I’ve written a big piece for solo handhorn. It’s called Set The Wild Echoes Flying.
My next performance of it will be at the British Horn Society’s Gala Concert October 16th
Details of the concert can be found HERE:
A full printable score of this work will be available SOON and FREE from here….
Set The Wild Echoes Flying began as a single movement lasting just a few minutes which I wrote in response to being asked to perform an “encore” at the end of an orchestral concert. I couldn’t think of anything suitable for performance immediately after Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (!) so I decided to write a little piece myself with the intention of providing something perhaps interesting or even amusing rather than anything of musical value. So I suppose it was partly for its comedy value that I chose to use the natural horn rather than the modern instrument.
At around the same time I was asked by Alison Balsom to perform something at her Brass For Africa charity concert so I wrote another single piece, again for natural horn. By way of an introduction to its performance and to make it seem as relevant as possible I described it as being full of African animal sounds; elephants, monkeys, birds etc. The human imagination is a marvellous thing and highly adaptable …and some members of the audience I spoke to afterwards reported hearing all kind of appropriate creatures.
During the weeks following these performances, encouraged by the reactions of both audiences, I continued working on the two pieces and both grew in length and complexity. Then something strange and unexpected happened; each one split into two separate movements. Two became four, as if all by themselves, and each of them continued expanding until I had to call a halt to it all fearing that a work for unaccompanied horn with eight movements could prove troublesome.
I’m not sure if it was a conscious thing but all four movements seemed to contain traces of Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. Having noticed this while the movements were still growing I encouraged it to happen more and from there came the idea of using some of the same poems chosen by Britten as spoken interludes between my four horn movements. Next I decided to borrow various lines from those poems to use as titles for each movement and for that of the whole piece.
I have enjoyed writing this work specifically for the natural horn in F. At every point in the process – composing being a very new one for me – it has seemed “just right” to be doing so. By way of justification, if any is needed, I like to think that the natural horn deserves to be considered, even in our modern times, as a perfectly good and valid instrument in its own right and not merely as a historical artefact. Despite the simplicity of the natural horn and its apparent lack of a full chromatic stock of notes it is a surprisingly capable instrument. Most things seem to be playable on it – albeit sometimes with a struggle – and it came as a surprise to me that at no point during the writing of my four movements did I find the instrument unable to do something I wanted.
By the time the classical period was coming to a close the natural horn had reached a state of perfection in its design and build. Sadly, at this point it was displaced, to the point of extinction, by the arrival of the new “modern” horn with its valves and enhanced capabilities. The brilliant concept of having seven (and, later, twelve with the “double” horn) differently pitched natural horns conveniently combined together into one mega-instrument was so exciting for composers that they ceased writing for the natural horn altogether and the whole world completely forgot about it. For a couple of hundred years the natural horn effectively disappeared from our musical culture and could be found only in encyclopedias, museums and dusty attics. The wipeout was so complete that even music which had been composed specifically for the classical, natural horn came to be played exclusively on valved instruments. I imagine that future generations will look back on this particular fact with curiosity, whereas my generation and several before ours never gave it a thought as we performed musical treasures by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven using instruments which those composers could never have imagined.
From the seventies onwards the early music movement began putting the natural horn back on our musical map. This rekindling of knowledge and interest in earlier instruments has had the result that natural horns are now back in production in many workshops around the world and are commonly used in orchestras and ensembles for performing music from the classical period. Horn makers of today are still making slight adjustments to their conical tapers searching for tiny improvements of intonation and resonance, but basically the thing is perfect and has been so for hundreds of years. Perhaps now is the right time to be bringing the natural horn out of musical museums and giving it some new music of its own.
The four movements:
The first movement is called A Monstrous Elephant (the words clipped from Charles Cotton’s poem, “The Evening Quatrains”, which was used by Britten in “Pastoral”), a name which quite nicely links it to the original version I played at the Brass For Africa concert. I found that by rhythmically repeating glissandi and using a variety of careful hand-stopping techniques I create an illusion of chordal harmonies. There are also some quite strong hints at Britten’s “Prologue” here and a couple of little cadenzas featuring whole tone scales. I suppose the idea is to show how much harmonic freedom there is available despite the limitations of having only one single harmonic series.
I know I am not the only horn player who believes that the finest movement in “our” Britten’s Serenade is the one which doesn’t feature the horn at all. During that movement, entitled “Sonnet”, the horn soloist is heading backstage to get ready for the final “Epilogue”. I wrote Turn The Key Deftly with the deliberate intention of reclaiming “Sonnet” for horn players. The melodic line wasn’t too difficult to transcribe and I have tried my hardest to hint at some of the powerful harmonic contortions invented by Britten for his string accompaniment by using a sung part to generate a chordal accompaniment to the horn line. I could only be partially successful in this but I did what I could …and in doing so I am hoisted by my own petard because I find it extremely challenging to simultaneously play and sing accurately what I have written.
Blow Bugle Blow started as a playful and somewhat childish “jazzing up” of the melody from the Serenade’s “Hymn” – Britten’s answer to Mozart’s horn concerto rondos. But then I got myself rather caught up in it and slowly it became a highly chromatic and quite serious blues.
The encore piece I began with eventually became the final movement of Set The Wild Echoes Flying and I called it The Horns of Elfland. This movement has the added dimension of a backdrop, or drone, of sound which can be provided by any combination of instruments capable of sustaining a concert C very quietly for about three minutes. So far I have performed it with: 1) a string orchestra, 2) two ‘cellos and two violins, 3) four tubas, 4) 12 horns and 5) 30 horns. Out of these combinations I’m not sure which I liked best as they all seemed to work really well.
Alison Balsom and the London Chamber Orchestra: for getting me started on the writing of it.
Martin Childs: for retrospectively “commissioning” the work and organising its transcription, various performances and a recording (at some point in the future).
Anthony Halstead: to whom the work is dedicated, for being a friend, a colleague, an inspiration, a guide, a teacher …and the greatest handorn player in the world.
Guy Llewellyn and Ann Barnard: for their extreme levels of patience and expertise in turning my scribbles into printable pages.
The lovely audience of mostly octogenarians for the Sudbury performance in May 2016: for liking Set The Wild Echoes Flying
Sep 25, 2016 | Categories: hornplaying, inventions, publications | Tags: Benjamin Britten, double-stopping, handhorn, hanstopping, Horn in F, natural horn, Set The Wild Echoes Flying | Leave A Comment »
As can be seen from the photo the PipStick is a attachment which fits securely on the underside of the horn and provides a support so that the entire weight of the instrument is taken by the right leg.The foot of the PipStick, where all the weight of the instrument is transmitted to the player’s leg, stands on the upper side of the right thigh about halfway between knee and hip. The height of it is adjustable and, to a certain extent, so is the angle at which it projects from the horn.
Tom Allard, student at RCM, modelling a Pipstick
The development of this device began in 1981 when I began my training in the Alexander Technique. I soon realised that to enable me to take full advantage of the intensive 3 year course I had undertaken I would have to make some changes to the way I held my instrument. It seemed that to reap the full benefits of the Alexander Technique I would need to find a way of playing the horn such that my back could support itself and my shoulders and head freely, without the additional tensions demanded by a heavy static load held up by the arms for long periods.
Experiments with a variety of support mechanisms, sometimes with the help of various Alexander teachers monitoring any postural effects on me, confirmed that I would find great long-term benefit in having the horn suspended, rendered effectively weightless in the playing position. At this point I did not know if it would be possible to play the horn in this way but I felt encouraged by the fact that bassoonists, cellists, bass players (to say nothing of pianists, or even organists) have successfully found ways of playing their instruments without having to lift them while doing so.
Developing the design:
The initial stages were spent in discovering that it would not do simply to rest the horn’s bell on my leg and then raise the instrument to the correct height by means of a block of some sort under my left heel. I believe the reason this does not work is because the raising of the leg in this way pulls the hamstrings muscles (those along the back of the thigh), which in turn pull forwards on the lower part of the pelvis tipping it back and inevitably (in my case) leading to the lower back collapsing outward, or slumping (a fundamental crime for anyone involved with Alexander Technique).
To get around this problem I experimented with various ways of supporting the edge of the bell not directly on my leg but above it on a height-adjustable support. The first thing I remember using was a thick book – which was fine, up to a point, but there was a tendency for it to fall off my leg, noisily, so it was a risky thing in concerts.
What I needed, I figured, was an extendable thingy attached securely to the bell. For help with this I turned to my Dad, a repairer of musical instruments by trade, and an inventive genius.
He made a very ingenious gadget for me which consisted of two shaped plates which clamped together on either side of the bell, locked firmly by wing nuts. Attached to these plates were two parallel rods, each curved to follow the shape of the bell, which were fixed to a bar shaped to be comfortable when pressing down on my leg with the full weight of the horn. The whole assembly could be quickly unclamped and packed away so I could still get my horn into its case.
After perhaps six years of life with this strange looking thing clamped to my bell I felt it was time for a rethink. In use there had always been a tendency for the horn to tip towards the left because its foot was directly under the edge of the bell rather than being directly under its centre of gravity. I had to continuously resist this leftward tipping with an equal and opposite twist of my back, which began to irritate me after a while as it was a constant reminder of a flaw in the design.
Eventually, I hit upon the idea of fixing a support to the centre of the horn, rather than to the edge of the bell. Again, it was my Dad who actually built the thing and it turned out to be a significant improvement on the bell-attached version. Now, the horn is perfectly balanced over its supporting telescopic leg and, naturally, there is no longer a pull to the left to resist. In fact it is now so well balanced in the playing position that I can usually take both hands away from the instrument without it falling over.
The main advantage is in making the horn a far less tiring instrument to play. The back muscles, instead of being set in a constant immobile tension, are left with only the upper body and head to support. The arms have only to balance and steady the instrument rather than carry its full weight.
It came as a surprise to me to discover that the main disincentive to extended periods of practice had been tiredness in my back and shoulders. With the PipStick fitted I found myself doing more practise and also getting far more out of the time I spent because I didn’t have to keep putting the horn down to relieve any aches and pains. I believe this fact alone made my practise somewhere in the region of 20% more time-efficient than it was before (or, to put it another way, it has enabled me to do 30 minutes practice in only 25 minutes – which may not sound like much time saved but it certainly adds up over the years). Of course, simply saving time is not the most important advantage. The real benefit is that with the horn effortlessly floating in the playing position and no compulsion to put it down for short periods my embouchure naturally became both stronger and more efficient without me specifically having worked on that aspect.
If required I can play all day long without tiring. The PipStick is very good for my back – and much cheaper than an osteopath or chiropractor.
I have got to the point now where I am so accustomed to using the PipStick, and so comfortable with it that I would not ever want to play without it.
Playing in a standing position is now something I find rather hard work and I try to avoid it if I can. I suppose I could design and have built an extended version of the PipStick – one which reaches right down to the ground. It could even have a tripod base like a music stand so it could be freestanding….
Well, in fact I did try it – look at the photos – but I think I lost my nerve. I certainly lost that haircut.
I have had hundreds of enquiries from horn players worldwide wanting to know where they can get a PipStick. Until recently I have not been able recommend a maker but now, as of July 2000, I’m very pleased to say that Gale Lawson has agreed to make them. His work is excellent.
Contact me by email if you are interested in trying or purchasing a PipStick. Current cost (including a setting up session with me) is somewhere in the region of £300.
As you can see it is a very strong construction – and it needs to be. It is not a good idea to fix a stick directly to any part of the tubing (as other stick makers do). The stick must be a strong and rigid construction in which you can have complete confidence. It should feel part of your instrument.
Please email me if you want to know more
(This page was first published in my old website, several years ago, so the photo is rather old. I’m much better looking these days.)
If I suggested that by bending your mouthpiece you would suddenly have an infinite range of new playing positions, would you believe me?
No, of course you wouldn’t. However, it’s true.
Having played on a bent mouthpiece for many years now and having enjoyed the advantages it brings it now seems to me, with the benefit of hindsight, such an obvious thing to want to do that I wonder why it has not been tried before. Tracing back through the path which led me to the idea I can see why bending the mouthpiece seemed logical to me then, but also why, had I gone down a different path, I might not have thought of it.
It all started with the PipStick which worked very well for me right from the start, except for one minor problem: with my back straight and my head balanced in its ideal position and the horn floating weightlessly in mid-air, my left hand was approximately level with my jaw – directly in my sightline to the music stand and blocking it from my view. Raising the music stand so I could see it was one clever solution – and this had the added advantage that it completely blocked my view of the conductor, even really tall ones.
Unfortunately, I soon discovered that absolutely the most important thing in a concert – and even in a rehearsal – is the uniform height of all the music stands. Orchestral managers, quite rightly, insist upon this.
So the bend in the mouthpiece was originally a way of angling the instrument down a bit in front of me without bending my nice newly straightened back.
Playing around with it, I soon discovered that rotating the bent mouthpiece a little one way or the other has the effect of positioning the horn slightly differently in relation to the body. For example, turning the mouthpiece so that it points a little towards my left ear means that to get it comfortably seated on my mouth I have to swing the entire horn around to my left – which gets the bell a little away from the right side of the body and allows the right arm a more comfortable position etc.
The conceptual trick here is to realise that the infinite circle of rotational mouthpiece positions corresponds to an infinite circle of horn positions.
I find it best, when standing to play, to swivel the mouthpiece around to where it points a little downward and to my left. For me, this gives a very comfortable holding position for the horn as I allows me have it slightly lower, allowing for a lower music stand, and goes some way to equalising the position of my arms and thus taking the worst of the twist out of my shoulders. But you can put it where it suits you – I recommend experimenting to get it just where it’s comfortable. I know one player (a UK based player who “went bent” years ago – I won’t tell you the name of this marvellous hornplayer but it anagrams to”Teeth, Lips ‘n’ Grins”) who has his bent mouthpiece pointing upward, which gets the horn high up in the air so he can wave it about easily. It’s a very lightweight Alexander single Bb, so I think he can see the music stand through the pipework, there being not very much of it.
Disadvantages: People who notice the bend (although most don’t) usually ask if it changes the response of the mouthpiece. The answer to this is that undoubtedly it does make a difference – although to me it is undetectably small (and I am normally quite fussy about such things). Given that the horn itself it one great knot of bends I don’t see that one more slight extra bit of curvature is going to cause any harm.
How to make the bend? I put mine in the padded jaws of a vice and hit it lots of times with a rubber mallet. I’ve never had such fun! You can be brave and try this yourself or you might prefer get an expert to do it. Be warned, though; putting a mouthpiece in a vice and hitting it could be an extremely expensive operation!
As a general guide, 8 degrees is plenty but it doesn’t have to be exactly 8. 4 would hardly be worth bothering with whereas 12 might be too much.
Let me know how you get on.