LOVING THE HORN
In a bit of car radio serendipity, we happened to hear Mozart’s Concerto for Horn in E flat Major, k417, on the drive in this morning. The performer hit every note, but in my mind's ear this piece is haunted by all the mistakes I used to make.
This was my piece. I played it for countless auditions, practiced it constantly, and staunchly defended the merits of the 1953 Dennis Brain version, which I grew up on, against later recordings by Barry Tuckwell and Hermann Baumann. There are few things in life I know so well.
The horn was more or less placed in my hands by a loving dad when I was not yet 9 years old. No one I knew had ever heard of a French horn, a fact that filled me with pride. No mundane violin or flute for me! The public school had to order one, and for some reason they picked a B-flat single horn. No one plays this anymore, and probably no one did back then. But until I got my own horn midway through junior high, this was what I knew.
Over time the horn became entwined with my own identity. I carried it to and from school, developing calluses from the bulky, uncomfortable shape. I knew exactly how to heft it in its case so the bell wouldn’t knock against my knee.
As I became a teen, I realized the horn was my ticket. Soon I was auditioning for every kind of youth orchestra, honor orchestra, and summer institute. Always with the Mozart.
My dad drove me to scores of rehearsals and auditions, and in the days before cds and iPods, we’d listen to classical music on KFAC, hoping for good symphonies with great horn parts, and please would they not play opera.
FIRST MOVEMENT: Allegro Maestoso
As I change lanes, we are well into the first movement. God, this was hard to learn. I remember how I worked to play it by ear off the Dennis Brain record, on the phonograph in the corner of my bedroom. It was a year before I got the sheet music. Trying to get the runs right, I lifted the needle over and over, eventually creating more skips than notes. But I got it, sort of.
I loved everything about the horn. I carried a little notebook in which I recorded the names of all the orchestras in the U.S. and all of their principal horn players; all the brands of horns, and every other bit of horn trivia I could sweep up. Nowadays this would be accomplished in 30 minutes on the Internet, but at the time, the horn, the notebook, and orchestral music were my passions.
Because my instrument was unusual, and because my identity was so closely tied to the horn, I had the conceit that I too was unusual. No instrument could ever be as magical as the horn, and no one could play it with a sincere and pure heart, as I was certain I did, without having some of that magic rub off.
The horn took me places I was sure I never would have reached on my own: golden grass pastureland surrounding the still-new Cal Arts; a college band tour to Switzerland; my first gig at the Starlight Bowl in Burbank, where I earned $20 for playing third horn in Brahm’s "Nanie."
I joked that I wanted to be a “rich and famous horn player,” but I also thought that if I said it like a mantra, it might come to pass. An Alexander horn, made in Germany, topped every Christmas and birthday list for years. I never really thought I’d get one, but I wanted it on record that I had the good taste to want one. When I finally got a used Conn 8D I was enormously proud, spending hours rinsing it through the bathtub, greasing the pipes, and restringing the valves, over and over. To this day the smell of valve oil sends me back.
SECOND MOVEMENT – Andante
Getting close to exit 15. This least favorite movement just doesn’t speak to me. It’s merely a bridge between the first and third. Lots of long tones and slow notes, going nowhere. Then it repeats. But wait … the Rondo is coming!
In those years, my life was all about music, and music was the only way anything significant ever happened to me.
My Uncle Bill sent me a check for $50 dollars for some occasion, and I recall spending it as carefully as a pensioner at Charles Music Store in Glendale, buying records of horn concerti – both Strausses and the Hindemith, and Benjamin Britten’s lovely Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings with Alan Civil on horn. I also pulled lots of orchestral excerpts out of the sheet music bins. I knew I’d wait years before having the chance to perform so many symphonies with fine horn parts, and I was in a great hurry.
I spent a steamy summer practicing in my room in our un-airconditioned house, longing to open the window, but scared that our German neighbor, out by his pool, would instantly recognize the solo from Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, and what if I faltered on that high A?
I played through the repertoire with a frenzy that summer -- the horn solo form Dvorak’s New World, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet; Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, Brahms’s first, then his fourth, and more and more and more. I had no context and had not yet heard all these excerpts in a full orchestral setting, but no matter, I was learning my craft.
My life was becoming ever-more layered with musical events. I saw movies such as Fiddler on the Roof and then Song of Norway downtown at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. I heard concerts at the Wilshire Ebell, the Scottish Rite Auditorium, and of course the amazing Hollywood Bowl, which gave me magical summer nights, I was sure, because I played a magical instrument.
THIRD MOVEMENT – RONDO
As I move into the left turn lane, I wondered why I fixated on that very difficult first movement, which opens with three successive long runs. Why did I not play the Rondo? It’s fast, fun, and friendly. Even if I cracked the high b flat, it gallops along at such a pace one would hardly notice.
And then one day my horn betrayed me.
The painful truth was that I was never really that good. I had some technique, thanks to starting so early, but once I was in my teens I was overtaken by all-too-frequent surplus trumpeters who got moved to horn, as if it was some nasty second-choice instrument. I hated them.
It was not for lack of practice or dedication, not for lack of wanting it. It is simply a heartbreaking fact that we are not always good at what we love.
The signs were there – losing my third horn seat to an upstart challenger. At another time and place, in the absence of the first chair, having the chance to hit the solo in Beethoven’s Pastorale and blowing it. Carefully counting 53 measures of rests and then – oh no! missed the cue! I couldn’t believe my horn was letting me down. Surely I just needed more time to practice, or a better instrument, or …
The end came when I was least prepared.
For a while all was fine. I spent much of my 17th year pregnant, and then one night, unable to stand the solitude and isolation of the apartment any longer, I appeared at Cal State Long Beach for the Wednesday open night rehearsals, hoping I would pass for merely fat. Nonetheless, I played well enough to get the offer of a seat in the band that would be making a trip to Europe in March, just a few months after the birth of Andrea. I went, played in Switzerland, and found a friend in Karen, who loved the horn as much as I did.
I thought my life was back on track, but then we moved to the Valley and I ended up auditioning six months later at Cal State Northridge. Again the Mozart, of course. I got through no more than four measures when the conductor decided to turn my audition into a lesson. I felt the stunning humiliation of having been unimpressive. How could it be that he felt the need to teach me the finer points of this piece, when I had played it for so many years?
I eventually made the drive home, put the horn in a closet from which, at least figuratively, it has never emerged. I put away too, a time in my life when all things still seemed possible, when something akin to magic was always around the corner, and when music was never absent. And I never again believed in anything as treacherous as the horn again.
And here I am, a middle-aged woman, driving through tears, unable to explain to my husband why I snapped off the radio at the last note of the Rondo.