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Of Note: Past Melodies Resound Via Rare Natural Horns

By Stephanie Schoellman

Much of the classical music still enjoyed today—by composers such as Bach, Mozart, and Brahms—sounds different now than when it was originally performed. One of the reasons for this variation is that instruments have evolved over time

Take the horn, for example. The modern horn is fashioned in a factory, exiting the assembly line with an unblemished luster. The mouthpiece is attached to intricate coils of tubing, blooming into a bell at the end where the cavernous notes emanate into the air. The valves—an addition added in the early 19th century—divert the air through different lengths of tubing to shift the harmonic series precisely. Thus, on a modern horn, the tone of each note is the same regardless of the key in which the piece is written.

A natural horn, by contrast, is hand-hammered into being, with abrasions as proof of its forceful birth. Natural horns also lack valves, requiring the performer to use his or her hand movements in the bell to alter pitch and to physically add or remove crooks—a supplemental set of tubing—so that each key has its own distinct character, ranging from warm and rich in the lower keys of C and D to bright and shrill in the higher keys of G and A. The dimples in the natural horn’s form and the instrument’s dependence on the performer’s technique further contribute to its more natural, less manufactured sound. The oscillating notes in a natural horn are not as precise as they would be in a modern instrument—and that’s the beauty of it, says Stephen. “The more beat up it is, the better.”

Drew Stephen is an associate professor of musicology at UTSA and personally owns three natural horns—a copy of an early 18th century model (Nürnberg by J. W. Haas) made by Richard Seraphinoff, a copy of a 19th century hand horn (Mainz by F. Korn, ca. 1830) made by Friedbert Syhre, and an authentic French trompe de chasse made by Marcel Auguste Raoux around 1850. Stephen is one of only a handful of Texas musicians who specializes in period instruments and one of a small group worldwide who play the natural horn professionally. He currently performs as principal horn with the Austin Baroque Orchestra and has performed with the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, Aradia Ensemble, and I Furiosi.

His dual perspective as both scholar and performer of period instruments informs Stephen’s research as well as his musical interpretations in the concert hall. Vivaldi’s Concerto in F for Two Horns RV. 538 and Handel’s Water Music, which Stephen performed last fall with the Austin Baroque Orchestra, are written specifically for the natural horn. He says part of the appeal of playing a period instrument is that “it’s easier to play that music on the instrument for which it was written.” The challenge, he adds, is that much instruction has been lost since the natural horn’s prime.

The natural horn was not taught at all from the early 1900s to the 1960s. The Conservatoire de Paris was the last place it was taught, and when that institution finally switched to the valve horn in 1903, the last link with the past was broken. Since music technique is often transferred directly from maestro to student, this gap left a considerable hole in natural horn expertise. Musicologists and performers alike are still striving to rediscover that vanished knowledge. Stephen explains that there are treatises, method books, and iconographies, but they cannot substitute for experiential transmission of skills. As Stephen points out, “We can’t go back and hear what Mozart heard. If a hundred years from now there was nobody alive who played jazz music, and we found a book on ‘This is How You Play Jazz Music,’ I don’t think it would help us very much because really you have to experience how jazz music is played.” The same concept applies to the natural horn.

Details like how one should hold the horn have to be rediscovered. Stephen explains that in this process of rediscovery, scholars and performers alike “project what we know backwards.” Inaccurate lore often develops from faulty assumptions about the instrument when it’s actually the performer who hasn’t yet reached a level of proficiency to understand the instrument’s abilities. As an example, Stephen cites a famous solo in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 performed in the 1970s, which was deemed impossible to play without valves. Only later was it realized that it was feasible; it just wasn’t possible for the musicians who were unaccustomed to playing the natural horn.

Another example of these misunderstandings involves paintings that portray musicians playing period instruments. “If there’s a painting of a person holding a horn in an unusual way, most of the time that gets interpreted as a parody, whereas if you actually look at the broader context, that’s just how they held it. It’s just not the way we hold it,” Stephen explains. The normal way to hold a horn for a contemporary recital is with the bell pointing downwards; however, when valve-less horns were first introduced to the concert hall, it was common for the bell to be held overhead or out to the side on the elbow for practical reasons. Natural horns are modeled after hunting horns, and as such, were originally designed to call out messages across dense forest and open field to communicate with members of the hunting party. Thus, one would want the sound clearly heard from a distance, not softened as one would for symphonic concerts.

The quest to rediscover how to play the natural horn led Stephen on a different type of hunt, which became his dissertation topic and the focus of several published articles—the motif of the hunt in romantic opera. “The horn symbolizes the hunter, and the hunter is noble, faithful, heroic, associated with the outdoors and masculinity,” Stephen says. The horn captures all these attributes. He adds that this academic knowledge of the natural horn’s history isn’t just interesting peripheral information, but it also affects the performance, lending to a deeper interpretation of the music as it’s played.

Stephen says that his attraction to the natural horn is partly due to its organic charm, a charm that contemporary horns lack. “Because of all the valves in a modern instrument, we can make every note sound the same. And that’s a modern idea—we want to get continuity throughout our range. For me, the modern instrument is actually very bland because the tone is the same all the way through, whereas with this one,” he says while cradling his 19th century hand horn, “each note has its own special flavor, its own special color.” He demonstrates an open note and a closed note, the graceful warble filling the office and echoing down the hall. One can almost hear the baying of the hounds and Erik from Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman begin his aria as the horn’s melody fades.

View Dr. Stephen demonstrating the natural horn:

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