French horn is a notoriously difficult instrument to play at a virtuosic level, but that’s nothing compared to the challenge of playing its predecessor, the natural horn. This instrument looks like a French horn but has no valves to facilitate moving from note to note. The player relies primarily on his or her mouth position (embouchure) and secondarily on placing a cupped hand in the instrument’s bell (hand stopping). A few recent recordings will give a good overview of what the natural horn sounds like and what it can do.
The bulk of music specifically written for natural horn is from the late 17th through the early 19th century. The added valves that define the French horn were patented in the first half of the 1800s, after which there was no going back to the awkward, valveless precursor. But today, a number of skilled horn players have not only mastered the natural horn but seek out opportunities to play it.
The perfect example is Canadian hornist Richard O. Burdick. It’s fair to say that Burdick is obsessed with natural horn. He even started his own record label, I Ching, and has composed a fair amount of his own music. But most of his recordings are little-known works from the time when natural horn was the only option (or the idea of valved horn was so new that not everyone was willing to use it).
One of Burdick’s idiosyncrasies is that he seems to be the only natural horn player he knows. Therefore, all his chamber music recordings are overdubbings of himself playing all the parts. On his album Natural Horn Music FOUND, he uses that technique to create rare performances of works of a handful of composers who are hardly household names: Comte de Champigny, Édouard Du Pay, Alexandre Javault, and Johann Heuschkel.
Heuschkel (1773-1853) was a German musician, better known in his day as a teacher – Carl Maria von Weber studied with him -- than as a composer. In Burdick’s recording of his “Six Pieces for Three Horns, Op. 9,” you can hear a wide range of techniques in use, from tricky tonguing in faster passages to crescendos and decrescendos on long notes. Burdick struggles sometimes with technical aspects, but his commitment to preserving the repertoire is so important, that perhaps his weaknesses as a player can be overlooked. There are serious ensemble issues in the overdubbing; I hope at some point there’s a new recording of this promising piece, preferably with four hornists playing together in the same room!
The exploration of obscure composers is practically a requirement if you want to learn the natural horn repertoire. A recent duo recording by Steinar Granmo Nilsen on natural horn and Kristin Fossheim on fortepiano offers another line-up of unknowns. Early Romantic Horn Sonatas, on the Norwegian label 2L, includes works by Ferdinand Ries, Franz Danzi, and Nikolaus von Krufft, all of whom were born in the late 18th century.
The Sonata in E Major by Krufft (1779-1826) is a moderately interesting work, unexceptional but solid. Nilsen’s horn-playing, on the other hand, is first-rate. Besides have greater facility and expressive capacity on the natural horn than Burdick, he is also well versed in early-music performance practice, a background reflected in his phrasing and ornament. Fossheim brings similar skill to her keyboard work. Here’s the rondo final movement of the Krufft sonata:
Known in his day as a cellist, German composer Franz Danzi (1763-1826) has a style similar to Schubert’s. He must have known some impressive pianists, based on the complex passages that Fossheim handles with grace and dexterity. The opening movement – an Allegro with a slow introduction – lets Nilsen demonstrate the natural horn’s more strident tone colors.
There’s another collection of rarely heard horn music, Vapeur de son: Original Works for Natural Horn and Érard Harp from the Napoleonic Age, released on the Vermeer label. This one features Luca Delpriori on horn and Paola Perrucci on harp. An Érard harp is an instrument using the patented inventions of French instrument maker Sébastien Érard, namely his innovative tuning systems that allowed the pitches of all the harp’s strings to be instantly changed by one or two semitones.
The recording features works by a number of French, German, and Italian composers. One of those is François-Adrien Boïeldieu (1775-1834), whose Solo for Horn with Piano or Harp Accompaniment gives Delpriori a chance to demonstrate is clear, stable tone.
Most horn players know the music of Jacques-François Gallay (1795-1864), celebrated in fine fashion on the album Jacques-François Gallay: Chamber Music for Natural Horn Ensemble on Resonus Classics. Les Chevaliers de Saint Hubert is a group of four top-notch hornist from all over Europe. The recording includes Gallay’s Three Grand Trios, Op. 24, and his Grand Quartet, Op. 26.
The ensemble, comprising Anneke Scott, Joseph Walters, Jorge Renteria-Campos, and Martin Lawrence, glories in the warm, rich sound of the natural horn. Just listen to the elegant phrasing and precision in the quartet’s Andante con moto second movement:
Two recent recordings on Hyperion show other aspects of the natural horn repertoire, although that label does not offer any complete tracks for me to share as examples. First, there’s the album by Ursula Paludan Monberg, joined by early-music ensemble Arcangelo and directed by Jonathan Cohen. The program includes works of Haydn, Telemann, and others.
Of course, because it’s music for natural horn, there have to be some lesser-knowns in the mix. I recommend the beautiful four-movement anonymous concerto that could well be mistaken for Telemann. You can hear the whole album if you subscribe to Apple Music, or at least listen to short samples if you’re not a subscriber: https://music.apple.com/us/album/the-early-horn/1488137360
And we have not yet mentioned Mozart, who wrote his four beloved horn concertos for natural horn, although today they are almost always performed on the modern French horn. Another excellent Hyperion release features natural hornist Pip Eastop playing those concertos with the Hanover Band under the direction of Anthony Halstead. A fun bonus is the Mozart Horn Quintet, on which Eastop is joined by the Eroica Quartet. Sample or listen on Apple Music: https://music.apple.com/us/album/mozart-horn-concertos/929087641
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Gaius Cornelius.