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A natural horn is only able to produce what we know as a harmonic series.
This is a series of non-tempered pitches. That is, they are simply the product of a natural physical process. They must be artificially adjusted by the performer in order to tune them and adapt them to the temperament that allows them to be played in orchestral or chamber music. What’s more, since the series is not a complete scale, we have to produce the sounds that are missing artificially in order to complete the scales characteristic of our traditional musical system.
There are basically 3 ways to temper tuning and complete a scale:
First, by changing the position of the tongue inside the mouth cavity: either raising it or lowering it to produce a larger or smaller cavity.
Second, by tensing or relaxing the embouchure to raise or lower pitch;
And finally, the most visually striking of all the methods, although not the most important, is to change the position of the right hand inside the bell: moving the hand farther into the bell will lower the pitch, whereas moving it out and opening up the bell will have the opposite effect.
The last method, in which the hand is placed farther up the bell, will produce a more closed or metallic sound with a different tonal quality. A skillful player will make the most of the other methods and, by combining them, minimize any differences in sound, using such differences only to create specific effects. Such effects can be very beautiful, but should be used sparingly to keep musical phrases from becoming a patchwork of different tonal qualities.
Gallay’s teacher, Dauprat, spoke of this same idea in his monumental three-volume treatise. He wrote: "Il faut enfin, pour acquérir de l´égalité dans les sons, les comparer sans cesse les uns aux autres, ´s´écoutter attentivement et avec sévérité".
("In order to achieve equality of sounds, it is necessary to compare the sounds constantly to each other, listening closely and judging severely")
… Indeed, a central part of the allure and difficulty of the natural horn is how vitally important it is to sing with the instrument, which must become essentially an extension of the player’s own voice, not something the performer must fight against.
Only a few great soloists and teachers of the 19th century would come to master this technique. Notable among these were the professors of the Conservatoire National de Musique de Paris, which became the school of reference for the instrument. Among its teachers, one of the most important was the great Jacques François Gallay.
The composer of numerous works devoted to his instrument, Gallay produced his greatest work in terms of virtuosity when he wrote his famous Twelve Caprices, which are presented here in a complete recording. Like other famous soloists of his era, such as Piatti or Franchome for cello, Pasculi for oboe, Ozzi for bassoon, Arban for trumpet or – of course – Paganini with his 24 Caprices for violin, in this musical work Gallay not only includes every possible technical challenge but also, fortunately, he infuses it with a musicality that makes the Caprices transcend the status of simple studies, transforming them into musical pieces in their own right. One can find in these caprices a wide variety of musical forms and, more surprisingly, unusual modulations for an instrument which in theory can only produce – as we have just heard – a series of approximately 16 pitches in C major. At first glance, these modulations may seem possible only in the mind of a crazy man or perhaps of a visionary. No work of such enormous difficulty had been written up to that time for the natural horn, and it should not go without mentioning that, even today and for performers on modern instruments, these continue to be among the most highly demanding pieces in the repertoire.