering from a bad case of the measles in 1943, and initially didn’t think much of the composition: he said it was, quote, “not important stuff, but quite pleasant, I think.” An understatement if there ever were one, the piece---featuring great English poetry by the likes of Keats, Blake, and Tennyson---has become a staple of both the tenor and horn repertoire. It was originally written for Britten’s partner, tenor Peter Pears, and the great British horn player Dennis Brain. In the prologue and epilogue of the work, for horn alone, Britten exploits the natural harmonics of the horn, which at times sound out of tune to our ears accustomed to the equally-tempered Western scale.
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) Symphony No. 4 in E-flat 'Romantic' Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, which he nicknamed the “ROMANTIC” symphony, underwent so many revisions it is difficult for scholars and historians to study the work. Bruckner first wrote it in 1874, but then about four years later, he heavily revised most of the work, completely replacing the scherzo and finale. A year later, he dropped this new finale, revised the old finale, and the work was premiered. He revised it two more times before it was performed in New York in 1888, and then revised it again in preparation for its publication. Regardless of the many revisions, it is evident in each version that Bruckner loved the french horn. This symphony has four separate horn parts, and most of its principal themes are introduced by the horns, leading Bruckner’s Romantic symphony to often colloquially be referred to as a “horn concerto.”
Gunther Schuller (b.1925) Five Pieces for Five Horns Gunther Schuller was born into a musical family. Perhaps inspired by his father, a violinist with the New York Philharmonic, Gunther took up the horn at an early age and by 16 was invited to perform in the American première broadcast of Shostakovich’s Symphony No.7, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. He later played horn with both the Cincinnati Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. In 1951, Schuller composed his Five Pieces for Five Horns for his own horn quintet in order to add a work with atonal language to the horn ensemble repertoire. An active composer, conductor, and scholar, Schuller later became interested in jazz, coining the phrase “third stream music” to describe a genre of music incorporating elements of jazz and classical music. Schuller has gone on to serve on the faculties of the Manhattan School of Music, Yale University, and the New England Conservatory.
Claude Paul Taffanel (1844-1908) Woodwind quintet in g As we learned from our Saint-Saëns piece in tonight’s show, the development of the French horn into the advanced-rotary valve instrument that you see in today’s orchestras was not a smooth process. Although German hornists of the early Romantic Era very quickly adapted to the simplification that valves brought to horn technique, French hornists and horn composers such as Saint-Saëns and his friend and fellow composer Claude Paul Taffanel preferred the changes in timbre that the natural horn (which had no valves) made possible. Valve horns used in France were ordered with a removable set of valves, so that a natural horn slide could be re-inserted if preferred, and a very complicated form of horn technique developed that required the player to learn both valve and natural horn playing. It was during this rather chaotic period of the horn’s development that Taffanel composed his woodwind quintet, and although he himself was a flutist, the piece became a favorite of the chamber repertoire for horn.
Bryan Wilson, Tony Asher (1966) God Only Knows On one level, the title of the 1966 album “Pet Sounds” is a literal reference. Recording the vast array of unusual instruments for pop music (such as the French horn) and bizarre sound effects for the album, songwriter Brian Wilson did, in fact, record and use the sound of his pet dogs barking at a passing train. The title may also be read as a pun: like the phrase ‘pet names’ or ‘pet project,’ “Pet Sounds” shows how personal an endeavor music-making had become for Wilson. While the album was a critical success, its serious themes and inclusion of oddball instrumental tracks gave “Pet Sounds” less popular appeal than the Beach Boys’ earlier surf music. Following this record, Wilson’s mental breakdown caused the band to abandon their ambitious follow-up album Smile, which was only available in piecemeal, bootleg form for many years.