About Life in Flow:Flow in Life

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Playing 4th horn is not like playing 2nd banana

I love to play horn, and I'm happy to play any part anytime, but at heart I am a low horn player. A 4th horn player.

Every orchestral instrument section has its quirkiness. For horn players, one of the quirks is the division between low and high playing. As the horn evolved as an orchestral instrument, composers wrote for it in pairs. The standard section of 4 players, then, consists of two pairs -- 1st and 2nd play together as a pair and 3rd and 4th play together. First and 3rd are high parts, 2nd and 4th are low parts. Of course, the whole section plays together a lot of the time, too, and there are various permutations of the horn section. Mozart usually wrote for a section of two horns, Beethoven's Eroica uses three, and Strauss and Mahler often wrote for large sections of seven or eight horns.

We recently heard the Chicago Symphony play Brahms's 4th Symphony. It is easy to see when you're at a concert that Brahms wrote for the two pairs of horn players. The horn parts move back and forth from the first two to the second two and back again, throughout the work. In fact, 3rd and 4th have more to play in that symphony than 1st and 2nd, though the 1st part has some lovely solos.  Another clear example of writing in pairs is the overture to William Tell, where the pairs alternate the "Lone Ranger" theme.

On the other hand, Mozart used a pair of horns like no other composer I have seen. In the 40th Symphony, 1st and 2nd are written in two different keys. He wrote before the invention of valves, so parts are in keys, which today horn players transpose. Oftentimes the horn parts are in the key of the piece, but Mozart expanded his options for pitches and harmonies by writing each part in a different key. The two parts in this symphony are quite independent. Sometimes the 2nd horn plays pretty high and sometimes the 1st horn has a phrase that seems like it belongs in a 2nd horn part. It is inventive, beautiful writing for the early horn.

The best part of playing in a horn section, though, is that every part can be interesting or even exciting. Though the 1st horn gets most of the solos in the standard orchestral literature, there are also many 3rd horn solos. Second and 4th horn also have solos. The most famous 4th horn solo is in the slow movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. It is a beautiful, lyrical solo encompassing a very large range:

In the ascending and descending scale in the third line, marked "Solo,"  the 4th horn is all alone -- the rest of the orchestra is not playing! The range, the technical passages, and the phrasing of the entire excerpt make this a challenge for the player. (It's also in Eb, so you must transpose it down a step, not a big deal for horn players.) However, when you play it in concert, by the time the symphony is over, with the soloists, chorus, and full orchestra finishing with the triumphant Ode to Joy, everyone has forgotten about the beautiful horn solo. Years ago, 1st horn players used to take this solo, but nowadays the 4th horn players usually get to keep it. Why did Beethoven write this solo for the 4th horn? No one really knows. Possible the 4th was the only horn player in the section with a valved horn, though the solo can be played on a natural horn.

Serious horn players must be able to play high and low parts, of course. It doesn't make sense to specialize in low or high to the exclusion of the other.  Sarah Willis, 4th horn of the Berlin Philharmonic, and David Griffin, 4th horn of the Chicago Symphony, have both recorded impressive solo albums. They are both amazing low horn players, but are equally at home in the high range.

Why do I like playing low horn? For me, one of the most fun parts of horn playing is playing the very low notes. I love the sound of them and the power those notes have. I love the way the low and high parts combine to make a beautiful ensemble, with each part contributing an important piece of the whole.

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