Dukas Villanelle and the Natural Horn

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The first of two posts on performing Dukas Villanelle, posted on 9/18/05 in the original Horn Notes Blog

Villanelle by Paul Dukas is certainly among the top 20 solo works for horn. I frequently work with students on this work, and recently I heard a number of students perform the Villanelle at the International Horn Competition of the Americas as well.

One aspect of this work that can be very confusing for students [and teachers!] is that in some editions of the work there is a notation to perform the opening on natural horn without valves. I have played a lot of natural horn but I suggest actually ignoring this notation in modern performance of this work. Why?

  • Phrases disappear. This is probably the biggest complaint. The opening is a beautiful, reflective section but for the student not extremely well versed in the natural horn this section becomes bland and musically colorless. I see this all the time when students are learning to play natural horn; it is such an “un-natural” technique to them that every phrase that might have been there disappears [the same thing often happens when learning to transpose on valved horn as well].
  • Weird sounds you have to explain to an audience. Second, the audience is going to be confused as to what is going on exactly with the mixture of open and closed notes. This can be helped somewhat by speaking about the work or putting this in program notes, but frankly even for a room full of horn players I feel sure a percentage will be really mystified by the resulting “shades and nuances” of color. They will not see them as being artistic but instead will consider them to be odd.
  • Probably badly out of tune. In addition to being bland and colorless with odd shifts of tonal color, it is probably also out of tune because…
  • Natural horn does not really work out well on a modern size horn bell. Even the smallest modern bell is bigger than the largest bells used on the natural horn. The instrument Dukas is thinking of was essentially a natural horn with valves, much smaller than any modern horn in its internal dimensions. Of course, you could switch horns and play the valved horn stuff on a modern valved horn and the opening on period natural horn but in reality…
  • You can’t switch back and forth between natural and modern horn and have it make any musical sense in this work. This is the bottom line. They just sound really different and this is not what Dukas had in mind.

My sense of it is Dukas wanted a retrospective mood that for listeners of his time would be enhanced by the natural horn writing. But for modern audiences outside of practically a lecture-recital format at a horn workshop this just won’t work, there is just too much to explain and even if you explain it fully it can be lost on the audience why this was interesting or desirable. My advice is to play the opening with the valves and make beautiful music that anyone can enjoy.

Continue to the second article, on the echo horn notations.

UPDATE (2017): The one point of emphasis I would add is the opening, it needs to sound like a beautiful impressionist painting. It may be worth experimenting with playing the opening on natural horn, and I encourage all horn students to spend some time with the natural horn (even writing a book on the topic!). However, unless you have a very high level of expertise on the natural horn you won’t achieve the level of beauty and nuance required to make the opening sing. Based on IHCA judges comments recently read some out there would disagree, but I strongly suggest playing the opening as beautifully as possible on the modern horn. I think your audience will appreciate that.

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