Horn in A in Italian ‘Bel Canto’ Opera: Rossini’s Semiramide

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In “Sometimes Up is Down” I spelled out some pitfalls in performing Italian operatic repertoire. For Horn in A:

The basic “A-horn” rule-of-thumb for the 3rd hornist is this:

  1. If your “up” transposition puts your sounding pitches above the 1st horn, you most likely need to invert the interval transposition to sound below the 1st horn.
  2. However, if your A-horn passage is a solo, it might be an “up” transposition.

This is not a hard-and-fast rule as there are some exceptions, most notably in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.” A prominent horn quartet passage (in Act II) can go either way depending on the conductor’s preference. I have performed it both ways.

Semiramide

This week I was reminded of Rossini’s Overture to Semiramide and its unique pitfalls. The opera itself, which takes place in ancient Babylon, is rarely performed these days due mainly to the male contralto lead role (a castrato part).

Its overture on the other hand is a regular staple in orchestra concerts. After an up-tempo introduction, the horns (and bassoons) are prominently featured in a hymn-like prayer. The horns at this point are keyed in D.

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This passage is fairly straight-forward in terms of horn transposition. However, things become less clear later in the same overture. The transposition for Horn III is Horn in A and there is no indication of whether it is basso or alto.

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For the intrepid horn player caught unprepared, this passage can be a good lesson. While the solo at m. 181 is performed in A-alto, the remainder is A-basso. While I have yet to find any documentation as to why it is this way, this is the time-honored tradition in 19th-century Italian operatic horn parts.

This is especially true in bel canto opera.

Lessons from youth

I have a pretty vivid memory of playing this part many years ago in youth orchestra and being utterly confused. I made the mistake of asking the conductor what to do (instead of my private horn teacher). The conductor insisted that everything was to be played in A-alto.

As a horn player with only a few years under my belt and a weak high-range, the experience was both humbling and humiliating.

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