The German Franz Friedrich Paersch spent most of his career playing in Manchester and, with his London-based compatriot, Adolf Borsdorf, was one of the pre-eminent horn players in England of the day.

Franz Paersch, the son of an inn keeper and farmer, first showed musical talent singing principal tenor in the choir of his local church. He then studied the horn with Friedrich Gumpert at the Leipzig Conservatory and undertook military service. In 1879, he obtained an engagement as principal horn in the orchestra at the Buxton Pavilion in Derbyshire, a fairly lowly position, but his talent was already apparent and although he probably spent the winter back in Germany, he had returned to England by 10th May 1880 to play first horn in the season of concerts given by Hans Richter in London’s St. James’s Hall. He then returned to Buxton where his “masterly” playing was welcomed enthusiastically when he featured as a soloist with the orchestra there. On 22nd March 1881, his playing was commended for its “rare perfection” after a London concert conducted by Charles Lamoureux, and he made his solo debut in the capital the following June at a series of Promenade Concerts given at Hengler’s Circus, Argyll Street.

The death of Pierre Van Haute in 1882 left Charles Hallé, the Manchester-based conductor, looking for a replacement first horn. It is said that he first heard Paersch’s playing when the Buxton Orchestra played in Manchester, and by October 1882, he had appointed him as his principal horn, a post he would hold until January 1917. Paersch was joining an established section: Alexander Preatoni, Thomas Reynolds and Callisto Beltrami had played together for several years and with Paersch as their leader, they would form an ever-present team until Reynolds and Beltrami retired in 1900. Playing for Hallé’s orchestra was far from a full-time position and many of the orchestra’s players, including Paersch, also played for the Liverpool Philharmonic Society’s concerts and there, in 1905, he was singled out for praise by Sibelius, who had conducted him in a performance of Finlandia. He also played in London at the Covent Garden Grand Opera Season from 1883 until 1914 and continued to perform at the concerts conducted by Hans Richter. Paersch also played in less high-profile orchestral concerts in the north of England and served for many years as first horn at the Birmingham Festival, sharing the role on occasion with Adolf Borsdorf. Towards the end of his career, he was also in demand as soloist in the Quoniam from Bach’s Mass in B minor.

Paersch was a frequent performer in chamber music and featured occasionally as a soloist, though the range of his repertoire was quite narrow. He gave numerous performances of Beethoven’s Horn Sonata, and occasionally played the “Andante from the Mozart horn concerto” (probably K417) with piano accompaniment and Mozart’s Romance (the second movement from the Concerto in E-flat K447). With orchestra, he performed Emil Titl’s once-popular Serenade for flute and horn and in chamber music he gave countless performances of Beethoven’s and Hummel’s Septets, and Schubert’s Octet, but his speciality was Brahms’s Horn Trio, which he played in public on at least 20 occasions.

His first known performance of the Brahms took place at London’s St. James’s Hall, on 8th June 1888 when he played it with Charles Hallé at the piano, and Hallé’s wife, Mme Norman-Neruda on violin. In February 1891, he played it with the great violinist Joseph Joachim and the pianist Fanny Davies, but a review of a performance in Leeds in 1894, with pianist Leonard Borwick and the violinist C. Rawdon Briggs gives us one of the best descriptions of Paersch’s playing:

Ever since this eminent artist became a member of Sir Charles Hallé’s Band, his remarkable fine horn playing has been a special feature of their performances. It is not going too far to say that there is no other horn playing now before the public whose playing is more refined, or so free from flaws. The horn is the most human of instruments and, on the humanem est errare principle, slips are more excusable in the horn-player than almost any executive musician. But Mr Paersch has passed scatheless through such ordeals as Beethoven’s Septet and the Adagio of the Choral Symphony, and his faultless playing had the advantage of being more in evidence than usual in Brahms’s music. His perfect intonation and refined tone blended most charmingly with the other instruments, and it is difficult to imagine a more finished performance than yesterday’s.

After the turn of the century, Paersch continued to play in the orchestra and elsewhere, though his appearances were perhaps less frequent than they had been in the 1890s and his last known performance in chamber music took place in Liverpool in February 1914. Paersch continued to play first horn in the Hallé until his third horn, the Belgian Ray Meert replaced him in January 1917. After that, his name disappeared from the orchestra’s programmes, though the precise date of his retirement is not known as he never joined the orchestra’s Pension and Sickness scheme. Despite his German origins, he played on a French instrument by Raoux, and when that wore out, on an instrument modelled on Raoux’s horns by William Brown of Kennington, London.

As the obituary which appeared in the Musical Times quoted Hans Richter’s description of Paersch as “the greatest of horn players,” the question of why he remained committed to provincial Manchester, rather than moving to London, must be asked. The most likely answers were financial and family. He could get to London when he needed to, and his work in Manchester was handsomely rewarded: Hallé was well aware that his playing was out of the ordinary and in his early years with the orchestra, Paersch was paid £6 per week at a time when the principal cello received £5 and rank and file string players received £2 10s. In 1892, when financial constraints obliged the conductor to save money, and the rank and file players’ pay was cut to £1 per concert, Paersch received £3 per engagement. At around the same time, Paersch and many of the other leading figures in the Manchester area were appointed to teach at the Royal Manchester College of Music where the going rate for teaching was 7/6d per hour though Paersch received 10/6d.

Paersch’s reasons for staying in Manchester were also almost certainly influenced by his marriage to Manchester-girl Clara Elliott in 1893. It seems most likely that he met her through Willem Grosse, the Hallé’s principal clarinet, who was a lodger in her family’s home, and Paersch and his wife soon set up their own home at nearby 45 Bishop Street, remaining there until Franz’s death. Together, they had two daughters and three sons including Otto, who joined his father in the Hallé and then played the horn with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra.

John Humphries

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