Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Questions from a composer

A few days ago, I had an email out of the blue from composer Christopher Moore. He had read my blog, and he told me it had helped him score better for horn players. In order to write even better for the horn, he had a series of questions he wanted to ask me.

I was vastly flattered, and am always happy to help composers write better for the horn. So I was more than ready to offer answers to as many questions as he might have. He agreed that I could publish the Q&A, so here it is in full.

01. What are your favorite horns(brands) to use? and why?
I use an Alexander Model 103 F/Bb full double. I bought it when I was 18 on the recommendation of my horn teacher Douglas Moore, who in his day was principal horn of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. At that age, I wasn't old enough or experienced enough to work out for myself what was a good horn for me, but his recommendation has worked out very well. I've been playing this particular horn now for 33 years, and I see no reason to change.

Because I've played the same horn for so long, I'm not particularly knowledgeable about the characteristics of different brands of horns. All I know is that the Alex and I suit each other very well. But it's my view that how you play the horn, both technically and musically, matters far more than the specific brand of horn you play, and that it is worth taking time to get used to a specific instrument unless it is showing obvious tuning or mechanical defects.

02. What are your favorite pieces to play solo or group?
For solo concertos, I regard the Mozart and Richard Strauss concertos as being the definitive solo pieces for the horn. The four Mozarts and Strauss 1 are all recognisably of a type. Strauss 2 is something quite different. I had to learn Strauss 2 at music college, but I didn't actually like it at the time, particularly the first movement that seemed to meander around without actually going anywhere.

But a few years ago, I got the opportunity to play Richard Strauss's two late Sonatinas for wind, "From an Invalid's Workshop", and "The Happy Workshop", written around the same time as the 2nd concerto. And through listening to and playing these, I gained insights into the structure and style of the concerto. In the meantime I had also played much Brahms, Mahler, Wagner and Shostakovich which also formed the musical landscape of Strauss's late years, and that also helped me understand the piece. Now, 30 years after I first learned Strauss 2, I think that I could finally make a convincing performance of it, in the unlikely event that the opportunity arose for me.

The other solo piece for horn I have a particular liking for is Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. Having several short movements, it shows off the different aspects of the horn to wonderful and dramatic effect. My personal copy of the horn part still has markings put in by my teacher, who as he was writing them said to me "This is how Britten told me to play it". He performed the piece more than once under Britten's baton.

In terms of chamber music involving the horn, there is much to enjoy: for instance the Beethoven Septet and Schubert Octet, the Mozart wind serenades. In a completely different vein are wind quintets by Ibert (Trois Pieces Breves) and Milhaud (La cheminée du roi René), which require a great delicacy of touch unlike almost any other horn music.

By the way, wind quintets are almost guaranteed to give horn players an inferiority complex. The horn is less agile than the woodwind instruments that make up the rest of the group, the horn's tone is distinctive and so there is nowhere to hide, cracked notes are horribly prominent, and with only five instruments in the group, there are fewer opportunities to rest, while on the other hand you have to play delicately in order not to overwhelm the other instruments in such a small group. Wind quintet playing is extremely hard work for a horn player!

As for orchestral music, there is so much to choose from, but I'll mention just a a couple of pieces that use horn ensembles to startling effect. The most famous is the Scherzo from Beethoven's Eroica symphony. But this is not as unique and original as many people might think. It has definite precursors in Haydn's Symphony No. 31 "Hornsignal" and Mozart's Divertimento in D, K131. Both are well worth a listen if you are not familiar with them. Then there is of course the Schumann Konzertstuck for 4 horns and orchestra.

I'm lucky in that I have had a professional quality of training on the horn, but I chose not to become a professional player. As a result, there is almost nothing in amateur music making that frightens me. There are just three pieces I have performed publicly that are exceptions to that: the Schumann Konzertstuck and the two Strauss wind sonatinas. They are seriously hard!

03. I usually use Wagner and Mendelssohn for auditions. Any other compositions you think will better access a players skills?
All the Mahler symphonies have extremely prominent horn parts, but the 1st horn part of the 2nd movement of the 4th symphony and the obligato horn part in the 3rd movement of the 5th symphony are particular challenges, not just technically but also musically.

The solo from the slow movement of Tchaikovsky's 5th symphony is also a major challenge. The solo is a difficult in technical and endurance terms because of its length, but more importantly it is a major musical challenge. The player has to decide how the phrases are going to be shaped, where exactly the climax of each phrase will be, and the subtle changes in speed and articulation which transform it into great music rather than a mere succession of notes. There is no single right way to play it, but it is very easy to find a wrong way!

A similar kind of musical challenge is the 1st horn solo towards the end of the 1st movement of Brahms 2nd symphony. Technically this is not so hard, but there are significant changes of mood as you progress through the solo, and so the horn player again has important musical decisions to make when deciding how to play it.

You may realise from this that I am more interested in phrasing and producing a convincing musical performance than in extremes of technical ability. Orchestras for the most part have no use for a horn player who can rattle off super-high notes but can't play Brahms 2 with a good tone and rounded phrasing.

If you want an audition passage that will test a player's upper range under pressure, then the solo from the 1st movement of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony is a good test, as is the solo in the 1st movement of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G. Anybody can blast out high notes fortissimo, but both these solos require the high register to be controlled with a beautiful tone played relatively softly. This is much harder.

04. When you play new pieces (unpublished works)--if you can't take the work home--...Does it make rehearsals difficult/time consuming?
A little, but not unduly. In Britain at least, professional musicians and the better amateurs are all pretty good sightreaders. So unless the piece is technically difficult or rhythmically complex to an unreasonable degree, then the notes can be mastered without too much trouble. Then it becomes a matter for the conductor (for orchestral pieces) or the group as a whole (for chamber works) to decide how they want to coordinate phrasing, tempo changes and other musical issues. That can't be worked out in private practice, it has to be done in rehearsal.

In Britain, there is a group called the Rehearsal Orchestra which has now been running for over 50 years. They are a training orchestra and specialise in doing music courses where the rehearsals are as close to British professional conditions as you will get without actually being in a professional orchestra. Probably something approaching half of Britain's professional musicians have played in the Rehearsal Orchestra in their younger days. Commonly, the orchestra will take a large orchestral work, rehearse it for one or two days of a weekend and then give an informal performance of it at the end of the course. They can be very ambitious in their repertoire, on one occasion I remember playing Strauss' Ein Heldenleben and Bartok's Kossuth in the same weekend. Their first weekend course in 2014 will be Strauss' Sinfonia Domestica. There's no opportunity to take parts home and practice between rehearsals, it just has to be got right immediately. So in Britain at least, there is no great issue with playing new or unfamiliar music. People just put the notes on their stands and get on with playing them.

I understand that the music education systems in some other countries put less emphasis on sightreading and efficient rehearsal technique, and so new music takes longer to assimilate, but there is nothing inevitable about this if the musicians have the right skills. I've been told that the horn players of the London Symphony Orchestra have something of a macho determination never to take parts home to practice, but instead they take pride in just being to play excellently just on the rehearsals. I don't know whether this story is literally true, but it does express the kind of pride that British musicians have in being able to achieve excellent results on minimal preparation.

Even among amateur musicians, it is not uncommon for an amateur orchestra to be strengthened by "extras" coming in for just the final rehearsal on the day of the concert to fill in any gaps among the orchestra's regular players. I have played innumerable concerts of this type. You arrive, you rehearse, you mark in the part any corners that you need to be particularly careful of, and you perform. Any tricky bit has to be taken care of with a few minutes practice during the break between the rehearsal and concert.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. Especially liked your mention of the Milhaud. Will look up the Ibert, which I didn't know about.