Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Weber - Concertino For Horn In E Minor

Carl Maria von Weber was an early Romantic composer that had a tremendous influence on other musicians in the 19th century.  He was primarily an opera composer, but he wrote works in other forms as well,  particularly solo concertos for piano and other instruments.

Weber wrote a total of 15 concertos, with 7 for wind instruments, some of which are still in the repertoire and are studied by wind instrument students. One of his more curious solo concertos is the Concertino For Horn In E Minor. Weber was fond of the horn and used it to good effect in his operas, but as with many composers he consulted experienced horn players when he was writing the concertino in 1806. He revised the concertino for a different player in 1816.

Horn virtuosos of the day performed the work on the natural horn which consists of a tube over twenty feet long that had a bell at one end and a mouthpiece at the other.  Changes in pitch were accomplished with lip tension and by the insertion of a hand in the bell. Extra pieces of tubing called crooks had to be added or removed from the instrument to allow it to play in different keys, something that composers had to account for in their scores as any time a horn was to change the key in which it played there had to be sufficient time to change the crook.  Valves began to be used on horns around 1818 but it took some time for them to be accepted by older players and composers. Weber's concertino is now played on the modern valved horn, but it is still a very difficult piece to bring off. The concertino is in 4 sections:

I. Adagio - The orchestra begins by playing two chords, after which the soloist enters. This short section acts as an introduction to the work. The soloist plunges to the bottom of the instruments register that leads the music directly to the next section.

II. Andante con moto - The horn plays a theme that is also taken up by the orchestra. This section is a set of variations on this theme. The first variation is a slightly decorated version of the theme. After each variation by the horn the orchestra plays a short version. The second variation has the soloist making great leaps and arpeggios. The third variation increases the decoration of the theme with faster notes and more arpeggios.  The difficulties for the horn player increase yet again in the fourth variation. The orchestra leads directly to the next section.

III. Recitative - adagio - Weber treats the horn as a vocalist in one of his operas as it plays sad, sometimes dramatic material while the orchestra punctuates the soloist. Towards the end of the third section, the horn plays unaccompanied, at least by any other instrument. After some notes that are at the very bottom of the range of the horn, Weber instructs the soloist to hum a note as another note is played. This gives the effect of the horn playing a chord, a four-note chord is notated in the score. A note played on the horn is held while alternating notes are hummed into the instrument. A quiet timpani roll brings the strange sounds of a horn accompanying itself to a close and leads to the final section.

IV. Alla polacca -  The horn plays a polonaise, a Polish dance that was something of a craze of the times.  The horn and orchestra take turns the polonaise between short interludes of other themes. The horn part continues on its virtuosic way, until it plays a string of trills (notoriously difficult on the natural horn). With one last trill for the soloist. the orchestra brings Weber's tour de force for the horn to a close.

Along with a video of a soloist playing the piece on a modern horn, beneath it there is a video of the same concertino being played on a natural horn.

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