The Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin and Crazy Horn Notations in Wagner

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One excerpt horn players learn is the Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin. I was recently working on this with a young student as it was requested on a local youth symphony audition, and it occurred to me that this excerpt is one that has a lot of mystery associated with it. The main question being something along the lines of “why in the world all the transpositions?”

Of all my publications one of the very best articles and one that is probably among the least read is “Joseph Rudolphe Lewy and Valved Horn Technique in Germany, 1837-1851.” This was published in The Horn Call Annual 9 (1997) on pages 23-35 and includes 74 footnotes! Only the first portion of this long article is posted in Horn Articles Online, [see UPDATE at end of article!] which has to do with the approach Wagner took to writing for the horn before Lohengrin.


The opening of the work may be seen in the scan below. Note that successively you go through a variety of keys. Why?!?

The full article gives the long version in quite a bit of detail but in shot Wagner was imitating a writing style for horn advocated by J. R. Lewy, who at the time was principal horn in Dresden, where he used a similar notation style in a book of etudes and a transcription of Schubert songs. His idea was to use the valves as little as possible and to thus retain the character of the natural horn. In his preface to the etudes he wrote that,

These studies are to be played on the chromatic F horn, but the valves are to be employed only when the natural horn is inadequate for the bright and distinct emission of the sounds…. When the part is marked ‘In Es,’ the first valve is to be used; when ‘In E,’ the second; and when ‘In D,’ the third. In this way alone will the beauty of tone of the natural horn be preserved, and the instrument acquire increased capabilities.

Even though valves had been around then for quite a while, having been invented in 1814, this whole concept must have fascinated Wagner as he applied it to Lohengrin, which was completed in 1848. And you could certainly play the prelude to Lohengrin using the technique described if you had a three valve horn crooked in A-flat. However, I seriously doubt that any horn player has ever done that in any performance and there is no evidence that Lewy worked with Wagner to write these horn parts or ever performed Lohengrin, which was premiered in 1850 in Weimar.

The big article goes into a lot of detail on all of the above with plenty of citations (The Horn Call Annual was a referred journal) and examples and is worth finding if you want the big picture on this. [See UPDATE!]

Related to that, I have toyed with the idea of publishing a big book on the 19th century horn and have permission from the IHS to excerpt the articles I wrote on 19th century topics. But there are enough underlying issues with the quotations in the articles and the question of copyright fair use for a commercial publication that in short would make the editing take a long while. It will be a while before I move on this one further, and the articles are always out there for anyone to read who wants to track them down.

Back to the aspect of actually playing this excerpt, it ends up being a study in rapid fire changes of transposition. Aim for a nice clean, up-tempo version like that of Toscanini in the video and work it out slowly. Weird notations or not, this is certainly an enjoyable work to play in any concert situation.

UPDATE: The full Wagner/Lewy article is now online, linked from the end of this article:

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