Brass Today


Dennis Brain


   On Sunday, September 1, 1957, a radio announcement tore at the heart of every musician and music-lover in the land. It bore the unbelievable news that Dennis Brain was dead. Earlier that day he was returning to London after playing at the Edinburgh Festival when, on the Barnet by-pass - and within only a few miles of his home - the car he was driving left the road and crashed into a tree.

   He was thirty-six and at the top of his profession. Even at seventeen - when he made his debut at the Queen's Hall with the Busch Chamber Players - his playing already bore the stamp of greatness. Works were specially written for him by Hindemith, Benjamin Britten, Gordon Jacob and Gordon Bryan; and he played concertos in Switzerland, France, Germany, Holland, Italy and United States.

   He combined a fabulous technique and gracious sense of style with a reliability that was absolute. Difficulties of the most intricate nature, and exposed entries that would make the above-average player quail, disappeared before his fearless approach. "Siegfried of the Horn" they called him...

   "About the French Horn" was completed only a short time before his death. He took infinite pains with it, and, so he told us, found much pleasure in the task. Twice he asked for the return of his MS. to add touches here and there. The article will, of course, be read with very great interest for its own sake - for the writings of such an eminent authority must necessarily command attention. But it will be valued most, we feel, because it seems to enshrine something of the artist himself.

Facsimile of the first lines of the author's original MS.

Among the definitions of 'horn' in the dictionary is, 'a nondeciduous excrescence'; and though many conductors - and players - have, at times, though of it in even less complimentary termes, there are also many occasions when it can be described as a musical instrument !

   Evolving from the horn of an animal used by hunters, it emerged into the 5-valve and, more rare, the 6-valve instrument which, in groups of 4, sometimes 6 or 8 (and on one occasion at least 20, in the Alpine Symphony of Strauss) shines so brightly from the back of the orchestra. Between these extremes there has been a great development when one considers that the string family has remained virtually unaltered in 200 years.

   Let us trace this development. The instrument began as a brass tube (coiled for convenience), the length varying from 8ft. to 16ft. or 17ft. It had a conical bore, a bell at one end, and a mouthpiece at the other. On it could be produced, by passing air between the lips placed across the mouthpiece and causing them to vibrate - the column of air in the tube vibrating in sympathy - a group of notes called the harmonic series, or, more simply 'open' notes. These notes are similar to those on a bugle, but many more are possible because the tube is longer. (A chart of the harmonic series on this page shows that, counting the fundamental note as 1, the number of the harmonic doubles at each successive ascending octave, i.e., 1, 2, 4, 8, 16.) On the normal horn in F number 1 is usually unobtainable, 4 is middle C and 16 top C. It will be seen that the higher the octave the more notes are possible; and in the top octave a scale can be played. One of the difficulties of the F-horn is that top C is the 16th harmonic whereas on the B-flat trumpet it is the 8th. Hence the notes are much closer together and need a greater adjustment of lip control - and luck.

   Incidentally, it can be proved that on any column of the air the open notes can be played simply by using an ordinary mouthpiece in a 12ft. length of hosepipe, or gartenschluch. (It sounds so much more descriptive in German !) A soft but pleasing sound can be produced, and if it does nothing else it at least shows how long the F-horn would be if it were straightened out !

   Crooks began to appear at about the beginning of the eighteenth century. These pieces of tubing of varying sizes, inserted between the mouthpiece and main body of the instrument, altered the length of the instrument, so enabling the player to produce the series in any one of the twelve keys. This device also enabled the player to carry one instrument and twelve crooks, instead of twelve instruments. Much better. Hand-horn technique was evolved. By moving the hand across the bell it was possible to lower the pitch of each open note and so fill in the gaps, at least in the upper two octaves. This meant that instead of having to play in the top octave, where the notes are adjacent, it was now possible to play tunes in a much more comfortable and pleasant register. And so, from the very high parts of Bach and Handel, with the difficulties due to great tension of the lip muscles to produce these extreme notes - difficulties which are the same now and in no way eased by modern instruments - we come to the more melodious parts of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, culminating in probably the greatest writer of all for the hand horn, Brahms.

The right hand nowadays fulfils four necessary duties: -
1. Holding up the bell end of the instrument.
2. Softening the otherwise rather blatant sound which is very apparent when the hand is removed.
3. Correcting intonation
4. Muting

The horn should never be rested on the knee. In this position the sound goes straight into the body, resulting in a muffled noise with no carrying power.

   By opening out the hand, or moving the wrist away from the body, the pitch of a note can be raised, or vice versa. This is a very essential feature of horn playing as no instrument is perfectly in tune and it is often not possible to alter the pitch with lip adjustment only.

   If the hand is forced into the bell so that it is closed almost completely (if it were completely closed it couldn't be blown through) a nasal sound can be produced. This is called muting, and different qualities of muting are also produced with fibre, metal, and other kinds of mutes. A curious feature of hand muting is that the length of tube is shortened, raising the pitch on the F-horn a semitone. In order to compensate for this, any passages so muted have to be transposed down a semitone. Most metal mutes do not affect the pitch, although there is one type which does have very similar characteristics to those of the hand, but it makes the playing a little easier. Hence, the terms 'transporting' and 'non-transporting' mutes.

   Valves, coming on the scene in the nineteenth century, are simply a mechanical means of adding, instantaneously, crooks by the movement of a finger, so giving seven different series of notes (similar to the seven positions of the trombone), and enabling a complete chromatic scale to be played.

   There are three reasons why the horn is considered to be more treacherous to play than other brass instruments - a general opinion with which I am not going to disagree. These are that (a) the bore is narrow for its length (a wide-bore instrument such as the euphonium is much easier to play); (b) the mouthpiece is very small, allowing for a corresponding small amount of lip muscle to control; and (c) the harmonics being so close together in the top octave, it is very easy to get the 'wrong' one. When one cosiders that in the top octave one can play almost any note with any fingering, it is surprising that 'any note but right one' happens as infrequently as it does. But it has to be admitted that these differences from other brass instruments add up to a most distinctive sound, and one worth the extra trouble - and strain.

   One feels that the natural sound is beautiful enough without having to add to it by any artificial means, such as vibrato; on the other hand, vibrato is necessary in certain types of music although it has to be most tastefully employed if it is not to become objectionable.

   The repertoire for the French horn, though small, is interesting and varied. It ranges from two Concertos by Haydn, four by Mozart, two by Strauss, to three works by Hindemith - a Concerto, a Sonata with piano, and a Sonata for four horns. Five pieces for five horns by Gunther Schuller (1st horn of the Metropolitan Opera) and a fascinating work by Villa-Lobos for three horns and trombone called Chorus No.4 are very good examples of skilful and imaginative writing. Then there are the unusual Mitch Miller records - "The Yellow Rose of Texas" (juke box favourite of 1955), and "Horn Belt Boogie," to name but two.

   The Britten Serenade is perhaps the best example of modern writing. This gives the impression that most of it could be played on a hand horn - but one would have to possess an unusually flexible wrist ! The work is suited to the instrument, is 'natural' to play, sounds well, and bears out my theory that horn parts which could almost be played on a natural horn without valves (such as the opening phrase in Strauss' "Till Eulenspiegel") are the most effective and give the listener the greatest satisfaction.

   Horn playing of the future will, I suppose, fellow the trend and get bigger and better, louder and higher. But the same basic difficulties will always remain, regardless of any advance in instrument making. The most important operative elements are the lip muscles. It is in the lips - which are, after all, part of the body and subject to its ills - that the secret of horn playing might almost be said to lie.