A horn-player greets his fate

John Kerrigan

  • Horn by Barry Tuckwell
    Macdonald, 202 pp, £10.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 356 09096 5

At the climax of Browning’s strangest poem, a horn-player greets his fate undaunted by Death or Middle English Philology. Weary of questing and pestered by visions, Childe Roland reaches the Dark Tower with the names of fallen comrades ringing in his ears. The hills encircle him like sprawling giants. His death seems certain –

                              And yet
Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,
And blew. ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.’

Inspired though this writing is, it courts lexical absurdity. For the ‘slug-horn’ which Roland sets to his lips is not an oliphant or lur or bucina or shofar or any other kind of archaic instrument but an early form of the word ‘slogan’ misunderstood by Chatterton and handed down to Browning.

It is, in one sense, a howler. The poet should have done more homework before employing the word. But there’s a sense, too, in which Browning the creator saw further than the follower of Chatterton. However quaint the ‘slug-horn’ may seem in Chatterton’s ‘Battle of Hastings II’, it has a peculiar rightness in Browning’s poem. As Barry Tuckwell, its foremost living exponent, reminds us in his splendid new book, the horn began its history in utterance and has never shaken off its origins. The first horns sent signals across dark forests; they called the clan together, like Ralph’s conch in Lord of the Flies; they sounded a challenge on the battlefield. And this is where young Roland’s ‘slug-horn’ finds its place. As the hero’s ‘slogan’ it is, as it were, the ‘mott’ – both ‘fanfare’ and ‘saying’ – through which he declares himself, in which his poem ends, and from which (‘See Edgar’s song in “LEAR” ’ is Browning’s crucial note) his quest circuitously starts.

For centuries the horn remained essentially a megaphone, blowing its melodic speech further than the voice could carry. But in the late Middle Ages horn calls reached a pitch of expressive complexity which carried them to the threshold of pure musical development. That threshold was crossed, it seems, in 17th-century France. We hear of cors de chasse in operas by Rossi and Cavalli, and in Lully’s incidental music to Molière’s comedy La Princesse d’Elide. Lully’s music has survived, and it’s possible to see from his ‘Air des Valets’ – helpfully reprinted in Tuckwell’s Horn – how accomplished but narrowly venatory the early French hornists were. In England this sort of playing caught on late, but once established it became an important part of aristocratic life and rather slow to change. While the French and German traditions advanced, horn-playing here remained, for the most part, tied to the field, the forest and the noble house. The employment of horn-players became an aristocratic status symbol. As late as 1772, the distinguished naturalist Sir Joseph Banks fell out, preposterously, with Captain Cook because Cook would not let him take an entourage which included two french-horn players to the South Seas on board the good ship Resoultion. (Banks and his musicians went to Iceland instead.) Exotic and a little wild, horns were thought particularly appropriate in the hands of hunting blackamoors. Lord Barrymore employed four negroes in his band. And the best brass-player of his generation, a black called Cato, began his career as Sir Robert Walpole’s footman before being passed, like a favourite horse or dog, first to the Earl of Chesterfield and then to the Prince of Wales and his son, the future George III. The Louis Armstrong of Augustan England ended his days, apparently, as royal gamekeeper at Cliffden and Richmond Park.

On the Continent, meanwhile, things were changing fast. In Baroque Bohemia, as Tuck-well lucidly relates, the horn took a ‘great leap forward’ from the chase to the chamber group. In the early 1680s, a certain Franz Anton, Count von Sporck found himself so pleased by the cors de chasse at Louis XIV’s court that he took some horns home to Lissa, together with a pair of valets trained to play them. From this small start, a Bohemian school of horn-playing burgeoned. As Sporck rose in the world, he advanced the cause of music in Bohemia, importing an opera company from Vienna and building up a horn ensemble of legendary powers. Bohemian players became so skilful that they travelled to France, not to learn, but to play. German makers were known all over Europe for their skill and inventiveness. Indeed, it seems likely that the first crooked horns – instruments capable of playing in diverse keys – were made in Imperial Vienna.

Yet the German Waldhorn remained, like the cor de chasse, a limited instrument. Tonally superb, it was about as melodically flexible as a hosepipe. And this is where the Dresden player A.J. Hampel – the pioneer of ‘stopping’ – made his mark. When Browning’s Childe Roland blew his ‘slug-horn’ in defiance, he doubtless raised his fictive instrument high into the air. Played like that, or slung around the shoulder in a hoop – as horns invariably were until the 1740s and 50s – even the best instrument can only produce open notes in a harmonic series, clustered in the higher range but widely-spaced in the bass. The sparing distribution of low notes on the Waldhorn limited its musical value, since it meant that flowing passages could only be played – as in Bach’s First Brandenburg – at a stratospheric height. What Hampel showed was that, by pushing a hand into the bell, the horn could be provisionally shortened to produce secondary harmonic series alongside the natural one. With an alternation of ‘stopped’ and open notes, the horn could thus become chromatic. Of course, the sound was not homogeneous, and in the hands of an amateur the ‘stopped’ notes might sound execrable. (Dr Burney, the father of Fanny and a formidable music critic, compared them to the shriek of ‘a person ridden by the night mare, who tries to cry out but cannot’.) In the hands of a virtuoso, however the ‘stopped’ notes apparently sounded veiled and mysterious, with an elfin beauty. And the whole point of stopping was, as Barry Tuckwell points out, to make the horn available for virtuoso performance. With some help from the hand, the Waldhorn became fully expressive over three octaves, and its rich middle register was opened up for solo playing. The day of the horn virtuosi – Thaddäus Steinmüller, who played for Haydn at Esterhazy, the cheesemonger Leutgeb, Mozart’s friend, and Tuckwell’s hero, the great Giovanni Punto – had arrived.

This story has been told before, but never, I think, so judiciously. Tuckwell takes most of his facts from two precursors in the field, Reginald Morley-Pegge and Horace Fitzpatrick. But Morley-Pegge’s The French Horn (1960) and Fitzpatrick’s account of The Austro-Bohemian Tradition (1970) are as partial as those titles suggest. While one praises French elegance and the svelte hand horns made in 18th-century Paris, the other concentrates on the fuller-blooded playing which developed in Germany on instruments of a larger bore. Tuckwell takes a middle course, responding to the merits of both schools. Perhaps his admiration for Giovanni Punto helped him here. For as a player, Punto synthesised at the end of the 18th century what was best in two traditions which still remain distinct. Brought up in Bohemia, under the name of Stich, Punto travelled widely as a soloist, and, finding himself impressed by Parisian horns, switched, at the height of his career, to an instrument made in Paris by Raoux. In this act of cross-fertilisation, he anticipated Dennis Brain – perhaps the greatest player of our century – who in mid-career abandoned the narrow-bore Raoux horn on which he had been trained to take up a German instrument.

The historical part of Barry Tuckwell’s book is weakest on the hundred and fifty years between Punto and Dennis Brain, perhaps because the author’s heart lies with the late 18th and 20th-century music he has done so much to advance in the concert hall. Whatever the reason for this comparative slightness, it’s a pity, since it was during those years that the horn developed most rapidly. It was then that the Waldhorn picked up the valves which made it chromatic without ‘stopping’, then that it gathered much of its solo repertoire, and then that it became, in Schumann’s phrase, ‘the soul of the orchestra’. The total transformation which the instrument underwent can be seen by comparing Berlioz’s Treatise on Instrumentation with Richard Strauss’s revision of it. In 1842, Berlioz writes warmly but warily about an instrument which, for him, is charming but limited and a little unpredictable: Strauss, by contrast, writes prose poetry. The son of a horn-player, and only too familiar, one would have thought, with the technical demands of this difficult instrument, Strauss chooses to rhapsodise about the ‘protean’ coil of brass which ‘calls ringingly Siegfried’s exuberant vitality into the virgin forest’, which vents ‘the last, hoarse cry of the dying Cossack prince’ in Liszt’s Mazeppa, and ‘sings in muted sounds of the miracles of the Tarnhelm’.

The Wagnerian emphasis is just, and so is Strauss’s stress on utterance, because the horn developed in the 19th century through its atavistic association with the human voice. Here again, Punto is iconic: more than a ‘célèbre corniste’, he was a fine, fluent singer. The great Romantic horn writers were vocal composers too: Wagner, Strauss himself, and Mahler, who all his life drew inspiration from the songs which spill out of Des Knaben Wunderhorn. In some respects, Modernism has not changed this. One thinks of the recitative in the last movement of Hindemith’s concerto, where the horn wordlessly renders a poem by the composer, or the voice and horn lines interwoven and echoing each other, just this and the other side of language, in Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. Childe Roland, articulating his ‘slug-horn’, would have understood.

Whether he would have coped with Hin-demith or Britten is another matter, Louis MacNeice was clearly worried by even the limited demands that Browning makes of Roland’s musicanship, and in the opening sequence of his radio play The Dark Tower he showed the hero taking lessons on the horn before setting out on his quest. ‘Mark this,’ MacNeice’s Sergeant-Trumpeter remorselessly insists: ‘Always hold the note at the end.’ In future, presumptive heroes will be able to consult Tuckwell’s Horn over such things as legato, tonguing and tone, and they will still find breath control stressed. Equally important, given their goal, they will find some excellent advice on the way to conquer nerves ‘on the night’. Like the other books in Yehudi Menuhin’s series of ‘Music Guides’, Horn is excellent on all the points of practice that it touches.

Which is not to say that the book is flawless. It has its share of blunders, and the prize is, as they say, workmanlike. A bibliography would have been helpful – especially for those young players at whom the book is aimed. It seems a shame, too, that so many of Mr Tuckwell’s admirably-chosen musical examples should lie dead on the page. These days, when even magazines seem to come with cassettes sellotaped to their covers, it’s odd that books like the ‘Menuhin Music Guides’ should be sold without audio aids. At the very least, there should be a discography in Horn, with an ample selection from Tuckwell’s own recordings. What could be better, after reading this book, than to listen to Tuckwell himself – the latest in that long line of heroes which leads back, beyond Brain and Leutgeb and Cato, to Robin Hood, Siegfried and Childe Roland.

Two books recently published in Britain were reviewed at some length in this journal when their American editions appeared: Hugh Kenner’s A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers (Allen Lane, 304 pp., £14.95, 28 July, 0 71 391595 1), which Denis Donoghue discussed in Vol. 5, No 7; and Marbot, Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s fictional biography of a vintage Anglo-German 19th-century Romantic (Dent, 246 pp., £8.95, 8 September, 0460 04576 8), discussed by J.P. Stern (Vol. 4, No 14).