It has been more than two centuries since Mozart composed the music performed on this recording and during that time the horn, an instrument he loved and knew well, has evolved substantially. During the nineteenth century it grew valves and extra loops of tubing; it ceased to be a ‘hand horn’, or a ‘natural horn’, and emerged from experimentation and confusion as a fully chromatic instrument. The response by later composers to these changes was to write music that increasingly exploited the horn’s new ability to play not only any note with a full and sonorous resonance but also any note with a closed, ‘stopped’ sound. The evolution of the horn continued with a widening of its bore and an increase in dynamic range to suit the music of Wagner, Mahler, Richard Strauss and many others. Today, the horn’s modern character can best be experienced by hearing the way it is used in orchestral film scores to depict the archetypal ‘hero’, conveying such attributes as strength, courage, seriousness, stability and control. Before the horn ‘grew up’ its character was altogether rougher, wilder, more unpredictable, playful and idiosyncratic—perhaps more Robin Hood than James Bond.
It is in getting from one note to the next that the mechanics of the instrument and the technique of its playing are so different between the old and the new. This difference is much larger than with instruments that did not have such a marked metamorphosis in their historical development—that is, the addition of valves. Stringed instruments are still essentially the same as they were in Mozart’s day. Woodwind instruments have gained more projection and refinement but are essentially still pipes with vent holes. The piano, Mozart’s favourite instrument of all, has been developed and refined in countless ways but still involves the mechanism of fingers pushing keys to make hammers hit strings. Changes to other instruments have been in timbre and power. But from hand horn to modern horn the change has been more profound.
Without doubt Mozart would have loved the modern valved horn with its fully chromatic ability, and if his friend, the horn player Joseph Leutgeb, had possessed one then Mozart would have written entirely different music for him. Mozart’s horn concertos sound wonderful played on the modern horn, of course, but inevitably, along with the broader, warmer voice and gains in both smoothness and uniformity of timbre across the entire range, some of the colour and drama that Mozart would have expected is lost.
To play the hand horn is to wrestle with nature. While the modern valved horn will cruise comfortably through most things in the classical repertoire the hand horn simply doesn’t want to cooperate with at least half of the notes Mozart threw at it. Its natural array of pitches, the harmonic series, does not align with any kind of equal or non-equal temperament or any sort of scale, whether major, minor, chromatic or whatever. Melodies have to be physically wrenched into shape from both ends of the instrument; at the narrow end by strenuous techniques of breath and lip, and at the other end, within the throat of the bell flare, by rapid manipulations of the right hand for correcting and continuously adjusting the intonation of every one of the instrument’s naturally occurring tones. This right-hand technique unavoidably alters both loudness and timbre from one note to the next, often quite drastically, and it is this phenomenon that accounts for most of the differences in musical effect between the classical hand horn and the modern horn.
After the development of valves, the ancestral hand horn did not disappear. It remained, as it was in the eighteenth century, arguably one of the most perfect of all instruments in its simple emulation of natural forms such as cow horns or large sea shells. It is nothing more than a long, narrow, conical brass tube with a small hole in which to blow at one end and a bigger hole where the sound emerges at the other end. It starts at a diameter of about 8mm (about one third of an inch) and continuously widens along its length until it ends with a dramatic widening into a flared bell of about one foot in diameter. For convenience and comfort hand horns are coiled into loops and are traditionally played with the bell held to the right, pointing backwards and to the side at about waist level. These days we call it the ‘natural horn’ or ‘hand horn’, to differentiate it from its modern descendant, the ‘French horn’—a poorly named grandchild since there is nothing particularly French about it.
Despite the visual complexity of its convoluted plumbing, the modern valved horn can be understood simply as a combination of twelve differently lengthed hand horns into one super-instrument (perhaps ‘Dodecahorn’ would be a better name for it). The modern horn player switches instantly from one length to another by means of finger-operated valves. It is actually possible to play an entire Mozart horn concerto on just one of the twelve component instruments of a modern horn using hand-horn techniques rather than by employing the valve mechanisms. However, this is not generally done because the merging of twelve instruments invariably causes a compromise in quality to each one. Also, it has to be said that there is something very pure and satisfying about playing great works by Mozart on such a wonderfully simple instrument.
The complexity of the modern horn conceals any resemblance to its ancient, naturally occuring ancestors whereas the simplicity of the hand horn makes such a visual connection obvious. Although a spirally curved cone is a complex shape and difficult to make it is an easy structure to understand, being essentially a tube which gradually widens. Molluscs and cows grow their curved cones naturally and unconsciously, but humans have needed many centuries to learn first how to copy and then to extend the concept, fabricating delicate coils of accurately tapered metal tubing far greater in length than animal horns. Historically, advances in musical instrument metal-working technology have been driven by this need to make horns longer than those provided by nature. The extra length is desired because short, naturally occurring horns allow only the lowest note of the harmonic series to be played (the so-called ‘fundamental’), all the other ones being too high to play comfortably. Many ancient cultures understood this. Trumpets of bronze, silver and gold were discovered in Tutenkhamun’s tomb and the Romans used brass and copper horns and trumpets for military purposes. In the bronze age the Celts had their ‘carnyx’, the Scandinavians had their ‘lur’ and in Ireland they made fabulous bronze horns shaped like those of the now extinct giant bison.
During Mozart’s time hand horns were available in a range of fifteen different lengths, from the shortest in the key of C (alto) at eight feet four inches (2.54 meters), to the longest in B flat (basso) at an impressive nineteen feet (5.79 meters). The length, or key, favoured by Mozart was somewhere in the middle, the E flat horn, at about fourteen feet long. The instrument used in this recording is a modern copy of an 1830 Ignaz Lorenz of Linz, made in Bavaria by Engelbert Schmid.
The standard classical pitch used these days for (so-called) ‘historically informed performance’ is somewhat lower than modern pitch, where A is set to vibrate at 440 cycles per second. Orchestras such as The Hanover Band usually tune A to 430Hz for music of the classical period, and this is the pitch used in this recording for the four concertos. For the quintet recording, due to the absence of woodwind instruments which are specifically built to be played at 430 and have far less flexibility to adjust pitch than stringed or brass instruments, it was possible to take the pitch down approximately one third of a semitone further, to 421 cycles per second. This is exactly the frequency of the tuning fork that belonged to Mozart.
At several points during the horn concertos Mozart indicates that the soloist should play a short unaccompanied passage, a ‘cadenza’, of his or her own invention. This is a difficult task for the modern horn player: adding anything of value to historical works of great musical genius is challenging, to say the least. Because of the instrument’s natural simplicity the task of cadenza-writing for the hand horn in Mozart is somewhat easier than it is for the modern instrument. When playing the fully chromatic modern horn it is hard to be constantly mindful of avoiding anything which would have been technically unfeasible during the classical period. The use of valves, however carefully and tastefully applied, creates an effect impossible for the hand horn, so by playing on the type of horn Mozart knew one avoids such anachronisms. Removing that complication allows one to focus more on questions of musical material and style. In preparing the cadenzas for these performances I investigated those that Mozart took the trouble to write down (although he never composed any for horn). Searching through his published keyboard cadenzas I found that here, more than anywhere else, he explored chromatic harmonies with the greatest intensity and passion. In his later works the urge to delve deeper into chromaticism becomes increasingly obvious and this shows clearly in his horn-writing, where he pushes hard against the instrument’s inherent limitations.
In attempting to escape from the instrument’s constant pull towards E flat major, I have tried to stretch its scant chromatic capabilities as far as practically possible (in particular by using diminished harmonies) while attempting to keep within the spirit of Mozart’s horn-writing and what is known of his cadenza style. I can only apologize to the ghost of Mozart for any musical crimes I may have committed. In my defence (and in that of horn players everywhere), if a cadenza is indicated by Mozart we are obliged to do at least something.
Pip Eastop © 2015
Mar 29, 2015 | Categories: hornplaying, my mozarts, publications | Tags: Anthony Halstead, cadenza, cadenzas, CD, Engelbert Schmid, french horn, hand horn, handhorn, harmonics, horn technique, Hyperion Records, iTunes, K 417, K407, K412, K447, K495, modern horn, Mozart, Mozart Horn Concerto, Mozart Horn Quintet, natural horn, Peter Hanson, valve-horn | Leave A Comment »
Here’s something I wrote about playing the horn for the September 2008 issue of Classical Music Magazine:
(You can simply read the text here, below, or click here to download the .pdf file of the article as it appeared in the magazine.)
“Playing the horn (of the type often called the French Horn, for no
sensible reason) is stupendously and staggeringly difficult. You’ve
probably heard this claim before and I’m telling you that it’s TRUE.
I’ve been struggling with it, full on, for more than 40 years and I’ve
still got a long way to go. I’ve got some aspects of it under control,
I suppose, but I can tell you that my chosen companion for life is an
obstinate, unreliable and unpredictable coiled monster.
I comfort myself by the thought that I’m not alone in the endless
endeavor of learning to play the horn. In London alone there are 465
professional hornplayers and another 2856 non-professional ones.
Hundreds of thousands more live in other parts of the world, and our
vast numbers also stretch back through time. New horn players learn
from old ones, who learned from other even older ones who learned from
our horncestors long dead. The chain of tradition certainly goes back
hundreds of years but I prefer to think it goes back much further even
that that – for perhaps hundreds of thousands of years, all the way to
the first humanoids who entertained their cavemates with stunningly
beautiful tones from conch shells, or perhaps stunned their enemies by
blowing primitive riffs on the amputated horns of large mammals. Yes,
I do believe that hornplaying is as old as humanity – perhaps not as
old as singing, but certainly much older than reading, or tap-dancing.
I believe those proto-hornists soon (geologically speaking) found that
a range of just one note doesn’t really create much of an impression
in a lengthy recital and so they would have been looking for ways to
find more. Actually, this would have been an obvious discovery and is
rather easy to do once you get the hang of it. With both the conch and
the mammalhorn you can simply cup your hand over the big end, covering
the emerging sound to varying degrees. The conch even advertises this
with a huge pink mouthy-looking orifice which simply begs of its
player, “come on – slide your hand in here!”. Doing this with my own
conch gives me not only the semitone below its one and only note, but
another below that, and if I push most of my hand in, curling my
fingers around its internal spiraled cavity, I can go seven steps down
a chromatic scale. Quarter tones? – no problem. Advanced stuff, you
may think. Not at all – it’s totally prehistoric. I can’t prove any of
this, of course, but I’d be willing to slip into a loin cloth and play
a few choruses of “Flight of the Bumble Tyrannosaurus” to show it’s at
least a plausible hypothesis.
After some thousands of years humans moved on from organic horns –
those left by mother nature on the beach or next to the barbecue – and
thanks to the invention of metal tubing it was but a short few
technological steps to the type of horns that Bach and Mozart knew and
for which wrote tortuously difficult music. With tubes bent and
hammered into all kinds of baroque and classical horns, trumpets and
trombones, it was inevitable that sooner or later a clever instrument
designer would invent The Valve. While this was a tremendous leap
forward for central heating technology it was a terrible blow to
hornplayers. We must have thought it would make life easier for us,
but how wrong we were!
The range of a horn’s notes before valves was quite gappy, in fact
there were only about sixteen and they weren’t evenly spaced. Most of
them were quite high notes of the sort which are hard to reach, hurt
your mouth and ultimately give you hemorrhoids. About five were in
the middle register and only about three were low notes that sounded
So, with the appearance of valves, suddenly we had instruments which
could play every note across a range of more than three octaves. What
did composers do then? They persecuted hornplayers by writing
valve-horn parts just slightly more difficult than would ever be
humanly possible to play. We’ve been suffering this ever since. I
believe it explains why almost no major breakthroughs in horn design
have been made since valve horns became established. Composers are to
hornplayers what aerospace designers are to test-pilots – sadists, who
would simply crank up the difficulty to yet higher, faster and more
complex pinnacles of impossibility. Consequently, any promising
inventions to make horns better over the last 170 years may well have
been suppressed by the fabled League of Underground Hornists. How
frustrated composers must be by all the recent improvements in horn
cases and valve oil!
Why is the horn so difficult to play? In contrast to, for example, the
piano where production of its individual notes is taken care of by the
keyboard and hammer mechanism, the horn demands that each note must be
formed using the lips and the breath in a way which does not come
naturally at all. In fact, the instrument itself is of little help to
the player. Anyone who can coax music from a horn can generally get a
similar result from a few meters of garden hosepipe or even a teapot.
The horn, being topologically equivalent to a length of drainpipe,
acts only as specialised resonator. The same is true for all of the
brass family of wind instruments.
Essentially, playing a brass instrument is like singing but using the
lips instead of the vocal chords. Lips aren’t naturally good at this
and it takes many years of painstaking practice to train them. The
lips of a hornplayer are framed by the ring of the mouthpiece in a
crude approximation of the way a singer’s vocal chords are framed by
the larynx. Pushing air between the lips, or vocal chords, is what
gets the air vibrating. Once the air inside the instrument is
vibrating it spreads to the air outside and anyone nearby will
perceive this as sound.
Whereas a singer’s mouth will resonate and thus amplify any frequency
at which the vocal cords vibrate, a horn will only do this for the
lips at a few precise frequencies, which are known as harmonics. It is
only possible to make the horn ring out beautifully if the pitch at
which the lips choose to “sing” exactly matches that of one of the
harmonics the horn allows. If there is even the slightest mismatch you
get farm noises. If you get it right, it’s simply the best sound there
is. Getting it right is next to impossible because it requires a very
high level of accuracy. Because of this there are always going to be
random errors in hornplaying – something which annoys record
producers, provokes angry glares from conductors and pity from players
of other instruments. The addictive quest for a reliably good horn
sound drives thousands of the world’s hornplayers to the brink of
obsessive madness on a daily basis.
The level of skill needed to produce good sounding notes, loudly or
quietly, over a range of more than three octaves, and move between
them to make acceptable phrases leaves brain surgery and
figure-skating way behind. It takes a life-time and even then you’ll
never get it exactly right – it’s just too difficult. However,
mastering these essential skills is just the beginning. Despite the
extreme technical demands, players of all brass instruments must
always try to remember that the purpose of playing their instrument is
to make music, not merely to demonstrate technical skills. This is why
it is an art form rather than a sport.
Ideally, the beautiful and arresting sound that floats from a horn and
fills our halls should give away nothing of the monumental difficulty
of its production. It should speak the language of music,
communicating directly and mysteriously with the unfathomable musical
(Reproduced here with kind permission of Rhinegold Publishing )
Oct 3, 2008 | Categories: hornplaying, publications | Tags: article, Bach, chromatic, conch, harmonic series, harmonics, horncestors, larynx, Mozart, prehistoric, quarter tones, valve-horn, vocal chords | Leave A Comment »