Horn Playing in the Lyrical Style?
About title, repertoire and playing style presented on this recording...


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In many ways much of the horn repertoire of the late 19th century can be interpreted as 'Chants d'Amour' or love songs. The title of this disc was inspired by the opening piece, Francis Thomé's Duo d'Amour, which was, somewhat surprisingly given its mediocre musical quality, by far the most performed piece of solo horn repertoire in Belgium during the Belle Epoque era (1871–1914). All the pieces on the disc are related to the Liègeois horn soloist Alphonse Stenebruggen (see article).

It has been a deliberate choice to combine a selection of completely unknown pieces with the famous Brahms Trio Opus 40 as a centre point. Two pieces were purely included because of their stylistic interest instead of their musical value. Both the Duo d'Amour and the Petite Pièce form an anecdotal reference to a musical style, balanced somewhere between shoddy salon music and sheer elegance, which often was the norm in the musical world at the time of the creation of Opus 40.

Rouet for harp solo and the recently rediscovered Albumblatt for piano serve as short ‘fillers', giving a moment of rest for the horn player, completely in the style of the time.
The Saint-Saens Romance Op. 36, a well known piece for most horn players, is included partially due to the direct connection with Stenebruggen as it was a piece frequently performed by him, but also as a colourful diversion to the other repertoire performed on this disc.

The disc includes four pieces previously never recorded. These works (Radoux's Méditation, Van Cromphaut's Mélodie, Saint-Saens's Morceau de Concours and Weber's Duo pour Cor et Harpe)
express the values and spirit of the the lyrical Liégeois horn tradition, on both the valve and natural horn.

Some personal thoughts on lyricism

It is hard to define the characteristics of a certain playing style into words, as it is hard to define the true meaning of the word 'lyrical' when used in the context of playing a melodic instrument. The term suggests expressiveness and is suggestive of opera repertoire which in French is often referred to as 'Théâtre Lyrique'. In singing it is represented by the 'lyrics', text, content etc., whilst for a musician playing a single melody instrument expression will be mainly limited to adjusting tempo, colours, dynamics, attacks and the musical phrase. The opposite of 'lyrical playing' could be called 'playing unconnected notes'. Although 'lyrical' does not oppose essentially to 'pure virtuosity', many of the horn repertoire presented on this disc can be regarded as part of a contra-movement against the virtuoso style, considered as 'meaningless' by many musicians at the time. All the pieces on Chant d'Amour can be considered as 'storytelling' and avoid virtuosity as a goal on itself.

Every melodic instrument is in some way a substitute of the human voice. It is no coincidence that during the romantic era, with its obsession with melody and long musical phrases, musical style as a whole changed. This was especially the case for wind instruments, whose design continuously changed together with new musical demands.

Initially, the horn was mainly a functional signal instrument with no obvious lyrical qualities whatsoever. The idea of the horn as a 'singing' instrument was however not solely an idea of the Romantic era: its singing abilities were already well-known in Classical times. Part of Mozart's love affair with the natural horn, which resulted in his fabulous concertos, was the simple fact that the instrument had developed by that time to a fully sensible and chromatic instrument, permitting the genius composer to write his concertos in a purely melodic way as if it were a concert aria for tenor and orchestra. The way the horn was played in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the focus of this CD, was thus surely inspired by a tradition of over a century long.

Surprisingly, Romantic repertoire for the horn is in general quite different to the one written for other brass instruments. Although the lyrical style existed to some extent also for the cornet, as can be heard in, for example, the 81 études of the Brussels trumpet teacher J.H. Duhem (1828–1911), the Romantic repertoire for horn is clearly more related to the one of woodwind instruments than to the, often band-inspired, pieces for trumpet, trombone or low brass.

Famous French natural horn virtuosi of the early 19th century developed the natural horn towards an incredible level of virtuosity by the half of the century with players such as Frédéric Duvernoy often attaining a rockstar level status in the Parisian opera houses. This was also true for other wind instruments and it is not surprising that the 'operatic style' is reflected in a vast amount of repertoire written by early 19th century composers as Danzi and Reicha. It was common at that time for complete suites of wind music to be performed during operas as well as during intervals. The presence of top-class horn virtuosi in Paris inspired composers to write very demanding solo parts in this operatic style for the natural horn. This has encouraged the development of natural horn technique in great extent. The culmination point of this evolution can be heard in the music of J.F. Gallay. The Douze Grandes Caprices, written by Gallay around 1835, are a fine example of 'operatic', although not lyrical, writing for natural horn.

By the 1840’s, the valve horn become established in most musical scenes with exception of France and England. Initially, in the early days of its adoption (c.1820–1850), valve horn repertoire was very much related to that of other valved brass and to the typical style of military music at that time. This is clearly seen in the repertoire pieces of the Brussels Conservatoire in the period F.J. Fétis was director (1833–1871), and where, starting in 1843 with his appointment to the conservatoire, both instruments were taught by Jean-Désirée Artôt (1803-1887). The parts written for natural horn are much more melodic, the valve horn parts more chromatic and technical, see, for example, track 7.

This was not only a Belgian phenomenon as the French natural horn school also had a specific and highly melodic approach (to be heard in Saint-Saens's Romance, track 8) whereas the use of valve horn in the French fashion was mainly limited to playing the low chromatic parts in opera and military music.
Nevertheless, certainly in the early days of the valve horn in France , beautiful, melodic pieces were written for this new instrument such as, the Mélodies by Charles Gounod and solos by Joseph Meifred.

Crucially the teaching in Belgium, in which both the natural and valve horn were taught in one and the same class, created a situation in which both instruments influenced one another. This way of teaching led to the valve horn being quickly accepted as it was not viewed as a separate species of instrument. It also led to the development of the ‘melodic’ style which incorporated aspects of the techniques of both the natural and the valve horn, a style that was expressed in both composition and performance. This 'vocal' focus chimed with the enormous popularity at the time for vocal music; opera, chant and choirs, such as the choir of la Légia in Liège, lead by the Liègeois horn teacher Jean-Toussaint Radoux (1825-1889).

As was the case in France and England, 19th century Belgium saw the creation of thousands of choral societies. The specific lyrical style spread over Belgium with the imminent success of the Liège horn school between 1850 and 1875, in which all the major horn positions in the country, as well as some abroad were taken by players from this particular horn school. Traces of their playing style on both natural as valve horn can be rediscovered in their extensive and particular solo repertoire.

During the Romantic era lyricism became the core of music performance: an approach towards music that is much more 'horizontal' than what we had known before, and certainly than what is the norm in modern-day performances: the music is considered as one single continuous and everlasting sentimental line.

For the horn all this translates into pure musical poetry. 'Le cor est un instrument essentiellement poétique' F.A. Gevaert (1828-1908) stated in his 1885 instrumentation method,. Brahms refers to the 'poetry of the horn' when asking performers to perform his Trio Opus 40 on the natural horn only.

In the Romantic soul, the importance is in the expression of the music, in instrumental context transferred with colour of sound, phrase and tempo changes. The freedom of the artist to express his emotions was one of the most untouchable principles in romantic performance. Tempo, for example, was regarded as something organic, rather than as a matter of speed: tempo changes should be in function of the music, and with respect of the phrase.

The romantic, lyrical, poetic style of horn playing once admired by the great and mighty, became defunct with the introduction of modernism in the first half of the twentieth century. Modernism sent much of this earlier repertoire, which we now consider as being too sentimental, to its grave and. And even if we tried -as stated by Bruce Haynes in his excellent book 'the end of Early Music', it would be totally impossible to make a full replica of the style that reigned in concert halls at the end of the nineteenth century: despite all efforts of historical performance practice faculties that have been around since a few decades, our main influence remains the modernist style.

So let's see how we tried to make a difference with the specific search into style, and have a look at the artistic choices that were involved in the big run towards this recording.
Find out more about style considerations in the pieces here...
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Chants d'Amour...
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Tracks: Read&Listen
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Performers
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Alphonse Stenebruggen