About Life in Flow:Flow in Life

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Flanders & Swann

For years I would occasionally hear a comedy version of the Rondo of Mozart's 4th horn concerto on WFMT. Someone had put words to the horn solo, words that told a story about a lost horn. This was my introduction to Flanders & Swann, a British comedy and music duo in the 1950s. If you are a horn player, there is an excellent chance you know Flanders & Swann, only because of this piece.

When my daughter was in high school and starting to get serious about horn, I told her about this version of the Mozart that I had heard on the radio, though the telling fell far short of explaining what was so funny. So I went on a search (amazon.com) and ordered a CD, "A Transport of Delight," because it included "An Ill Wind," the song set to the Mozart 4th horn concerto, so I could play it for people whenever I wanted.

I also listened to the rest of the album, which today is a sort of window into another decade. Michael Flanders wrote the words to the songs While Donald Swann wrote the music and played piano. Both sang, though Flanders did most of the talking part of their shows. Some of the humor, being political, is now dated and some of the act is very unpolitically correct. Other parts are absolutely delightful. They were known for their animal songs, and both the Hippopotamus Song and the Gnu Song are charming, standing the test of time well. The album includes a version on the Hippopotamus Song with a verse in Russian and a joke about cultural relations. Remembering the time when we worked on our cultural relations with the Soviet Union and the oftentimes nonsensical restrictions placed on musicians visiting the USSR, I laughed out loud. Other of their songs have spurred me to learn more about the historical background of the political comment they are making. For example, "All Gall," is about Charles DeGaulle's career, set to "This Old Man." And then, some of the comments and lyrics are stunningly prescient. This bit got a big laugh on the recording: "We had to look outside during the interval, see if our car's all right. It's getting a bit old, it'll have to be tested soon. You know they started these tests for 10-year-old cars, they brought it down to six, now five, they'll bring it down to three. There's even been some talk of having them tested before they leave the factories." Hmm.

Here are the words to "An Ill Wind," thanks to Flanders & Swann Online:

I once had a whim and I had to obey it
To buy a French Horn in a second-hand shop;
I polished it up and I started to play it
In spite of the neighbours who begged me to stop.

To sound my Horn, I had to develop my embouchure;
I found my Horn was a bit of a devil to play.

So artfully wound
To give you a sound,
A beautiful sound so rich and round.

Oh, the hours I had to spend
Before I mastered it in the end.

But that was yesterday and just today I looked in the usual place-
There was the case but the Horn itself was missing.

Oh, where can it have gone?
Haven't you-hasn't anyone seen my Horn?
Oh, where can it have gone?
What a blow! Now I know
I'm unable to play my Allegro.

Who swiped that Horn?
I'll bet you a quid
Somebody did,
Knowing I'd found a concerto and wanted to play it,
Afraid of my talent at playing the Horn.
For early today to my utter dismay
it had vanished away like the dew in the mom.

I've lost that Horn-I know I was using it yesterday.
I've lost that Horn, lost that Horn, found that Horn ... gorn.
There's not much hope of getting it back though I'd willingly pay a reward.

I know some Hearty Folk whose party joke's
Pretending to hunt with the Quorn,
Gone away! Gone away! Was it one of them took it away?
Will you kindly return that Horn? Where is the devil who pinched my Horn?

I shall tell the Police I want that French Horn back.
I miss its music more and more and more.
Without that Horn I'm feeling sad and so forlorn.

I found a concerto, I wanted to play it,
Displaying my talent at playing the Horn,
But early today to my utter dismay it had totally vanished away.
I practised the Horn, and I wanted to play it but somebody took it away.
I practised the Horn and was longing to play it but somebody took it away.

My neighbour's asleep in his bed.
I'll soon make him wish he were dead.
I'll take up the Tuba instead!

And here you can listen to Flanders and Swann performing An Ill Wind.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Devil to Play

I love summer for many reasons. I like hot weather, being outside, having a garden, having time off from work.  One of the best parts of summer is catching up on my reading. One of the books I read this summer I had on my reading list for quite awhile. A Devil to Play, by Jasper Rees, is subtitled  "One man's year-long quest to master the orchestra's most difficult instrument," which is, of course, the horn.  It is a very enjoyable book. Jasper Rees is a British journalist who had played horn as a boy, but quit. When he decides to take it up again at age 40, he sets himself the ridiculous goal of playing a solo at the British Horn Society annual conference in a year. Farfetched as it seems, he pursued his goal using his journalist skills to interview every professional horn player he could find. His well-written book includes stories of his horn lessons as a boy, historical anecdotes about the horn and player players, and his descriptions of his own performances. These descriptions made me wonder how he could possibly reach his goal, and sometimes why he was persisting with reach that goal. I felt for him as he continued to plow through less-than-optimal performances. However, he has a great sense of humor, which comes through throughout the book. As I was reading the book I kept interrupting other people, saying, "Listen to this!" to share funny and fascinating bits.

Quite a few famous horn players and other musicians make an appearance in the book, and I learned the back stories about, for example, the horn player for whom Mozart wrote his concertos, and Dennis Brain's family. I learned quite a lot about horn playing in Britain, too.
As a horn player, I really enjoyed this book. I think other musicians might also find it interesting, as well as music lovers in general. The title comes from a line in a "song" by Flanders and Swan. The tune for the "song" is the Rondo of Mozart's 4th horn concerto. The British title of the book is "I Found My Horn," another line in the "song." I think Flanders and Swan deserve their own post, so stay tuned!