Set The Wild Echoes Flying.
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