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'BLOG' by Tony Halstead


 I am a semi-retired horn player, keyboard player and occasional conductor who spent about 45 years of my performing career trying to play the valveless horn of the 18th and 19th centuries.

 One can hear me playing it on many recordings by, in alphabetical order: Academy of Ancient Music, English Baroque Soloists, English Concert, Hanover Band, L'Estro Armonico, London Classical Players and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. On the modern valved horn, orchestras I have recorded with include: LSO, LPO, London Sinfonietta, ECO and ASMF.

 It is in some ways regrettable that this short essay is, of necessity, autobiographical. Autobiographies can be untrustworthy; the 'mists of time' often lend enchantment, but equally, can magnify the more negative aspects of one's memory!

 I'm rather embarrassed to admit that in my very first job as a professional '1st horn' player, as principal horn in the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, 1966-1970, I was so very unconfident of my ability to simply 'get the right notes', that I would often ask my wonderful 3rd horn colleague Jim Dowling to play 1st horn in a Haydn symphony that had a few high notes in it!  Thus, I 'diplomatically avoided' playing works such as Symphony 85 (horns in Bb alto), Symphony 49 and several others.

Symphony 87 in A was an exception.

 I loved this piece so much that when two of my musical heroes, the great harpsichordist George Malcolm and the polymath Graham Treacher conducted it, I somehow steeled myself to play it as well as I could.  George (bless him) rather devilishly wrote in 2 extra high  notes for the 1st horn near the end of the first movement, but to my shame, I left them out!

Sadly, I have no recollection of playing any Haydn symphonies at all during the 3+ years that I played with the London Symphony Orchestra during 1970-1973.

 A few years after I joined the ECO (English Chamber Orchestra) in 1972-1973, the 'consummate  genius' pianist/conductor who was then their most frequent guest artist recorded, for a major record label, a selection of Haydn's 'Sturm und Drang' works.

The series comprised symphonies 44-49, which were issued on LPs.  At the time, I found the conductor's interpretations of 44 and 49 very convincing, effective and moving. I also applauded his eschewal of a potentially intrusive keyboard continuo, a misguided and unnecessary practice for these fully-harmonised middle period symphonies (or so I thought in the 1970s...I now believe that a harpsichord adds clarity, momentum and propulsion to the bass line).

SYMPHONY 46 in B (H):

 It was during the recording of 46 in B ('H') that I found myself at odds with the maestro. He insisted that we horn players should selectively switch between playing  B in 'alto' to playing certain passages in 'B basso'. When I had the temerity to question this, and asked if we could stay in B alto all the time, he suddenly pointed to a very tricky passage in the 4th movement where the horns, playing in alto, would be very high.

'OK, we'll try it, play, now!' he requested, giving us a downbeat before we were ready to play. Of course, unprepared, we 'splattered' it, and he shrugged his shoulders, saying 'you see what I mean'!

 I was so incensed by this that, somehow in those days, I'm not sure how, in 1975, I tracked down the phone number of the Haydn scholar Antony Hodgson. I phoned him in the tea break of the recording session to try to get some moral support. Of course, the support was absolutely forthcoming from Tony! 

Since then, I have often pondered the phenomenon and the ongoing dilemma of Haydn's 'high horn' writing, and I now think that there is no easy or generalised solution to the problem. 

 In this particular Symphony, 'B basso' horns sometimes take the 2nd player lower than the bass line, but 'B alto' occasionally pushes the 1st horn higher than the 1st violins!   Sadly, until some genius invents a time machine, we have to resign ourselves to the fact that we will probably never know the answer to this much-discussed question.

SYMPHONY 51 in Bb:

Still reminiscing on the subject of Haydn's symphonies that feature horns, I well remember recording, for the very first time, Symphony 51 in Bb, whose 2 middle movements employ the horns almost as concertante soloists. Over a 9-year period, I was lucky enough to have three opportunities to record this, one of the almost-transcendental pieces that compel horn players to undertake a period of intense study and isometric training for at least a month before the performance or recording.

The three recordings that I took part in, all using period instruments, are:

'L'Estro Armonico'/Derek Solomons,

The English Concert/Trevor Pinnock,

Academy of Ancient Music/Christopher Hogwood.

Having never played the work during my 14 years as 1st horn of the ECO, I was both thrilled and somewhat apprehensive when Symphony 51 suddenly appeared on the 1983 recording schedule of 'L'Estro Armonico', an excellent period-instrument ensemble that played without conductor in the modern sense, but was led from the 1st violin by its founder and Director, Derek Solomons.

It was clear during the first recording session that Mr Solomons had done his homework, because he spoke to me in some considerable detail about the solo horn passage in the first 8 bars of the 2nd movement.

He pointed out that the incredibly high 'sounding Ab' in bar 6 (notated as an *f''' 2 octaves and a 4th above c' for horn in Eb) was marked with a staccato in the Schulz edition that we were using, but H.C. Robbins Landon had apparently told him in a phone conversation that the staccato was a 20th century all-purpose modernisation of Haydn's original 'wedge'.

So, how was I supposed to interpret this wedge in terms of sound and articulation?

The extreme high register of the 18th century 'hand horn' does not respond well to the type of sophisticated classical phrasing that demands a diminuendo during a slur. Technically, the player simply has to keep blowing a steady airstream, without which the sound disappears altogether.

 With the 'red light' on, I soon realised this in our first attempt at the 2nd movement, and in particular bars 1-6, which comprise 2 separate but musically linked phrases, the 2nd of which could conceivably be played on a modern valved horn with greater fluency and accuracy. I did indeed try to play that short section of a C major scale (notated for the Eb crook) leading to the f''' (sounding Ab) as fluently and smoothly as possible; after all, it is marked with a slur! However, the e''' and f''' stubbornly refused to 'sound'... I was starting to get worried... then I remembered that I had brought with me several very old mouthpieces, one of which was an antique hunting-horn mouthpiece. I had bought this, primarily as an historical curiosity, at a street market in Turin, during a tour with the English Chamber Orchestra, but had never seriously considered using it because of its flat, uncomfortable rim and its rather harsh 'outdoor' sound.

To my great surprise, playing on that mouthpiece, the elusive highest notes suddenly became 'available' to my lips, so we immediately recorded the movement. What can be heard on the recording is quite a loud, harsh, accented note, hopefully realising the implications of the staccato/wedge.

Fortunately, the enlightened recording producer, Martin Compton, allowed we horn players plenty of time to rest between 'takes', a physical necessity for brass players that many producers seem unaware of.

I must here digress from what may seem to be an instrumentalist's almost ludicrous obsession with one single note!

What I have so far failed to mention is that almost immediately after this 8-bar tour de force for the 1st horn player, Haydn writes an equally astonishing passage for the 2nd, who is required to play slow minims/half notes, descending in a scale passage that begins on c (sounding Eb an octave and a 6th below c', middle C) and ends on G (sounding Bb, two octaves and a tone below c').

Of course, there would be nothing particularly astonishing if Haydn had assigned that passage to e.g. a bassoon, 'cello or double-bass. But the fact is that 3 of those 4 notes written in the 2nd horn part simply don't exist at all on the instrument.  Only the 1st note, c, can be played with relative ease, as it is the 2nd harmonic of the horn's 'overtone series'. In practical terms, the 'next note' downwards is an octave lower - the 'fundamental'; there are no available natural notes in-between these two!  The player must 'bend' c downwards, firstly by a semitone to B, and then by consecutive whole tones, finally arriving at G.  This 'bending' technique is done by the player's lips, activated by the jaw, the brain (!) and, very slightly, by the right hand in the horn's bell.

During the 18thc and much of the 19thc, later composers wrote 2nd horn passages requiring these so-called 'factitious' notes (from the Latin facere/fecit: 'made' or manufactured notes), but I believe Haydn was the first to do so.

By writing the scale passage c-B-A-G for a natural, valveless horn, Haydn can be seen (and heard) to be pitting Man against the immutable forces of Nature. The composer is proudly showing off his orchestra's resident horn players' ability to wrestle with and overcome natural forces. In my opinion, this is even more evident in the 2nd horn's descending scale passage (superbly realised by my colleague and former pupil, Christian Rutherford) than in the stratospherically high passage for the 1st horn, where the notated pitches do at least exist as natural notes in the horn's 'harmonic series'.

Chronologically, the next recording of Symphony 51 that I took part in was about 5 or 6 years later, with The English Concert, directed by Trevor Pinnock. There were many differences: a strange and unsettling pitch of A=421, a larger orchestra than Derek Solomons', a harpsichord continuo, played by Trevor of course, and an overall interpretation seeking beauty of sound, technical polish, smoothness and blend; a surprising contradiction of the expected (at that time) astringency and rough-hewn textures of period instruments. The Director's quest for tonal beauty didn't exactly make life easier for we natural horn players!

*Helmholtz pitch notation


  ARNOLD COOKE'S  'Arioso and Scherzo' Quintet for horn, violin, 2 violas and 'cello.

I'd like to explain why this lovely piece means a great deal to me.

When I enrolled at the old Royal Manchester College of Music in 1962, to study piano, horn and composition, I had a very sketchy knowledge of so-called 'modern' music. Earlier that year, as a 17-year old horn player, I had passed 'with distinction' (much to my surprise), the A.B.R.S.M Grade 8 exam, in which one of the set pieces was Arnold Cooke's 'Rondo in B flat' for horn and piano.  I really liked that little masterpiece, probably because the horn part was not too demanding, since it avoided the high register of the instrument.  As a self-taught player, (before studying with Sydney Coulston),  I simply couldn't play the high notes, maybe because I was using only the F side of a cheap, poorly designed compensator whose Bb 4th valve was almost out of reach of my small left hand.

For many weeks after the exam, I had a constant 'earworm' of the piano's descending chains of lovely augmented chords, played while the horn was, as it were, 'resting' on pedal notes.

At some point during my first few weeks at the RMCM in 1962 I heard a college recital (or 'open practice', as they called it) by a near-contemporary horn player, Alun Francis (now a well-known conductor).  He played  Arnold Cooke's 'Nocturnes' for soprano, horn and piano.  I remember being overwhelmed by the beauty of the music, and the ensemble's performance of it. For several hours, before going home, I found myself walking the rather dilapidated Manchester streets around the old College, desperately trying to remember or 'replay' those songs before they disappeared from my memory.

My composition teacher at the RMCM was the 'almost beatific'  Thomas Pitfield (1903-1999).  During the first 'college year', one day I presented at my composition lesson a short piece for clarinet and piano that I had written for a friend, Geoffrey Haydock.  Tom carefully read through the MS, played a few passages on the piano (he was an excellent pianist) and then totally dumbfounded me by asking

“ Have you been playing or listening to any music by Arnold Cooke?”

“ I don't think so” I replied, “apart from his Nocturnes, recently”.

“He used to teach composition here before WW2” said Mr Pitfield.

Several months later, I wrote another woodwind piece, a Sonatina for oboe and piano, to which Tom reacted by saying something like 'Cooke / Hindemith 50/40, Halstead 10' !

By now I was almost desperate to learn exactly what it was, in my immature and struggling student pieces, that he had astutely identified, so as to make that judgement.

“You somehow slip into different keys 'by stealth' rather than by modulating”, he said, "and you use too many pivotal chords”.

 Wow, that was 'rich', coming from a superb craftsman composer, who in his huge output used 'pivotal harmony' much of the time!

Of course, I was a bit disenchanted by the realisation (not quite an 'accusation', because Tom was a kindly soul) that my little creations were rather derivative.  But at the same time I was quite flattered that he had heard some hints of Arnold Cooke in my pieces!

Over the next few years I tried very hard to align myself stylistically with a curious and probably indigestible blend of other composers I loved, such as Delius, Hindemith, Janacek, Moeran, Mompou, Nielsen, Ravel, Warlock and Vaughan Williams, as well as those of the 15th century:  Ciconia, de Lantins and Dufay.

Pretty well impossible!

Of course, as a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist I had long ago given up any notion of being 'original'.

So I tried to get to know as much of Cooke's music as possible, playing some of his organ pieces on Sundays, and listening to what was then the 'BBC Third Programme'.  I even learned both the piano and flute parts of his lovely Sonatina for the latter instrument. (NB: flute playing was for me a hobby rather than a serious study!).

As a free-lance horn player working in the 1970s to 1990s with ensembles such as the London Sinfonietta, I was exposed to an enormous 20th-century repertoire.  Sadly the only music from those years, played by the Sinfonietta,  that I still remember with great joy, apart from the classic pieces by Schoenberg (whose 1st Chamber Symphony always gives me goose-bumps) and the composers of the 2nd Viennese School, is by (in alphabetical order): Blake (David), Goehr, Henze, Hindemith, Holloway, Ligeti and Lutyens.  I have no memory of the Sinfonietta ever playing any Arnold Cooke, as he was considered much too conservative.

It's now a matter of personal regret that I didn't seek out Cooke, in order to study with him, when I moved from Northern England to London 50 years ago.

14.09.2021: UPDATE: I'm pleased to report that today I recorded, as pianist,  his 'Arioso and Scherzo' in its Trio arrangement (by the composer), with the superb horn player Stephen Stirling and the violinist Christian Halstead (my son).