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Famous Orchestral Horn Moments

It's the month of the horn! French horn, that is. Our in-house horn enthusiast Anthony Dunstan will take you through his tips for finding the most iconic horn moments in the orchestra.

The French horn - although the modern horn (as opposed to the valveless natural horn) ought to be called the German horn, I think we all know what instrument I mean.This conically coiled mechanical contraption is one of the most treacherous instruments of the orchestra - like the oboe or piccolo trumpet it has the ability to bust a blood vessel; it has the intonation issues of a stringed instrument and the preposterously awkward posture of a flute where popping a sternocleidomastoid is a very real prospect; but no instrument can split a note quite like the horn. Its defiance is perhaps due to the 6m long tubing wrapped in a round danish of delicious terror. You need nerves of steel to be a horn player. In moments of pure joy, the instrument is best known for epic mountain calls, horn pipes, and fanfares constantly featured in countless film scores most notably Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings (Rohan), and virtually everything John Williams wrote has amazing horn moments (my favourite is the Jurassic Park theme). But it's dark tone lends itself perfectly to tender lamentations and mournful ballads making it a peculiarly versatile instrument. Here I list my top 10 favourite orchestral horn moments covering its incredible range of colour and scope.

  1. Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5, 2nd Movement:  Possibly the greatest moment of horn bliss, Tchaikovsky wrote one of his most mesmorising melodies for none other than the horn. Only, make sure you choose a recording that's not too slow otherwise you may not wake to the lilting 3rd movement. The melodic quality of this tender instrument fits perfectly with Tchaikovsky's anguished musical expression. Oddly, he never wrote any real solo works for the instrument, but he constantly turned to the horn when in need of a fragile or brassy mood. Other worthy mentions include his illusive first few phrases of the 2nd Symphony, Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker Suite, and his heralding opening of the 4th Symphony.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky:
Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64

  1. Wagner's Siegfried Horn Call:  This excerpt is the quintessential mountain top horn call and is included in virtually every audition repertoire of every orchestra for the instrument. If you're a budding horn player, chances are you know this excerpt off-by-heart. And if you don't, you better get on it! Wagner wrote many majestic horn parts from the Ride of the Valkyries to the prelude of Act 3 from his opera Lohengrin, each one as iconic as the next.

Richard Wagner: Siegfried

  1. Mahler's 1st Symphony, finale:  As his first symphony, Mahler burst onto the scene and set a seemingly unattainable precedent for himself by writing some of the most epic horn parts to date. Subtitled 'Titan' he blew his audience away when he closed this mythical work with an elevated 7-horn wall of glory. If this moment doesn't make you weep with glee you're most likely dead. It mustn't go unnoticed that Mahler had a special love for this instrument yet like Tchaikovsky, never wrote any solo works for it - although almost the entire 3rd movement of his 5th symphony hangs on the chops of the horn section. In fact, all his symphonies and many orchestral works pay the horn section handsomely with juicy solos.

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major

  1. Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, finale:  Stravinsky turns to the horn's more lyrical side as a welcome respite from the colourfully turbulent passages of the finale. Stravinsky was one of the first composers to explore the extremely varied shades of colour within the orchestra and therefore used the horn extensively to exploit this.

Stravinsky: The Firebird Suite

  1. Brahms' 1st Symphony, finale: One of the most noble horn melodies to hit the page, Brahms too had taken a liking to the instrument with the tapered sound. But here, Brahms brings out its brassiness where, if played with the right diaphragm support, embouchure, and breath control, a rich powerful sound shudders through the orchestra. You'll hear the sound is almost "broken" yet sustained - this is a characteristic shared with the Trombone. Aside from his 3rd symphony which also shines the light on the horn, Brahms also wrote a Horn Trio, a rare ensemble at the time.

Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 1

  1. Dvořák's 9th Symphony, finale:  This was one of my first major works I played with the Sydney Youth Orchestra and it was marvelous! I didn't have the chin for the 1st chair, but it didn't matter because Dvořák had written more than enough for everyone. The horn section is at its most victorious here dominating the entire movement. Some will say the symphony rests on the fingers of the strings. I say the horn's finale is the symphony's defining moment.

Antonin Dvorák:
Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95

  1. Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5, 1st movement:  There are many moments of this work that promote the horn, but the solo in the first movement is arguably one of the most difficult excerpts for horn in orchestral repertoire. Shostakovich exploits almost the entire range of the instrument - at the very least it is indeed one of the most exposed passages for horn. If you're a Youtuber, you may be interested in sourcing the horror that is the butchering of this section of the symphony. And people wonder why horn players are either full of false bravado (unlike a trumpeter who's filled with true unadulterated bravado) or excessively neurotic. I jest. In all sincerity horn players are some of the most courageous musicians of the orchestra.

Dmitri Shostakovich:
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47

  1. Holst's The Planets, Jupiter:  The planet that apparently brings the jovialities needs an adequate executor and who better than the affable horns. The fanfare-like opening of the movement sets the tone as the horn section powers through a series of arpeggioic passages before later being joined by the celli in a stirring prominade showing yet again the horns ability to standout then blend in effortlessly.

Holst: The Planets

  1. Weber's Oberon Overture: The horn is used in a highly programmatic manner depicting a dark and haunting call of impending doom. Like Prokofiev's 'Wolf' played by the beset horns in his 'Peter and the wolf', Weber too focuses on more brooding tones. A fledgling horn player may feel the same sense of dread when faced with he prospect of playing such a solo for the first time, but the sheer beauty of this engaging moment will soon cure that.

Weber: Oberon, J. 306: Overture

  1. Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte: This excerpt is less of a taste and more of a complete dark chocolate dessert for horn lovers... and chocolate lovers. Ravel never viewed himself as a melodist and looked upon the likes of Gershwin with admiration. Though, this sense of inadequacy may have served him well in this case. Rich with longing, Ravel's lament sung by the horn speaks of wistful mourning, of loss, and of plaintive sadness. The last work I include here by no means marks the end of the list. There are a plethora of horn excerpts just waiting to delight.

Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte

You'll notice the horn, particularly in the romantic period, was favoured over other instruments to instill that sense of triumphant hope and glory. There is indeed something illusive about its restrained and naturally unassuming tone. No one has yet managed to truly master the instrument - even the greatest players like Brain, Schuller, and Tuckwell suffered under the burden of its inherent trepidation. But when that note is hit clean, it sings.

Anthony Leigh Dunstan