Horn Concerto – Why Write a Concerto?

I’m currently completing a BA Composition course at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. The main project for the final year of this degree was to compose a work for a symphony orchestra. As part of this project I must produce, in addition to the finished work, a 2,000 word commentary about the work itself. This series of blog posts will consist of extracts from this commentary, and related thoughts.

“Compose a work for symphony orchestra”: This, in many ways, is quite a loose brief; even within the term “symphony orchestra”, there is plenty of room to modify and customize the precise instrumentation. To even further complicate the issue, the choice of style and genre was entirely up to the student. This is typically one of the more difficult questions a composer must consider before beginning to compose a work. However, I had thought about what kind of piece I wanted to write for a quite a long time, and so the answer was ready: I decided to write a concerto

The concerto genre is, and has long been, the genre of orchestral music I find it easiest to engage with. I’m not sure what the reason for this is, though it may be because I’ve always had an attraction to highly soloistic music; as a teenager I listened to lots of jazz (Miles Davis being one of my heroes), and later to progressive rock and various genres of extreme metal. Not only do all these styles that demand a high level of technical proficiency from musicians, they also frequently feature instrumental solos. The concerto is possibly the only type of music that uses the full powers of the symphony orchestra but also allows deep exploration of the kind of virtuosic and soloistic playing that so interests me in the solos of rock and jazz music. (The primary difference here is that the solos of jazz music are typically improvised, whereas my composition would be strictly notated as is the norm in orchestral music – the conditions of musical creation are different, but in many respects the outcome is the same.)

The chance to work closely with a soloist also excited me for two reasons: having worked with other artists to create works before, I found the collaborative process to be a rewarding experience, and I also expected that it would be an unparalleled opportunity to learn about the idiosyncrasies of the solo instrument from someone with an in-depth knowledge. A successful concerto must make some allowances for the weaknesses of the instrument and exploit its strengths – the most efficient way to learn this is through communication with a good player.

 I chose the French Horn as the solo instrument for a number of reasons, both artistic and practical. Though the horn was my first choice, I did consider a number of other possibilities, including the viola and the oboe. All of these are instruments I enjoy writing for and am interested in exploring further. Ultimately, practicalities played a role in why I chose the horn over the other instruments; any of the oboists or violists were extremely busy, and thus I thought they would possibly be unable to take on a wholly new, and possibly very difficult, contemporary work. However, I knew a very good horn player, recently graduated from a performance degree, who was willing and interested to work with me in creating a concerto.

A number of things attracted me to the horn as an instrument – it’s got a huge range, extending from the pedal notes below the bottom of the bass clef to the top of treble clef. It has a variety of timbral possibilities, and is also capable of producing ‘natural’ or ‘untempered’ pitches – pitches tuned according to the harmonic spectrum of a fundamental note, rather than adjusted to fit equal temperament. In the course of sketching passages of horn music for this work, the instrument’s vast range is definitely the quality I exploit the most . I use the entire array of available registers, from the lowest to highest pitch regions that the horn can produce.

I listened to several horn concertos, and a number of other horn compositions, in preparation for this work. My intention was not to find an explicit model or template to base my concerto on, but rather to get a feel of what was idiomatic for the instrument. Mozart’s four horn concertos and Strauss’ two are all pieces I greatly admire, and I listened to them several times in this research period. More contemporary works that I examined and enjoyed included the concertos by Knussen and Hindemith, Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (particularly for the untempered natural horn introduction), and Ligeti’s Horn Trio and Hamburg Concerto (which features several natural horns, all using different crooks and playing in a variety of different tunings, for a dense microtonal effect).

I did not stick to the formal plan of the concerto, as was used in the classical era; a sonata form, with the theme first appearing in the orchestra before being reintroduced in the solo instrument (though I did use sonata form as a rough guideline to the structure of the first movement). The cadenza, which in classical concertos takes place at the end of the first movement (though since the Romantic era it can appear nearly anywhere in the work), is expanded into its own movement and takes a number of elements from recitative-style music. The third movement, a scherzo, is a short and energetic piece, with a theme that draws on a favoured motif of Mahler’s.

Dancing About Architecture

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture — it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.”

– Variously attributed; extremely quotable; and utterly, utterly wrong.

In this blog I intend to talk about music; this will cover all aspects of music that interests me, across the popular and classical genres, and with topics ranging from simple reviews and opinion pieces to more academic writing. Of course, I’m a composer, and so I’ll also be using this blog to promote my own music and Irish contemporary music generally.

To get the ball rolling and get some content up on the site, over the coming weeks I’ll be uploading some college essays on topics I find interesting as well as fresh material. I hope that this will be of some interest to readers, and don’t hesitate to leave comments; I see this as another way to learn about music just as much as a platform for me to talk about my own interests.

Bill McGrath is a Dublin-based composer, currently undertaking a BA Composition at the Royal Irish Academy of Music under Kevin O’Connell and Jonathan Nangle.