It’s a beautiful instrument.
It sings and soars and highlights some of the most spine-tingling, heroic, tragic, powerful, epic, angelic moments in the pieces that we as classical music audiences love and adore. And I couldn’t find an image of a horn I could use or liked so I have this brassy-colored fountain pen, because… y’know, I’m writing about music.
But it also seems to be one of the most finicky instruments in the orchestra, so for all of its greatly important melodies and the exposure it gets, it’s also especially susceptible to criticism when there’s a crack or a blarb or a missed entry or note, and I feel like at least some people might be like me in evaluating the quality of a live performance on how stable and confident and solid the horn section is, because while they might not be as exposed as some other instruments, those few glorious moments of beauty can make or break a movement or entire piece, so there’s lots of pressure.
But outside of the symphonic setting as a section, where we’re most used to seeing them, the horn can serve as a soloist in both concertante and chamber works, and it’s these areas we’re going to explore for the next few weeks.
The horn is a complicated instrument. In the days before brass instruments had valves, when everything was natural, it and the trumpet and that family of instruments could only play certain notes. There were (and are) many kinds of brass instruments called horns, but we’re talking now about the ‘natural horn’, the predecessor to the modern day orchestral horn. Wikipedia says “The natural horn can only play from a single harmonic series at a time because there is only one length of tubing available to the horn player.” So that’s limiting, but skilled players could adjust the pitch with the right hand by partially muting the bell, but this also changed the quality of the sound.
For a surprising insight into how many kinds of horn there are, check out this section of the Wikipedia article. What many people refer to as the ‘French horn’ is show there as the ‘German horn.’ Indeed, if you follow the link to the article on the French horn, it shows a picture of the instrument with the caption “French (German double) horn”, so that’s not confusing at all. The main point is that it is far more versatile than it once was, now being able to play the full range of notes of the chromatic scale because of things like the valves and additional tubing.
What a history it has, huh? There’s lots more reading to do there if you want, but for now we’ll think about it as a solo instrument. You may not think about concertos aside from those for violin, or piano, or cello. There’s the occasional clarinet concerto or whatever, and indeed Mozart wrote a concerto each for oboe, bassoon, clarinet, and more than one for flute (and harp), in addition to his more famous concerti for violin or piano (but none for cello, notably).
In any case, Mozart is our starting point for a series we’ll be doing about the horn as a solo instrument. He wrote a total of four (sort of kind of) concertos for the instrument as well as the quintet we’ve already discussed. You may be surprised to see what kind of literature there is out there for the horn as a solo instrument, and I don’t think I’ve met someone who doesn’t like the sound of the horn (when properly played), so we’ll be taking a little look at some of the works that feature it as a soloist over the past few centuries. I know, I know, there are lots more not featured, maybe most notably those from Haydn since we’re only starting with Mozart’s works, but we’ll get there eventually. Even Beethoven makes an appearance, if you can believe it, and we’ll work our way through to a few much more modern works, so stay tuned!