Release the Horns!

Release the Horns!

A year or so ago I was working on a piece for chamber ensemble with a standard sinfonietta lineup—wind quintet, piano, percussion, and string quartet plus bass. It’s a versatile ensemble with no shortage of timbral possibilities, but one of its constituents confounded me so completely that I had to kick it out: the horn. What the hell was I going to do with it? I’ve never been able to write as successfully as I’d like for brass instruments, and that deficiency is never more apparent than when I’m obliged to deal with this four-valved emotion machine.

Not only is it hardwired to produce a tangle of just and tempered intervals, the horn is wedded inextricably to the most affectively laden slices of the 19th-century symphonic rep. When is an orchestral horn player not playing something designed to pull the listener’s marionette strings? Setting aside the mechanics of the horn, years of conservatory practice refine the mechanics of horn players to better inspire, lament, terrify, or serenade—their literature requires them to be conveyors of emotional pseudo-information.

That’s not to dismiss the instrument; the ornate sentimental verdigris that covers the horn is actually kind of appealing, in its way. And I’ve heard two of my teachers, on two separate occasions years and thousands of miles apart, reminisce fondly about playing the horn parts of the Schubert Ninth Symphony, so the instrument clearly has some resonance with composers. But what I guess I find most puzzling is that there are two sides of the horn that never seem to meet: the signifier of the hunt on the one hand and, on the other, the producer of psychoacoustically mesmerizing sonorities. Why don’t more horn players specialize in the natural horn and commission pieces from people like Marc Sabat and Alvin Lucier? Assuming that horn players have the expertise to operate a wider variety of instruments than the conventional F horn, the spectral and tuning possibilities are potentially quite broad. Horn quartets should be playing glacial, program-length textural monoliths instead of Ewazenian frippery and arrangements from Candide.

So as I prepare to embark on a new piece—one whose instrumentation, within some boundaries, I’ll get to select—I’m tempted, at last, to confront the horn. I have to deal with it sooner or later. Who knows? Maybe something will emerge that will answer some of these imponderables. In the meantime, I’ll be going back to the Ligeti horn trio.

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10 thoughts on “Release the Horns!

  1. martin bresnick

    Hi Colin,

    I agree completely!

    Have a listen to my woodwind quintet Just Time and let me know what you think. There are two recordings, both with great horn playing. Jamie Sommerville on an Artefact CD with the 5th Species WW Quintet, and Bill Purvis on New World with the New York WW Quintet.

    Great masters of the French horn have so much more to give!

    Then listen to Ligeti’s Concerto for 4 horns….
    Happy Holidays,


  2. pgblu

    Colin, your post is absolutely dead-on. I love the horn, and I want to write for it more than for any other instrument (that’s no exaggeration), but the timbre is so fraught with associative dimensions that are difficult to circumvent. Added to your list is the impression one of my teachers once shared, which is that the horn always sounds like it’s under water.

    The only solution, pardon the pun, is to simply dive in. Write for the horn like you’d write for any “new music instrument” such as the clarinet (keeping in mind of course that their technical possibilities are… uh… not quite the same) — and imagine you’re creating a place for the instrument in new music. After all, consider this vicious circle: Composers don’t pay much attention to the horn because the horn sound doesn’t have a place in new music ensemble sound… [and] the horn sound doesn’t have a place in new music ensemble sound because composers don’t pay much attention to the horn. Get out of that circle for a moment and you’ll realize that the best horn players have access to a much greater timbral variety than you realize. They can play incredibly soft or loud, incredibly mellow or piercing. Most of the strongest players (don’t ask me why) seem to have an exceptional sense of rhythm, too. Finally, because the tube is so d-rn long they are usually on very high partials, so their intonation skills are a matter of great connoisseurship and finesse. Again I say: dive in!

  3. stevetaylor

    Messiaen “Appel Interstellaire”
    Great post Colin – I too had a transcendental experience playing Schubert 9! But I don’t know if I told you about it. For me, one of the best horn pieces ever written is the 6th movement of Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux Etoiles, “Appel Interstellaire.” It combines the emotional associations you write about with a keen ear for sonic possibilities – especially the weird, half-valve denatured sound which makes the final refrain of the piece.

  4. Jeremy Howard Beck


    I think you’re in good company with the vast majority of young composers I’ve met during my studies. I’m a composer in my second year of grad school, but I grew up playing trombone, and the number of composers who tell me that they just “don’t know what to do with” brass instruments in general is pretty high. It’s certainly higher than for the other families (for example, I seem to be the only composer who’s terrified of the piano–call me Finger Stupid).

    It’s definitely a case of the snake eating its own tail; brass players don’t ask for new pieces because composers can’t (or won’t–brass music is really not prestigious) write well for them, composers can’t/won’t write good new music for brass because performers assume they won’t and don’t ask. And that’s how it gets to be 2009 and one of the premier brass ensembles in the world is still playing West Side Story transcriptions #iheartyoulenny.

  5. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    It’s an older piece now, but there’s a new recording of John McGuire’s “Decay” for 8 horns (1967-70) that may transform your thinking about how to write for (and listen to!) the horn.

  6. RyanFellhauer

    First I’d like to say that Julia Wolfe’s Wind Quintet “On Seven-star Shoes” is a really cool example of how the horn can be used in new music, while still retaining that sort of Stravinsky-esque romanticism.

    But, an often overlooked technique that us horn players get to be quite good at are polyphonics, where you sing into the instrument and play, Much like Evan Ziporyn or George Crumb ask for on woodwinds. I think there is one piece that uses this technique, and its a cadenza on the Weber concerto, for one pitch. When done on horn, because of the partials, you can make quasi-chords or even ‘growls’ and intervals with non-standard tuning!

    I suggest though, if you are interested in writing for the horn, that you talk to a horn player before and during, just to know all the possibilities.

  7. footholds

    Colin, your post raises many issues that have been frustrating to me as a horn player/composer for many years now. I’m really glad to see them discussed on the pages of NewMusicBox.

    Perhaps more so than any other instrument, the horn’s role seems to be defined by a handful of 19th-century stock characters–the Byronic Hero, the pastoral Nimrod, the pining lover–which can leave composers feeling like they have no choice but to rearrange characters in a sort of Hyper-Romantic Commedia dell’arte when writing for the instrument. Worst of all, many horn players do nothing to fight these stereotypes, and even embrace these clichés (I was recently in a master class where a young student, after performing a pedagogical scale étude, was chastised by a prominent teacher and performer, who said, “This is the Hero’s instrument! When Strauss wrote Ein Heldenleben, he could have made the Hero any instrument, but he made it the horn! Play it like you play the Hero’s instrument!”), which makes it difficult for composers to encourage any sort of experimentation or more absolutist explorations of the horn’s remarkably complex timbre.

    Playing the horn (a highwire act between the upper partials of the harmonic series) was what originally drew me to explore composition in just intonation. Every horn player in the world is intimately familiar with the colorful, non-tempered partials that we composers are so fond of and many utilize them in daily warmups, (though much of horn playing is also devoted to avoiding those partials at all costs), which–IMO–should make these conical metal tubes fertile ground for funny-tone microtonal experimentation.

    To help ease the difficulty in writing microtonally for the instrument, Marc Sabat and the tubist Robin Hayward wrote an incredibly thorough article about getting around the unwieldy valve system to utilize the tuning potentialities of horn and its closest orchestral relative, the tuba. The article also demonstrates a possible notational system for these practices. Both Marc and Robin are writing from a just intonation standpoint, but many of the principles they discuss could help elucidate writing for brass in other tuning systems as well.

    Sabat/Hayward – Towards an Expanded Definition of Consonance: Tuneable Intervals on Horn, Tuba, and Trombone

    To conclude, I’ll do some glacial, monolithic horn-tooting and share my own quartet, “A Sea of Porcelain”:

    Lawton Hall – A Sea of Porcelain


  8. Armando

    Oooh, I cannot disagree more. I mean, sure, the horn is wedded to all those 19th (and yes, 18th–the horn motif predates the 19th century, after all) notions of the heroic which I, at least, find so uncomfortable at times, but it is such a versatile instrument, straddling, as it does, both the brass and woodwind worlds. It can give your sinfonietta the sense of being a fuller ensemble just by using it as a “damper pedal” of sorts, blends nicely in counterpoint with clarinet and bassoon and can give you low notes that, at times, not even trombones can give you (and grant you a sense of low end “umpf” that is hard to get without trombones or tuba). It can also be a wonderfully unsubtle instrument for just those times when you want to evoke the right tone of marching-band banality (if you’re into that sort of thing. I’ve been into the ironic evocation of banal tropes lately, though hopefully not while being banal myself).

    Maybe “banality” is not the right choice of words.

    In any case, don’t count out the horn so easily.

  9. philmusic

    What I think is daunting about the the horn is that with no other instrument is the technique so apparently in flux. Sure changes in technique are endless but the horn has been transitioning both technically and physically since the get go.

    Those physical changes have been central to understanding musical style and history. For example, horn 5th, keys, etc. The use of pure brass tones over mixed formations in orchestration was once seen as radical. I suggest reading Berlioz’s orchestration book but with Berlioz’s examples not Strauss.

    My only problem with the Horn is I can’t get enough of ’em.

    Phil Fried One of Phil’s many pages


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