The culprit.Photo: iStockphoto
In a curious piece in today’s New York Times “Arts” section, classical-music writer Allan Kozinn defends himself from charges that he is a French-horn hater — a “cornophobe” — by hating on “treacherous” French horns (and hornists!) for 1,300 words. It’s a totally fun piece that doesn’t feel at all like your typical classical-music coverage. What on earth is so hateable, you might ask, about an instrument mostly known as the one that no one in your tenth-grade concert band wanted to play? What isn’t, asks Allan Kozinn!
French horns cause balance problems in ensemble pieces. Their pitch wavers, especially early-music-style horns without valves. French-horn fans are crazies with e-mail addresses like “firstname.lastname@example.org” who complain endlessly when you write something mean about a French-horn player. Most disastrous, Kozinn points out, “a bit of condensation from a player’s breath adhering to the inside of a coil can lead to cracked notes, or ‘clams.’”
Back when we played a mediocre French horn in high school — we’d switched to French horn from trumpet sophomore year when sudden orthodontia ruined our embouchure* — we didn’t call cracked notes “clams.” We called them “notes,” since those were about the only notes we could shove out of that gnarled, nightmarish coil of brass. And we were the first chair!
French horn is, indeed, a ridiculously difficult instrument to play, and we feel bad for hornists worldwide that Kozinn’s picking on them — despite his frequent claims that hey, he loves French horn; as a composition student he wrote a “quartet for horn, violin, bassoon and percussion,” which makes us wince even thinking about it. We’re glad we eventually dropped the instrument, the French-horn-playing girl we’d been trying to impress having moved to Connecticut. Even if we’d practiced long and hard and become a professional hornist, we still would have been a target of ridicule — as is poor Philip Myers, the principal hornist with the New York Philharmonic, who gets roundly roasted by Kozinn:
The Philharmonic has long been action central for horn troubles; its principal player, Philip Myers, is wildly inconsistent, and the rest of the section is also accident-prone. Much of the time Mr. Myers’s playing is squarely on pitch, shapely and warm, and when it is, it’s everything you want in a French horn line. But he cracks, misses or slides into pitches often enough that when the Philharmonic plays a work with a prominent horn line, you brace yourself and wonder if he’ll make it.
Haydn’s Symphony No. 48? “A real clambake.”
Yikes! Somewhere, Philip Myers is angrily practicing, weeping as he plays, the cracking and pitchy tones of his horn echoing through the neighborhood.
The French Horn, That Wild Card of the Orchestra [NYT]
The New York ‘Times’ Takes a Stand Against French Horns
*This clause is likely the most embarrassing thing we will ever write in our life.