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A Lone Horn

April 29, 2024

By Nicky Swett

20th- and 21st-century solo works for French Horn

The horn is extremely challenging to play. Changing notes requires carefully tapping into the instrument’s natural harmonic resonances, which are uniquely fussy compared to those of other winds and brass. Even after the mechanics and technique of the instrument were settled in the first half of the 19th century, composers were hesitant to write works for horn alone, preferring to use it as a collaborator with piano, with a larger ensemble like a woodwind or brass quintet, and as a prominent member of a symphony orchestra. It wasn’t until the 20th century that a robust repertoire for solo horn began to emerge.

This playlist features works for lone horn of the past 50 years. Some, like Toshio Hosokawa’s Little Flower, Jörg Widmann’s Air, and Nina Senk’s One’s Song, share a particularly horn-friendly opening gambit: a long-held note, low in the instrument’s range, often getting louder, and eventually followed by a daring leap up. Shin-ichiro Ikebe’s A Horn Gets Angry, Yet He Chants and Krzysztof Penderecki’s Capriccio per Radovan menacingly allude to the horn’s former identity as a signaller of the hunt. And a few composers, like Robin Holloway in his Partita, attempt to do for the instrument what the likes of J. S. Bach did for the cello and violin three centuries earlier: to imply a virtuosic complex of polyphony with just a single stream of rich, brassy notes. 

Cellist, writer, and music researcher Nicky Swett is a program annotator and editorial contributor at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.