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Chamber Works for Horn

Chamber Works for Horn

Beethoven • Schubert • Schumann • Brahms


A Short History of the Horn


When for the first time a primitive man beat with a stone on a tree-trunk to communicate with people at a distance, a musical instrument was created. Next came the horn, and as its name suggests, it was a long way away from the modern copper and brass alloy. A bull’s horn (as Wagner prescribes in The Twilight of the Gods), a bone, a reed or a shell, put to the lips, gives out a note. That was the origin of all wind instruments. The strength of the stream of air and the varied placing and tension of the lips produced different notes. That is how the horn still works.


The oldest surviving horns are spiral horns from Assyria, like those still in use today in Papua-New Guinea. The old Jewish shofar (from the horn of a ram) brought down the walls of Jericho. The Etruscans in BC 450 made signal-horns from terra cotta that have the semicircular form of those now in use. Since the bronze age men have made horns from metal, following the model of mammoths’ tusks. The oliphant (after the tusks of the elephant) came to Europe from Byzantium and was a sign of nobility.


Medieval cities found a use for the horn for nightwatchmen, huntsmen and postilions. When hunting-horns started to be adapted as signal horns, the horn came into existence as a musical instrument. The parforce hunting-horn, invented by the court composer of Louis XIV, was still used by Rossini.


An important step towards the modern horn, the first so-called natural horn, without valves and originally only playing the notes of the harmonic series, but further developed in structure, appeared in Germany about 1700. The tube was widened, the end strongly conical, the bell enlarged. Through change of the so-called crook immediately under the mouthpiece  it could play different keys. Towards the end of the eighteenth century it became an indispensable orchestral instrument that provided a background of sound. The Dresden orchestral player Anton Hampel made the discovery of hand-stopping. By introducing the hand into the bell of the instrument notes other than those of the harmonic series could be played. Mozart and Beethoven wrote for natural horns.


On 12th April 1818 the Royal Prussian Patent Office confirmed the submission of the unknown provincial horn-players Heinrich Stölzel and Friedrich Blühmel. They had invented valves and this opened to horn-players all keys and the whole range of chromatic notes. In Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony natural and valve horns are prescribed; both of the first are natural horns, the fourth is a valve horn, and so the solo in the slow movement, a G flat - D major scale that was not possible with the natural horn, is conventionally allotted to the fourth horn. I presume that Beethoven, who was progressive in his attitude, wanted in this way to promote the valve horn and teach the traditionalists in the orchestra something. The F horn or Vienna horn, of which later there will be much to say, is a valve horn. As its name implies, today it is almost only played in Vienna. In the meantime, however, the so-called double horn has prevailed throughout the rest of the world. This brings together two horns, the Vienna F horn and for higher notes the B flat horn, in one instrument. One can be switched to the other by the thumb. Yet, as in the case of Asterix, there is a village that resists musical globalisation, and that village is a metropolis called Vienna.


The Vienna Horn


To describe the Vienna horn as an instrument is a gross understatement. It is much more a beloved enemy, a charismatic brute that after lifelong intimate knowledge offers dangerous and untameable opposition to its master. The Vienna horn, an evolutionary step towards the double horn, must perform alone what in the double horn two specialists achieve. On the double horn mistakes can with luck be corrected. On the Vienna horn there is no cheating. What one can just get on the double horn, on the Vienna horn goes mercilessly wrong. A mistake in fast tempo produces a completely different note from the one intended. The listener believes that the wrong note has been played. The reason is a physical one. On the Vienna horn the natural notes lie actually more close together than on the double horn. For example in the introduction to Anton Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony an F on the Vienna horn can slip into an F sharp or an E with exactly the same hold. Just a little failure in breathing produces it. On the double horn, however, the next note is a minor third away. It would take a major mistake to produce this note.


Then there are the dreaded split notes. Since the Vienna horn is actually longer than the double horn it demands more strength and precision of embouchure. The column of air must travel through 3.7 metres. With the double horn one can at any time switch over to 2.7 metres.


Why, in spite of this, do we persist in using the Vienna horn? Quite simple: it sounds like a horn, soft, rounded and unlimited in its wealth of tone colours, without covering the violins. It thus suits Brahms, Bruckner and Wagner, who wrote specifically for the instrument.


Here a secret can be revealed. For every risky passage the Vienna Philharmonic also has a double horn to hand. In crucial passages the instruments are exchanged for some bars. The days in which colleagues took the highest risks for brilliant success or catastrophic failure cannot return in times of electronically retrievable perfection, though the great conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt assures us that he would not live without the minor and major breakdowns of the Vienna horn.



How does a horn work? 


The production of a note is technically actually more difficult than with woodwind instruments. The lips are placed on the funnel-shaped mouthpiece. Through the column of air the lips are set vibrating. The sound is produced through the rapid withdrawal of the tongue (as if spitting a tiny seed from the tongue). The lips vibrate backwards and forwards. The horn has three valves. Its range is from bottom E to B flat''' (the Vienna horn). The long circular crook is detachable and can be exchanged. With the double horn it is integrated with the valve section and the bell. The modern horn is made of copper and brass. A Vienna horn weighs about 1.7 kilogrammes (double and triple horns have more metal and are correspondingly heavier). The horn becomes lighter in the course of time. Because of sweat from the hand the valves oxidize, which produces verdigris, to be removed.


Which horns are in use today?


1            The natural horn (without valves). Thanks to pioneers like Harnoncourt, retrieved from the museum it forms part of authentic instrument ensembles. In normal orchestral performance it is only exceptionally used. Since higher notes are produced by hand-stopping, each note has a practically different tone-colour.


2            Vienna horn or F horn. There is a modest revival of the Vienna horn throughout the world. Yamaha produces this instrument and in Japan, France and Switzerland there are first horn players who prefer the Vienna horn. The Dresden Staatskapelle has acquired a set of Vienna horns for a particular repertoire, above all for Brahms and Bruckner. I advise no-one who is not trained on the instrument to try it.


3            The double horn is, on the contrary, a modern functional instrument, combining two horns, the Vienna F horn and for higher notes the B flat horn, one to be switched to the other by the thumb. It is the most played horn throughout the world.


4            The triple horn combines three horns, one for low notes, one for middle notes and one for high. Technically it is easy, but physically heavy because of the amount of metal used. The sound often suffers through the altered vibration with so much metal.


5            The Wagner tuba or horn tuba was built by Wagner for the Ring des Nibelungen and combines the sound quality of the horn with the power of the trombone, produced through the wider bore. One Wagner tuba can be louder than the whole horn section (for example the Hunding motif in Die Walküre or in Bruckner). It is, nevertheless, capable also of a softer, horn-like sound (the Valhalla motif in The Ring). It is important in Stravinsky’s Le sacre de printemps.


6            There are rarer instruments in the form of extremely high horns, for example the B flat alto horn. These are rarely used and usually only if the player in the highest register changes instruments for a few bars, to be on the safe side.


What does the horn do in the orchestra? 


In colour it is a baritone, in the higher register a tenor. The ideal sound that I try to produce is that of Placido Domingo, who changed from baritone to tenor. He is the horn-player among tenors, Pavarotti the trumpet-player. The horn sounds at its most beautiful when it plays pianissimo, when it sounds like a clarinet. In forte it produces an enormous range of tone colours. In general it is the chameleon of the orchestra; it must correspond well with both the brass and the woodwind, the missing link, so to speak, between the two, and must if necessary blend between extremes like the clarinet and the trombone. There are arguments as to whether it is not in fact a woodwind instrument in disguise. In rehearsal many conductors, when they say the whole woodwind section, mean the horns as well. Wagner often mingles the horn with the woodwind (for example at the beginning of Tannhäuser with the bassoon).


In opera the horn takes on a very different character. It is often associated with melancholy and the pain of love, as in the accompaniment of Micaela’s aria in Carmen, or in Les contes d’Hoffmann, when the despairing poet returns from the world of false appearances to reality. For this the mysterious, dark sound of the Vienna horn is particularly suitable. Often it is useful in romantic imitation of the sounds of nature as in Der Freischütz. In Wagner’s Rheingold it depicts the E flat major mood in the depths of the water, in Richard Strauss’s Capriccio it gives a wonderful effect of moonlight. In Wagner’s Siegfried too, the nightmare of all horn-players, the horn is used for romantic mood-painting. And then naturally there is Siegfried’s horn-call as the sign of the hero. The long horn-call in the second act is merciless; the player crouches completely alone backstage, without a score, and must play in synchronization with the lips of a singer, who does his own thing on the stage. Here one must play for a minute without stopping. A mistake causes havoc. The only advantage is that one is not seen. With us the soloist plays the first act in the pit, then goes backstage, and then disappears either to the canteen or to depression.


In Leonora’s aria in the first act of Fidelio the horn goes from deep despair to triumphant certainty that tyranny will be defeated. In Così fan tutte two horns accompany the struggle of Fiordiligi, before she provides two horns for the head of her cuckolded betrothed, Guglielmo. Mozart loved jokes like this. In the last act of Figaro too we hear formally the horns on Figaro’s head, when he imagines himself betrayed by Susanna. Mozart loved the horn, while hating the trumpet (for which his dominant father wrote a concerto) and ignoring it.


In Rossini and Bellini there are horn solos in the most varied emotional situations. Here too the instrument has the character of a chameleon.


The horn has a dominant position in symphonic repertoire in the works of Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Mahler, and of Richard Strauss, whose father was himself a horn-player and who takes us to the limits in Heldenleben and Till Eulenspiegel. These symphonic poems, because of their difficulty, marked the end of the F horn (the present Vienna horn) in Germany and set the seal on the conclusive breakthrough of the double horn. That saw the disappearance of the last F horn players in Germany. Before the first performance of Die schweigsame Frau in Dresden the first horn had to leave the orchestra, since he was not up to the demands of the solo.


The CD: Works by Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms.


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Sonata in F major for horn and piano, Op. 17


On 7th May 1800 the Ofen and Pest (today Budapest) Diary published the following notice of Beethoven’s Horn Sonata, which had had its first performance shortly before: Herr Beethover (sic) and Herr Punto. Who is this Beethover? German music history knows no such name. Punto of course is well known. Artists of all kinds should copy out this notice as a cautionary reminder of the history of music and hang it over the bed, if they have any tendency to overvalue themselves. Yet the natural horn virtuoso Giovanni Punto (the valve horn was invented eighteen years later), the dedicatee of Beethoven’s sonata, was actually an extraordinary man. Before the invention of the valve horn, in the orchestras there must have been terrible wrong notes and parts that taxed the players too much. The few soloists, however, who travelled with the natural horn, must, by comparison with today, have been able to achieve the impossible. Vaclav Stich, who was born as a serf of a count in what is now the Czech Republic, escaped from his master and from his pursuers, who had orders to knock out his front teeth, and was hunted vainly throughout Europe. He changed his name to Giovanni Punto and was the superstar of his instrument. When he gave guest performances in Vienna in 1800, the thirty-year-old Beethoven was commissioned, allegedly with themes suggested by Punto and in one day, to write the Horn Sonata. The success of the first performance, with Beethoven at the piano, was considerable. Although encores were officially forbidden, the work had to be repeated. The first movement, suited to the natural harmonic series of the horn, provides the pianist particular opportunities for technical virtuosity and follows the example of the early piano sonatas. The strongly expressive slow F minor movement is joined without a break to the final Rondo, in which the horn can demonstrate its virtuosity with wild leaps and arpeggios. The idea that it had to be played on the natural horn must have given Punto nightmares. The version of the work that Beethoven made for the cello is today seldom heard.


Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Auf dem Strom, D 943, Op. posth. 119


In the last year of his life Schubert wrote two songs for voice, piano and a wind instrument. Both were occasional works written for virtuosi. The Shepherd on the Rock has an atmospheric clarinet part. Upon the River for high voice, piano and horn was first performed on 26th March 1828 at a private concert by the horn-player Josef Rudolf Lewy and the tenor Ludwig Tietze. So much for the dry dates. The song, however, deserves to be counted among the key works of Schubert. In the months before he died (as a result of syphilis) the composer found official appreciation. A concert at the Philharmonic Society gave him public honour, but it went by almost unnoticed because of a guest performance by Paganini that took place at the same time. His last songs are known as Schwanengesang (Swansong), an enigmatic and inspired collection of songs that are, however, in no way related, with texts by Heinrich Heine, Johann Gabriel Seidl and Ludwig Rellstab. This Berlin publicist and critic, who later emerged as an opponent of Richard Wagner, was not personally known to Schubert. According to questionable sources the poems were given to him by Beethoven’s factotum Schindler from the Master’s personal possessions. Rellstab wrote the text of one of Schubert’s most popular songs, Leise flehen meine Lieder (Gently pleading my songs go to you), the Serenade from Schwanengesang. Auf dem Strom (Upon the River) is also by Rellstab, a mediocre text, the stereotype of the pastoral poem combined with a flood of romantic emotion. What fascinated Schubert in this was the metaphor identifying water with death. The way taken by a rejected lover to death is magnificently traced in Winterreise (Winter Journey). The song Auf dem Strom shifts the process from land to water. One parting in his boat is drawn ever more deeply into melancholy, until in the black sea of depression he looks up to heaven and resolves to die. Nothing in Schubert is more ominous than the change from minor to major. The last remains of awareness of reality dissolve, death becomes a captivating prospect. We have never understood why Auf dem Strom is always interpreted so hysterically. In our reading the song is between dream and death. The piano part paints the dark, dangerously enticing water, the horn can make use of its whole range of colours as an instrument expressing longing. A piece about dying amid beauty, a very Austrian idea.


Robert Schumann (1810-1856): Adagio and Allegro in A flat major for piano and horn, Op. 70


In February 1849 the 39-year-old Schumann wrote down the two-movement Adagio and Allegro in the space of a few days. He was in a period of strength and optimism. The horn fascinated him and the Concert Piece for four horns and orchestra was written at the same time. The Adagio and Allegro, however, is the first important work for the new valve horn, a modern piece that in the Allegro offers virtuosity not for the purpose of solo exhibitionism but to exploit the extreme possibilities of a modern instrument. Above all, however, the Adagio and Allegro embody the two identities of Schumann, under which he wrote as author and critic in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which he had founded. The Adagio corresponds to Eusebius, gentle and sensitive, modelled by Schumann on the respected late poet Jean Paul. The Allegro has the wild, fiery vitality of Florestan. Schumann brings together the traits of Beethoven and of the poet E.T.A. Hoffmann, whose stories of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler inspired Schumann’s Kreisleriana. Both together offer the extremes of feeling of the prototypical romantic Robert Schumann. In the end, we know, Eusebius won. Schumann faded away into melancholy like a Schubert song.


Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Trio in E flat major for piano, violin and horn, Op. 40


After the death of his mother the 32-year-old Brahms in 1865 wrote only two works, which both, nevertheless, point towards the future of the history of music. One is the German Requiem, the other is the Horn Trio, Op.40. The death of his mother brought the composer to despair, as is also documented in his letters to Clara Schumann. Robert Schumann was nine years dead and many interpreters have sought, because of its extremes between depression and exuberance, to explain it as reflecting all kinds of erotic relationship between Brahms and Clara Schumann. The conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt adds a curious sidelight on the popular exaggerated image of Brahms as a handsome, romantic young man: the newly married Harnoncourts rented rooms from an old lady who had been Brahms’s landlady in Vienna. She described him as under five feet in height, a stout little fellow with a squeaky voice and difficult character. As always: the Trio written in 1865 opened a new period for horn music, although it is written for the valveless natural horn. Admittedly it is no longer played today on this instrument, yet the Vienna horn offers very nearly the ideal sound (it is on occasions used in Dresden to give an authentic sound to Brahms’s symphonies). Characteristic of the work is the enormous technical difficulty of the piano part. The first movement is a moving lament in E flat major. The apparently very different instruments, the violin and horn, with the piano, form a wonderful relationship. The Scherzo, based on the folk-song Es zogen drei Burschen wohl über Rhein (There went three lads over the Rhine) is a wild, restless, onward-driven piece, followed by the deathly sadness of the Adagio in E flat minor, a lament for his mother. The E flat major Finale with its wild, bubbling hunting motif would signify the return to life. Only the fact that the movement is thematically based on the sad folk-song Dort in den Weiden steht ein Haus (There in the pasture stands a house) reminds us of the despairing music of the other three movements. György Ligeti showed his respect for the work by writing a trio for the same instruments.


Wolfgang Tomboeck

English version by Keith Anderson

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