A View from the Back of the Orchestra

I wrote this article as a programme note for a concert the MK Sinfonia did on Saturday, and I thought I’d share it.HornTransparent447x346

Symphony No 69 in C ‘Laudon’ – Joseph Haydn

Concerto in E flat for two horns – Michael Haydn 

Soloists: Tom Molloy and Kate Knight

Symphony in D, Op 18 No 4 – Johann Christian Bach

Symphony No 31 in D ‘Hornsignal’ – Joseph Haydn

This concert has been programmed to give prominence to the horns and trumpets in the classical orchestra. Instead of a conventional programme note, we offer the following article by Catherine Rose, giving a little background and history of the performers from the mid to late 18th century.

Horns and trumpets were relative late-comers to the orchestra. Unlike the string section, whose instruments are all closely related, the orchestral brass section emerged from different sources over many years: the barracks, the church and the stables. The trumpet of course began life as a martial instrument, while the trombone or sackbut was found in church and town bands (alongside the cornett, a curved wooden instrument with finger-holes and a trumpet-like mouthpiece).

Two by two

The horn came from the hunting field specifically the stag-hunting field (the French horn was never used in hunting the fox). It was always played in pairs, a practice which probably originated in France. A pair of matching instruments would be played by huntsmen, including calls and fanfares, but also tunes and duets. Thus the first player became an expert on the higher notes, the ever-closer high harmonics of the tube, while the second player developed a different expertise, being able to leap about among the more widely-spaced lower harmonics. This high/low pairing persists today, so that in a section of four horns, the odd-numbered parts are high players, and the even-numbered are low players.

The younger Haydn brother, Michael, had been a choirboy with Joseph in Vienna but later found a job in Salzburg. His concerto is typical of many compositions of the era, showing off the complementary virtuosity of the high and low registers. Many composers produced double concertos for the great duettists of the day, including Vivaldi, Telemann and Rossetti. Players would often form a duet partnership and travel together as a unit, and they were often closely related: brothers, father/son, uncle/nephew.

Vorsprung durch Technik

Tunable instruments with slides arrived in the early years of the 18th century. There were some particularly fine makers of brass instruments in England. Johann Christian Bach, one of the sons of the great Johann Sebastian, would have benefitted greatly from the playing of the English horn-players, whose excellence was partly fostered by aristocratic fashion. For example, Lord Aberdare had four Black hunting-horn players who played quartets on horseback, and it used to be possible to hire a pair of French horn players to serenade you as you were pulled across the Thames in a hired rowing boat. The Symphony in D was written around 1780, and includes music from J C Bach’s opera ‘Temistocle’.

There are three main eras of horn-playing technique. The early ‘clarino’ style, reaching up into the top registers, owed a lot to trumpet technique. Around the middle of the century, the hand-horn technique began to emerge, with the hand in the bell used to open and close the aperture to fill in the ‘missing’ notes in the scale. Initially, second horn players tended to be better at this technique, because they had more need of it, but by Mozart’s era it was the accepted technique of the virtuoso, though not yet of the majority of orchestral players. In 1812, the first valves were invented, and from then on horn-players had to move between the two techniques.

The glory of Esterházy

Joseph Haydn’s early symphonies and chamber music made much of the ‘clarino’ style, and he was blessed with a series of excellent players at the palaces of the Austro-Hungarian Esterházy princes, for whom he was Vice-Kapellmeister and Kapellmeister for over 40 years. The Kappellmeister ranked as a house-officer, and had a huge range of duties including organising all the players, the sheet music, performances in church, concert hall, opera house, marionette theatre and in the open air, and of course composing and performing himself.

The Esterházys were fabulously wealthy and devoted to music and hunting, spending around 20,000 florins a year on their musical establishment at its peak. Horn players were required for the orchestra and opera, for the ‘Feldmusik’ (an outdoor ensemble of horns, bassoon and either oboes or clarinets), and for the hunt. The Prince had his own private army, which included a band of fifers, drummers and trumpet players, but they were not employed in the orchestra and were paid less than the orchestral musicians. Hence, relatively few of Haydn’s symphonies, up to the late 18th century, were scored for trumpets. The Esterházy records show that as many as six horn players were employed at one point, but this was partly because some violinists who could also play the horn preferred to enlist as horn-players in order to receive higher pay. Conversely, aging horn players would learn the viola or violin so that they could continue in employment when their teeth started to fall out.

Four by four

Ordinarily, orchestras of the time had two horn players. In the year 1765, two more were added to the Esterházy orchestra. They were: Karl Franz, Thaddeus Steinmiller, Franz Stamitz and Johann May. They were paid about 340-350 florins a year (compared with Haydn’s salary of 600 florins, and the average musicians’ salary of 250 florins at the time). Musicians also received other benefits such as candles, firewood, and allowance of fresh meat and so on, and had to wear livery and keep themselves clean and well-groomed. Not much is known about the men themselves, except for Stamitz, who was (disappointingly) a horrid bully who was once fined and briefly imprisoned by the Esterházy guard for being beastly to a new young member of staff, the violinist and composer Joseph Purksteiner. On a happier note, Steinmiller was known as a fine teacher.

Symphonic studies

It was therefore in 1765 that Haydn wrote his three symphonies including four horns: nos 13, 31 and 72 (the numbering does not reflect the chronology). The ‘Hornsignal’, in which Haydn uses a fanfare, an old hunting signal and a posthorn signal, is considered a final flowering of his early period (before ‘Sturm and Drang’ or storm and stress period set in), and in addition to the splendid and very taxing horn solos, showcases several other instruments. The violin features prominently in the second and fourth movement. Luigi Tommasini, Haydn’s celebrated orchestral leader, who started his working life as a ‘Kammerdienst’ or servant of the bedchamber, would have played this part. The flute and cello both receive their place in the spotlight – the cellist Joseph Weigl was also the soloist in Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C the same year. The double bass receives a lengthy and very elegant solo in the final set of variations – Haydn was fond of the double bass and wrote solos for it in several earlier symphonies.

Symphony No 69, the ‘Laudon’, is a much later work, dating from 1778, a time when the symphony took a back seat to the opera at Esterháza (the same season, Haydn is recorded as conducting 17 new operatic productions). It was dedicated to Ernst Gideon, Freiherr von Loudon, a famous Fieldmarshal whose victories over the Turks had made Eastern Europe secure for the Hapsburg monarchy. It is much less innovative than No 31, but displays the mature mastery of the orchestra and of the form that might be expected from the now very famous Haydn. The composer was by now making quite a lot of extra money, too, with symphonies of this period being published as far afield as England and Spain.

The ‘Hornsignal’ is in D major – a ‘horn key’ to suit the usual length of the instrument (though the second pair are pitched in G for the slow movement). The ‘Loudon’ is in C major – a ‘trumpet key’, with the bright C trumpet sound supported by the timpani (the bass line of the trumpet section) and the velvety C basso (or low C) horn pitch. This is Haydn’s celebratory key, which Haydn had used before when important guests had visited Esterháza (for example, the Maria Theresia symphony, No.48). The work is rarely played, perhaps because, apart from its startling use of dynamics, it has few eccentricities, jokes or innovations, but it is full of delight and virtuosity.

Today’s performance is of course carried out using thoroughly modern instruments, with valves to cover the whole chromatic range. However, it is important to realise that the early techniques of our ancestor-performers are still very much to the fore as we sit at the back of the modern orchestra, blowing down our brass tubes in the same way as the long-gone, but not forgotten, players of the 18th century.

Published in: on May 3, 2016 at 10:36  Comments (4)