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Getting beyond his station in life?

Arthur Butterworth

I feel very diffident about all this; you see I am not one of the great aristocrats of orchestral life; not a string player, or even a wood-wind player, and certainly not from the truly acknowledged great lineage of horn players. How can I possibly justify having the outrageous audacity, the very presumption, to write for a court circular addressed to the very royals of music? I began life as a lowly brass player; hardly daring to admit that I was only a trumpeter. But come to think of it, maybe at one time – long, long ago - oh! such a long time ago; way back in baroque times, my instrument had an honourable pedigree; we trumpeters were the consort of kings and princes; we strutted on battle fields, the close associates of great warriors, we were at the centre of ceremony, everybody looked up to us; we were mollycoddled in high places: cathedrals, palaces, our brazen, haughty voices were heard everywhere; we were the pampered favourites at any kind of court music-making. Bach certainly knew how to treat us well - we even appeared at the very top of his scores. But I suppose some other wind players began to think we were a bit too arrogant, and thought we ought to be taken down a down a peg or two. Eventually, and most sadly and undeservedly our heroic golden voices dropped out of fashion, and lesser people - like Mozart, for example - seemed not to like us in the way that Georg Frederik and Johann Sebastian knew how to respect and treat us. Suddenly - or almost - the "new look" - or should one say "new sound" - in music came along: all this rococo stuff: Haydn symphonies, Mozart piano concertos; tame sort of stuff really, hardly anything for the real king of music: the trumpet, who had been disgracefully usurped by this suave, un-prepossessing guy whose pedigree had merely been one of a hunt follower, a whipper-in, a mere muffled noise-maker in the hunting field instead of a heroic leader on the battle-field. But that of course has ever been the stuff of history: a genuine aristocrat being usurped and then having to go underground for centuries and live as if he were merely a peasant with no ancestry; a hand-to-mouth existence, playing just a few isolated tonic and dominant notes in the chord now and again.

However, we gradually learn from our betters, so to speak, and who knows, if we behave properly; don’t make coarse noises, don’t get too high and mighty - as perhaps we once used to show off in all those Bach cantatas, the B minor Mass, Christmas Oratorio and such like - and learn to be genteel and know our place, perhaps we might somehow be invited in on occasion. After all one supposes we do have a few of the same genes as horn players - we are all of the same brass material - so perhaps all is not lost.

Some forty years ago, after having spent long dissolute years blowing - hardly call it "playing" could you? - the trumpet in first class professional orchestras I came across an ancient Raoux horn and bought it for twenty-five pounds. It was originally a natural horn of course, but had a detachable set of piston valves built around 1910 by Hawkes & Son.

What made me so presumptuous as to acquire this refined instrument? Did I have notions above my station? - thinking that just because I had been able to blow a mere trumpet I should have the authority and ability to actually play and tame this most elegant and venerable instrument? It has been quite a journey of discovery over a period of years, and on one occasion I managed - somehow - to play - well, at least make some of the right notes - in a summer music school evening performance of the Brahms Horn Trio. The organisers somehow got the idea that I was a REAL horn player instead being a mere trumpet lackey; so they put me down to play the Brahms. I suppose this must have gone to my head, for now, some many years later I have come to see the light of many of the finer points of the horn, and, since being retired have some reasonable leisure to devote to studying and playing, in a modest way, this most satisfying of instruments.

I will never of course, nor would it be feasible to expect at my advanced age to play the horn properly; but it has given me as a musician, and especially as a composer and often in earlier years an orchestral conductor, a serious and more profound insight into the whole nature of the horn and its music. I have always realised, of course, that the true nature of the horn, despite all the modern ramifications since it first acquired valves of some system or other, has ever lain in its natural state. Brahms was not wrong in having so long virtually resisted the valve horn. No matter that this modern instrument, from Wagner onwards, has been capable of all that late nineteenth and twentieth century composers have demanded of it; there is still a feeling that its true nature lies in what can fundamentally be played on the natural instrument, whether that be in F, D, Eb, C, Bb basso or whatever other crook has been called for - such as Db in Wagner, or H in Brahms. There is a subtlety and individuality about each crook and composers of the past must surely have been acutely aware of these niceties.

In recent weeks I have - with the encouragement of my great friend and mentor, Dr David Miles - begun to explore the secrets and rewards of playing the natural horn. Like most other musicians in the 20th century I had long assumed that this - like baroque trumpet playing - was something of a lost art. But in both cases this is not so. In all spheres of present-day instrumental music, we are coming to re-explore the techniques and ideals of earlier music and begin to realise that such earlier techniques are by no means lost.

I find it most rewarding to spend time exploring the secrets of the horn, much in the same way that I have in recent years become more familiar with the viola. No longer are other instruments merely personally unfamiliar things whose technique, when on the rostrum or when writing for them, are instruments I only expected others to play at my behest.

Arthur Butterworth

October 2006

For membership of the British Horn Society, please contact Charities Aid Foundation, Membership Services 96206, Kings Hill, West Malling, Kent ME19 4TA

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