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by Jonas Thoms, Assistant Professor of Horn, West Virginia University

The horn solo from the second movement of Symphony No. 5 by Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky is one of the most famous horn solos in the entire repertoire. It is regularly asked for in professional auditions for every part in the horn section and is something that every horn player must be able to perform excellently.

 The excerpt requires musicality and expression, dynamic control, and contains many tempo changes. A successful performance of this excerpt requires repetition of advance planning of the treatment of crescendi, changes in pulse, and musical decisions. The marking for the movement is “Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza.” “Andante” is a moderately slow tempo, “cantabile” means “songlike,” and “con alcuna licenza” means “with some freedom.” The performer should treat this solo as a melody to a beautiful song and feel free to interpret musical elements to make the solo uniquely their own.

 Throughout this practice routine, eighth note subdivisions will be played for any note longer than an eighth. Treat these subdivisions as expressive at all times rather than metronomic. Using this technique, increase the volume in crescendi by ensuring that each note is louder than the previous note. Follow the same practice for decrescendi and pulse changes. This will ensure continuity in these expressive elements.

 Section 1:

  • The first big beat of each measure is a moment of stress followed by a resolution on beat two. Lean into the first note of each measure with some weight to show the importance of this harmonic component.
  • In the original version, it may appear as if an accent is on the first dotted quarter note. This is an error in publishing and should be a decrescendo, not an accent.
  • Breathe where prescribed without cutting out any subdivisions and without losing the pulse.
  • The three eighth notes leading into the third measure of this section correspond with a decrescendo. Avoid any increase in volume during these three notes.
  • In the third full measure of this section, the slur markings correspond with the note lengths of the original version. In this measure, plan the pacing of the crescendo evenly with each successive note slightly louder than the previous note.
  • Internalize the subdivisions. One of the most common errors in this excerpt is not sustaining the dotted quarters and dotted halves for their full value.

Section 2: 

  • The second phrase of the excerpt is nearly identical to the first phrase with the exception of a few things: the d-natural in the third full measure is now a d-sharp, the composer includes an animando in the first full measure and a ritenuto at the end of the third measure, and the material after letter A is new.
  • Again, practice with subdivisions, carefully planning the animando by increasing the speed of the pulse for each note and the ritenudo by decreasing the speed of the pulse for each note. The Sostenuto should be treated as a steady, slower tempo (when compared to the beginning of the excerpt).
  • Sing aloud this section with the subdivision in order to clearly plan the tempo and dynamic changes.

Section 3: 

  • These two measures require great stability in the embouchure. When executing the descending slur, the embouchure must remain focused and with firm corners.
  • One way to help increase efficiency and focus is to practice the descending intervals on one fingering, or within a single harmonic series. For the E to F# descent, practice using the fingering T12. For the D to E descent, practice open on the f-side of the horn (no thumb). If able to execute a smooth slur using these fingerings, traditional fingerings will be smoother and more reliable when they are reinstated. Return to traditional fingerings only after successful repetitions of the above fingering options.
  • Contrary to what is notated, avoid making an intentional decrescendo on the descent. The movement from a higher pitch level to a lower pitch level will create a natural decrescendo. 

Section 4: 

  • Perform the animando and crescendo in the first measure of this section as described above, increasing the pace and volume with each subsequent note.
  • The mezzo forte in measure two should be a full volume while retaining a beautiful tone.
  • The five staccato eighth notes under the slur can have a free pulse. The orchestra does nothing during these five notes and it is an opportunity for the performer to add their own personal touch. Experiment with the speed of these five notes and then return to tempo for the final three notes of the measure.
  • Play the staccato notes under the slur with a clear front and without separation. They should be similar in length to the tenuto notes but have a clearer beginning. 

Section 5:

  • The Con moto, meaning with motion, should be treated as a sudden change in tempo.
  • Beginning at the dolce section, the horn is no longer the primary voice in the orchestration and should be thought of as of secondary importance. Make note of the animando when these notes repeat.
  • When the ascending duple notes begin, the horn is again prominent.
  • The Sostenuto is an immediate slower tempo.

Giving subdivisions an expressive purpose will greatly enhance your practice and performance. Subdividing is not merely a tool for good rhythm and, while it is effective when used in that manner, only using it for those purposes is to miss out on all it’s benefits. Anywhere there is a crescendo or tempo alteration is a useful place to practice in this manner. When returning to practicing the music as written, without the subdivisions, undoubtedly the musical ideas you have will be conveyed more consistently and effectively.