A recent discussion on the Facebook Horn People discussion group brings up the topic of living composers and how they write for the French horn.
This has been a topic here at Horn Matters, one that both John and I have explored. In “Composers who Can’t Write for the Horn,” John Ericson suggests that composers should talk to horn players in order to answers questions and concerns with writing for the horn.
As horn players we see a lot of horn parts written by composers who don’t really know how to write for the horn. First, the point of this post: if you are a composer and you are not sure about your horn writing, talk to a horn player.
In “4 Tips on Orchestration and Horns,” I echo John’s sentiments with a few suggestions of my own. This being said, what does a horn player do when confronted with a new composition that presents insurmountable challenges? Here are a few tips:
- Give it the “old college try.”
In other words, try your best in earnest to play what is written on the page. If the end result is less-than-good and ends up sounding like a mess, swallow your pride and let it stand. If the composer wishes to have a more literal translation of their musical idea, they should step up and ask you about it. A smart composer will re-negotiate the work in order to accommodate.
- Abbreviate questionable passages.
If a particular passage seems impossible to play, try abbreviating it in some way. If a certain passage is too high, for example, play it down an octave. If it is technically out-of-reach, try leaving out a few notes.
- Talk to the composer.
If the composer is available, have a talk with them. The preference would be to do this as an aside, and not during a rehearsal where conflict could arise.
- If there is a conductor, talk to the Maestro.
If the new piece you are playing involves a conductor (who is not the composer), that person may be able to mediate or negotiate on your behalf.
This being said, if the composer is committed to their artistic idea and you have no choice in the matter. the best that can be expected is option #1. Perhaps a future generation of horn players will be more capable of rendering what the composer wishes.
On Tchiakovsky and the Horn
Along these lines, I must confess to a personal bias with the orchestration techniques of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. While I enjoy listening to most of his works, I am not a fan of how he writes and orchestrates for the French horn.
His Fifth Symphony, for example, contains one of the most well-known horn solos in the symphonic realm. Without a doubt, this solo is one of our treasured moments as horn players. But, the remainder of the symphony presents some difficult challenges with loud dynamics, isolated and exposed passages with the woodwinds, and long, technical passages of non-stop playing.
If an assistant is available, the principal horn can rely on that person for help and relief. If an assistant is not available, compromises may need to made in order to make it to the end in one piece.