Babbitt: Around the Horn

performed by William Purvis

(sorry, no YouTube today, but hop on over to the Naxos page featuring this album to hear a few snippets of this vibrant, varied work for solo horn.)

Doesn’t anyone here know anything about baseball? … Oh, you children – it’s the most difficult double play in baseball…  and it’s what the infield does as a hustle after an easy out… 5-4-3 – throw the ball from third to second to first – ‘around the horn.’

From this fantastic article, by Steven Soderberg, of which I will reference more below

I’ve come to have a fascination with Babbitt’s music in much the way I’m fascinated with astronomy, as I’ve discussed before. I know some things about Astronomy, can talk about it with a cursory level of detail, understand it enough to appreciate it and know more about it than people who haven’t thought much about it before, and that means it’s an excellent  topic of conversation when it comes to sharing basic, simple, but fascinating little tidbits of information about a planet, a galaxy, our Solar System, etc.

But come down to it, when we get to the nitty-gritty of calculations, or in this case, analysis, I’m quickly out of my depth. As we have discussed in the past, there’s a dizzying level of organization/complexity in Babbitt’s music in the way he employs serial techniques, many of which he used for the first time and developed throughout his career. For a really academic, thorough discussion of Babbitt’s piece for solo horn, please read Joseph D. Johnson’s paper A Look at the Pitch Content and Structure within Part I of Milton Babbitt’s Around the Horn.

There’s actually very little of that paper I could quote here without including much more of the content or additional explanations from other sources, but if we really had to try to boil it down to a simple statement, you could say that Babbitt, not just in this piece, tries to achieve what Johnson refers to as “maximal diversity”, offering as much content, contrast as possible with what he has to work with, and in case you forgot, what he’s working with is stuff like “combinatorial hexachords” “arrays”, or “superarrays”, series of pitches, or patterns, that are manipulated and explored throughout a piece or passage, but it extends to dynamics, tempo, articulation, really all aspects of music, so that the work is both as unified and also as varied as possible. Or something like that.

Babbitt wrote his solo horn piece Around the Horn for William Purvis, who was teaching (and maybe still is) at Yale and Juilliard, but is dedicated to Gunther Schuller’s wife Marjorie. Mr. Schuller was a friend of Babbitt’s and fellow composer (who also passed in the past few years), but was also a horn player himself.

As the above-linked article My Dinner with Milton references, the title of the work refers not only to the literal horn, being all over its pitches and registers and the limits of its capabilities, but also to one of Babbitt’s favorite things: baseball. As these articles mention, a true ‘around the horn’ play is a very difficult feat in baseball, so the title is also apparently fitting for this piece, which has terrific challenges for the performer. The program notes for the release on Naxos, available here, say that “the horn has to be almost everywhere in a two-and-a-half octave range almost all the time,” and praises Purvis’s performance in realizing the contrasts in the music that we talked about earlier, of which the program notes say:

Besides mixing high and low, loud and soft, the music varies sharply in character, suddenly delicate or wild or heroic, perhaps following with a deflating aside.

So, then, how can we talk about it? I’ve managed to acquire a copy of the score, but I do not remember where or how. A look at it, or even multiple readings of it, doesn’t tell me much about the work except that it truly does encompass the entire range of the instrument, with enormous, Herculean leaps, rhythmic complexity and variation, all of those things.

I wanted to feature this piece because I want to get more Babbitt on the blog, and because it’s interesting. I’ll say that I for sure do not adore it as much as I have come to love the above-linked Head of the Bed that we talked about a few months back, but how can we discuss a piece like this? Babbitt loved baseball, he loved show tunes and movies, but he was, is, also, to me, the reigning king of complexity and development of serial techniques. So can you talk about his music in terms of what’s ‘pretty’ or ‘melodic’ or anything that might seem more relatable to an average listener? Blair Johnston at AllMusic gives only two statements in references to what the music sounds like:

From an aesthetic point of view, Around the Horn leaps from gentle to triumphant, from witty to mundane.

… the result is a surprising number of tonal figures within the work’s entirely non-tonal context, lending Around the Horn an almost eerie atmosphere.

That’s it. I have never thought ‘eerie’ about this piece; it sounds to me more like a flurry of ideas, a rush of inspiration of the history of the horn’s existence, what it embodies, from the “heroic” hunting-call sound of Haydn or Strauss, to the more expressive sounds of Brahms, or the virtuosic, demanding qualities of some of the concertos. But that’s really all up to any one of us to decide… It’s an interesting piece, an ambitious one, a challenging one, but perhaps the thing I enjoy about it most are the glimpses of humor, the little quirks that could be musical witticisms, or references to a showtune. In some ways, it’s like watching a charming person tell inside jokes or give witty responses that you don’t understand to his friends: maybe you don’t quite get it, but they seem to, or it’s at least displays a convincing delivery and sense of charm, and maybe that’s good enough.

Or maybe, like I’ve thought about before and meant to talk about earlier, it could be thought of as more of an etude, a challenge from one friend to another for an absurdly difficult piece, one that was premiered and recorded by the dedicatee with superb aplomb.

This marks the end of our horn series, and what a great way to go out, to have traversed all the way from the Mozart horn quintet to something solo written within the past few decades. There might be a review article where I’ll ramble on about this further, but I’m really glad to have done this series, and to be able to include Babbitt yet again, because it’s not so often that I can do that, and it’s rather a challenge to do so. That’s all for now, but stay tuned, because there’s some very exciting stuff coming up that I feel quite strongly about. Thank you for listening and for reading.


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