Pip Eastop, Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player

Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player

Posts tagged “double-stopping

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….

Program notes:

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

Life, the Horn and Everything.

Knotted Horn, by Emily


Life, the Horn and Everything.

(First published in The Horn Magazine, Vol.3 No.1 Winter 1995.)

Who says rehearsals are boring? I discovered a wonderful thing the other day, during some bars rest. If I cover my right nostril with one finger, put the mouthpiece of my horn to my left nostril and inhale vigorously a note sounds, as if by magic, from the bell – and my musician colleagues tell me it sounds better than when I play in the more traditional manner. I am a freelance horn player, which essentially means that I haven’t got a job or, if you prefer, that I am self-employed. I play with many different orchestras, chamber orchestras, brass groups, wind quintets, contemporary music ensembles, in concerts, shows, and recording sessions. It’s a very mixed diet, and I love it.

The lifestyle which such a varied work schedule entails is essentially chaotic and probably not to every horn player’s taste but I have been doing it for some sixteen years now and have no intention of changing to an easier job such as brain surgeon or astrophysicist.

Lately, as a dep. I have been performing some contemporary music with those specialists, the London Sinfonietta, an orchestra once described by a critic as the musical equivalent of the S.A.S. In a couple of works – one by Schnittke, another by Rostakov – there were parts for two horns and I had, paradoxically, by my side, the esteemed Raul Diaz – a very fine and versatile horn-player of Venezuelan origin. I say “paradoxically” and “versatile” because he is best known as a dazzling exponent of the hand-horn, and must be one of the few hornists in the world brave enough to attempt playing the lead part of Schumann’s Concertstuck on a genuine piston fox-frightener in F; yet there he was with me, still sane, in a warehouse somewhere near Waterloo Station navigating those horn-parts-from-hell with consummate skill, and apparently having no trouble pushing the new-fangled levers up and down in time with the music.

I am humbled by the obvious fact that his modern horn is much shinier, and more modern, than mine, and it doesn’t rattle when you shake it. It is one of those nice Holton/Tuckwell machines on which you get a choice of lead-pipes which can be swapped over in seconds by means of some exciting little hand-operated screws (I would suggest Velcro for an even quicker release). I had a go on it, tried out both the lead-pipes and was flabbergasted at the difference between them – not having expected to be able to detect any. I couldn’t actually see any difference, but in feel they were poles apart: one was great, the other was crap. Not for me, I’m afraid; choices like that scare me.

Most of the regular players in the London Sinfonietta are basically freelancers, who are lucky in that they have the assurance that they will get first call from the Sinfonietta’s fixer for any work requiring their particular instrument; they also qualify for the title of “principal ondes-martenot” or whatever it is they play – although “principal” is a somewhat redundant term in a band having basically only one of each instrument (apart from having two fiddles)- although it does effectively give the regulars a sense of belonging. Naturally, this almost-guarantee of regular work adds an element of security to what can be a precarious life for the freelancer. I know about this because I was the principal horn in the Sinfonietta from 1977 until 1986. I left and gave up playing altogether, suffering from “chronic squeaky gate syndrome”, a technical term for the dissipation and personality-disorder associated with a surfeit of contemporary music (which, to save ink, I shall from now on refer to as “schnitzel” – a word made up from the names Schnittke and Birtwistle, both famous living composers).

After I left, in a state of physical and moral corruption, the Sinfonietta upgraded its horn section to the solid and unwavering Michael Thompson, whom I predict will be there for a good while yet as he has a much healthier attitude to his schnitzel than I ever did, taking plenty of time off to pursue less damaging forms of self-expression. Like Raul’s horn, his also seems much shinier than mine.

When you play a lot of schnitzel you get called upon to make some pretty freaky noises. For example, there was one bit, in the Rostakov, where Raul and I each had to double-stop, that is simultaneously to play and sing, in low fifths, though not the same fifths and not quite at the same time; good fun to attempt, we found, but quite difficult to judge for ourselves the effectiveness of our efforts because of severe in-head vibration and in-throat turbulence. This turbulence is caused by interference patterns between the sung and the played notes and immediately turns one’s brain to slush. However, judging by the peals of laughter from our colleagues, the effect does convey some emotional nuance, which is, after all, what music is all about, even schnitzel. I have two concerns about this:
1. I wonder what the M.U. think about the two horn-player’s fees saved by this economical composing device.
2. that it is politically incorrect for composers to write horn-parts which cannot be played/sung by female horn players due to the lowness of the written vocal range.

As I was saying, I turned my back on schnitzel, gave up the horn, and the Sinfonietta, and decided to complete my training as a teacher of the Alexander Technique, with the intention of teaching it for a living. This I did and thereby managed not to play the horn for one whole liberating year. Then one day something in me cracked and I found myself under the bed, hurriedly dragging out the dust-covered horn-case. With trembling hands I undid the catches, took out my corroding old appliance, kissed it and blew a few notes. Whether it was due to a momentary madness or a combination of distorted sensory appreciation then and false-memory syndrome now, or some other trick the mind can play upon itself, I do not know, but those few notes were the sweetest I ever heard me play – a sweetness lasting approximately one and a half minutes. Then, as we say, my chops went. After that memorable day, when my spirits soared then crashed, it took six months of hard work to get my sound, stamina and confidence back. I can recommend it to anyone. From now I was playing the horn because I had decided to; in effect I had taken over total possession of my career. This claim requires some explanation: from the age of nine, when I started playing the horn, my parents, to whom I am infinitely grateful, had given me every possible encouragement; from sitting with me year after year helping me practice to living a life of frugality and self-denial in order to afford expensive instruments for me – first a Calison compensator, then a Hans Hoyer double, then my treasured Alexander 103 in gold-brass which I have used exclusively for twenty years. I would not wish to change anything about these early years but it did mean that to some extent I played the horn to please Mum and Dad, even later on as a professional. It was not until I gave up playing that I realised what a large emotional investment they must have had in my continuing career as a horn-player, and what a terrible wrench it must have been for them when, in essence, I threw the whole thing back in their faces, like a belated adolescent rebellion. They didn’t criticise me at the time, for which I am retrospectively grateful, but they can only have been very upset and hurt by what must have seemed to them examples of perfect stupidity and ingratitude in the throwing away of something of great value.

Of course to me, it didn’t and still doesn’t look like that. I had had enough of the horn, I was free to stop it if I wanted – so I did. And when I say that it enabled me to take over total possession of my horn-playing, and that I would recommend it to anyone, I mean that from when I started up again it was all mine and I really felt that quite deeply. It was a fresh start, a clean slate, without which I would not now, seven years on, be feeling so enthusiastic, delighted and smug about being a horn player. The reason I write here about the minutiae of this distant part of my life is not simply to encourage professional suicide among my colleagues, but also to open up some debate on the subject of what, apart from money, motivates us in our struggle with the instrument, what encourages us, the various effects of parental involvement, emotional or financial.

©1997 Pip Eastop