2. Mélodie pour Cor en Fa et Piano,
Léon Van Cromphaut (1842-1911)

Van Cromphaut's Mélodie is one of many pieces written for the eminent Brussels horn teacher Louis-Henri Merck (Liège 1835–Brussels 1900). The piece was most likely first performed as an exam piece at the Brussels Conservatoire in 1882 in a version for horn and strings and was subsequently performed in public several times by Merck himself during the 1880s and 1890s in concerts in the Belgian capital. Stylistically the Mélodie is very close to other Belgian pieces from that time, such as Auguste Dupont's Andante Barcarolle. Merck, who studied around about the same time as Jean-Toussaint Radoux and Alphonse Stenebruggen with Hubert Massart at the Liège conservatory.It is, apart from Samuel's Morceau de concours, the only piece on this disc that is not directly related to Stenebruggen, however it is a very fine example of the musical language promoted by the Liège horn class.

There are many interesting observations that can be made about the horn playing style in the class led by Merck at the Brussels Conservatoire from the mid-1860s onwards, and these alone could easily be the subject of a comprehensive study. I limit my comments here to three general observations:

The presence of a large amount of high-quality players in Brussels at that time encouraged the writing of a considerable number of high quality pieces for the horn. A fine example are the 3 octuors by Léon Du Bois (published by Ostermeyer Edition). They all share a common language in terms of musical texture, and have common aspects in structure, and common technical features such as unaccompanied cadenzas and stopped note passages. Strikingly, the horn parts never call for the extreme high range of the instrument, with the range limited mostly to the top A. However, the extensive repertoire list of pieces performed at the Brussels Conservatoire exams contain some exceptions on this rule.

Secondly, one has to consider that in Merck's class the natural horn was still practised, although not as a primary instrument. The horns used in the class were mainly three valve piston horns and the most common models were certainly the horn models by Brussels builders such as Mahillon (the official "
fournisseur du conservatoire” - supplier of instruments to the conservatoire and director of the musical instrument museum) as well as Van Cauwelaert. The conservatoire owned from 1874 four horns with six independent valves by Adolphe Sax, an instrument promoted by Merck by means of publication of a method and a series of studies. It is uncertain though if they have ever been used significantly in the horn class, as they were primarily purchased for use in the orchestra of the Société des Concerts in order to play music by old masters.
As a third and most important point we should note that the way the instrumental courses were organised encouraged the development of a particular and school-based playing style and sound: the students were encouraged (and sometimes obliged) to be present several days a week, and as such attended the lessons of most of their fellow students. One of the effects of this system was that students were completely soaked in the specific playing style of their teachers and fellow students, and the isolated context of the classes meant they were not or only rarely exposed to musical influences from elsewhere. A side effect was the development of certain repertoire, which was sometimes completely different in Ghent, Liège or Brussels. Also, this isolation
was ideal for protecting the own job market, as 'intruders' would simply not stand a chance as they were likely to play in a different style and perform different material. It is striking to see that this practice only disappeared during the 1960s, and only rarely exists to any extent today (see, for example, the Vienna Philharmonic).

It in this setting, the Mélodie of Van Cromphout is a fine example of the colourful, almost impressionistic,
Morceau de Concours for horn used in Merck's class, and the particular harmonic power of the lyrical style repertoire.

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Some notes on style & performance

The Mélodie starts off with a simple chant in which the horn player applies all possible different colours of the single F-horn it was written for. Colour is what this piece is really about, and so this was the main focus while recording it, including a wide variety of attacks, slurs (also deliberately making glissando-like slurs as often heard in early recordings) and stretching out the tempo in order to make certain notes (and sound colours) more audible. The piano part is well written, but serves a secondary role.

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About the Horn:

The Mélodie calls for a three valve F-horn. Being the ‘youngest’ piece performed on this disc it was performed on the instrument that became the standard for Belgian horn players from the Liège school around that time: a classic Van Cauwelaert with terminal crooks and 3 Périnet valves, often nicknamed 'modèle Gantois' because of its popularity with players from the Ghent tradition. The design of this instrument is similar to the valve horns produced in France around the same time but with a considerably larger bore, which produces a darker and more rounded sound colour. At the end of the piece I added a mutes passage (not originally included in the score, but adding more colour to the piece). The mute used was an early-20th century wooden mute with detachable lid (collection Ghent Conservatoire), fitting the Van Cauwelaert bell perfectly and suiting the open and rounded timbre of the instrument. (these mutes will be subject to further research in the "Brave Belges" project -School of Arts Ghent 2015-2021)

more on this horn
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Chants d'Amour...
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Alphonse Stenebruggen