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The Real Horn - a new enlightenment?

Arthur Butterworth

Musical acquaintances whom I have known over the past seventy years or so - for I began my brass-playing life in the early 1930s - have more or less with one mind always accepted that brass playing means playing on modern instruments equipped with valves. I say this in relation to playing whether in band or orchestra, but especially in bands and I except the trombone although even that is now so often assisted by at least one valve. Intonation ought thus never to be an embarrassment no matter what situation one is in.

The earliest recollection I have of an "old" instrument came about after a band practice in the winter of 1933, when as a boy, a friend of mine came to shelter in our house from the cold, while he waited for the bus home. I was a bit curious about the appearance of his peculiar-looking cornet, but before I could really get a look at it the bus came and he went home. It was not until years later that I realised it must have been not strictly a cornet, but more precisely a cornopean; if you are curious, look it up in a good historical manual of brass instrument design. What would the difference have been? I suppose it was to do with the design of the wind-ways which differ from the configuration of the conventional valve system we now have universally. But at the time I thought no more about it and just blandly went on - as most brass band players still do - with the instruments that seemed familiar; not being at all curious about subtle differences of timbre, or indeed of purpose.

Just after the Second War - in the early part of 1946, I suppose, on leave from the army - I chanced to go to a concert in Manchester by the Philadelphia Orchestra on its first post-war European tour. The concert was routine enough, and finished with Mendelssohn’s "Italian Symphony" which was very familiar indeed, perhaps even too much so; it had become one of those works heard a bit too often. What intrigued me about this performance however, was the peculiar sound of the horns in that flamboyant, hunting horn motif in the first movement. For some unfathomable reason it sounded too tubby, as if they were not so much playing horns - as I knew them from hearing British orchestras - but rather like little wooden beer barrels being played with a euphonium mouthpieces.

It puzzled me for a long time afterwards, but eventually it seemed to be revealed that, unlike the traditional use of proper "french" horns - narrow-bored and with piston valves, such as the Halle and other British orchestras had traditionally used before the war, this snazzy (nowadays we would call it "cool") American orchestra used modern German double horns. They emitted quite a different - indeed, by comparison "tubby" - sound. Of course, over the next few years these instruments became universal and we got accustomed to the sound of a horn section being different from what it once had been.

At one time it was widely believed, and was supported by tutor books and manuals on orchestration, that the old "french" horn, and even more so, the natural (simple) horn without valves was redundant. Everyone believed that the art of playing the natural horn was virtually completely redundant; all those "duff" notes that had to be stopped were looked upon derisively as not worth being seriously considered in sophisticated modern performance. In music after Wagner of course, this was true: such later things were designed specifically for the modern valve horn; the natural horn could not have played such chromatic music. So, along with other subtle - perhaps even insidious - changes in orchestral sound, such as the larger-bored trumpets and trombones, and parallel developments in wood wind, we began to accept the present-day sound of the horn as being the norm. Later generations who never knew the sound of the orchestra in the 1930s or earlier could not possibly imagine what it was then like, for truly reliable or representative recordings of the orchestra of earlier times hardly exist.

It was something of merely a casual remark one day in the late 1960s that a potential brass pupil asked if I could search out for him a "cheap" F-horn. His father thought this might be a suitable orchestral instrument for him. Within a week or so I saw, quite by chance, in an antique shop in York, what seemed to be the very thing: an old, probably a bit decrepit, "french" horn hanging in the window. On impulse I went in and bought it for a modest sum. I took it to school and the boy took it home to show father. He kept it about a fortnight and then, bringing it back, asked if I minded if he did not have it after all. "Father thinks I should have a "proper" modern instrument". So I took it back, not having minded spending the small sum it had cost me, and decided I would keep it myself. So for almost forty years it hung on my music room wall, little more than a musical ornament, which just now and then I would get down from the wall and blow.

However, in the past decade or rather more, there has been an ever-growing interest in and new awareness of the value of - musical, as well as monetary - older instruments. It was some time before I realised that I possessed a rare Raoux horn, made in Paris probably around 1860, and later furnished with a detachable set of three piston valves. In its original state it is a natural or hand horn with an F crook; but it also has two or three other crooks - notably a Bb alto - to which the ‘sauterelle’ or set of valves (made by W. Brown of London in the early 1900s) can be attached if needed.. But it is the quality of its natural horn sound that is its real asset. It is of course, in music characteristic of the early classical period that it comes into its own, but it has been interesting to discover that the art of hand-stopping is by no means lost. In recent years it has been a fascinating revelation to hear distinguished devotees of the horn showing just what exquisite and expressive sounds can be coaxed from such natural instruments, playing the early repertoire for which they were designed . The modern double horn with all its trappings, gadgets, extra keys and what not may indeed be essential in 20th century music, but it is by no means really necessary - or perhaps even appropriate - for earlier music, although the modern complicated instrument is probably ‘safer’ to guarantee it being in tune and there is less risk of unexpected musical hazards - split notes and so on.

Most of all, it is the sound of the natural horn that is its real asset; a quality of elegance and romance which is for the most part seems not to be achieved by even the most sophisticated of modern double-horns. So, the trumpet now tends to languish in its case since I have taken to playing this fine antique instrument. Of course, it is not only a matter of getting to grips with the actual technique, it is the mental exercise of transposition that is such a good stimulus for the brain; no mollycoddling with everything cosily - and lazily - being provided in just Bb or Eb. We play at sight in all sorts of transpositions just for the fun of it. Band musicians, like their orchestral cousins, ought to develop this kind of mental alertness; it is good for overall musical ability.

Arthur Butterworth

October 2007


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