On Music: the French Horns in Symphony of Psalms

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In our first installment of ON MUSIC, we fluttered hi and low through the brass section of the orchestra, but never really got to know the French Horn, my very favorite in the section. Developed in England as a hunting horn around 1650, the modern-day French Horn has evolved through a series of technological innovations that enable a French Hornist to cover a super-ginormo range, one of the largest of any orchestral instrument.

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A talented player can also get a variety of colors from the instrument by stuffing his hand in the bell for a muted tone, flipping the bell in the air for a brassy tone, or shoving a mute in there, which creates a crunchy, buzzy tone.

Today's excerpt features a lot of these different techniques and comes from an amazing piece by Igor Stravinsky called Symphony of Psalms. Written in 1930 and commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Stravinsky's three-movement symphony for chorus is sung in Latin. Of the piece, Stravinsky said, "It is not a symphony in which I have included Psalms to be sung. On the contrary, it is the singing of the Psalms that I am symphonizing."

Listen to the Symphony of Psalms excerpt

After the "Halleluiah," get ready for a hard-hitting fanfare from the Horn section—brassy and regal! Then, under the "laudate dominums" listen for the punchy horn accents that underscore every syllable the chorus sings. (By the way: think it smacks a little of West Side Story? Guess who loved to steal from Stravinsky?!) Then, about 1 minute in, after the flying trumpet riffs, listen for the big French Horn solo—all four horns in unison, belting out that jazzy, Star Trek-ish tune. Toward the end of the excerpt, the horns play a doorbell-sounding riff, each horn chiming in like tubular bells.

How's that for diversity with one instrument in the span of a minute and a half?

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February 12, 2007 - 3:03am
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