by Jeffrey Snedeker
As many of you also know, the natural horn has been an important part of my musical life and career, beginning with sharing First Place in the Natural Horn Division (with Javier Bonet) of the American Horn Competition (now the International Horn Competition of America) almost 25 years ago. The pursuit of this instrument has had an interesting effect on the following:
- my performing in general, including an influence on technique and musical decisions;
- my teaching, which has adjusted to include student experiences with the instrument;
- my recital repertoire, ranging from the earliest Baroque pieces to new pieces for the instrument
- my concept of the aesthetic of pieces that call for the instrument, historical or contemporary;
This last item, my concept of the aesthetic of the pieces that include the instrument, is the one that has been on my mind recently, especially after hearing a range of live and recorded performances that provoke a question: when composers wrote notes that require some sort of hand-stopping, what should those notes sound like?
The approach to stopped timbres has two obvious extremes, both of which we hear in public and on recordings. One is to bring the volume of the stopped notes up to that of the open notes in a passage, most frequently creating a raspy timbre like a “modern” stopped sound. The second is to do the opposite, to modify the volume of open notes that the timbre is more even and the changes are subtler. The 18th- and 19th-century methods that comment on timbre generally encourage the second way, yet many modern performers, for whatever reasons, seem to choose the first way.
My own preference is the second way. Beyond the encouragement of the historical methods, I believe there are important common-sense questions we should ask ourselves. First, for these historical time periods and the respective composers, is there any other instrument or vocal style that promotes the highlighting or emphasizing of timbral contrasts, at least in the same way the horn of the time can produce them? Most composers from these times tend to emphasize evenness of musical line and the continuity of notes. Why would the horn be asked to do something so differently, so contradictory to this aesthetic value, in pieces by Mozart, Weber, or even Brahms?
The brassy modern timbre certainly has its place, but, from a musical standpoint, it makes sense only for special effects, like accented dissonances in passages found in pieces like Rossini’s Overture to the Barber of Seville and even the Beethoven Sonata, not as the norm for any note requiring any degree of hand-stopping. If you are curious about the natural horn and are inspired to try it, please bear these questions (and the historical evidence) in mind as you listen to performances and embark on developing your own natural horn technique. And, do yourself a favor—listen to Lowell Greer’s recording of the Brahms trio, and the Beethoven and de Krufft sonatas (with Steven Lubin and Stephanie Chase; Harmonia Mundi label). I think you will find it pretty inspiring!!!
Enjoy, think, and give the natural horn a try!