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Old horn, new tricks

"This project has made me have so much admiration for the musicians of the time. It was just as virtuosic as what we do today," says Sloan Calvert, BM '04. Photo: Michael Richmond

Sloan Calvert didn’t start playing the French horn for the love of the instrument. “My friend’s babysitter played, and we thought she was cool,” Calvert recalls.

Now, after a 17-year relationship with the instrument, Calvert has developed a passion for the horn. “It has the most mellow of voices,” she says with a hint of tenderness.

Her love for the instrument propelled Calvert, BM ’04, beyond perfecting her musical technique to exploring the instrument’s genesis. For the past year, she has been learning to play the French horn’s 17th-century ancestor — the hunting horn or natural horn — with the aim of better understanding early compositions written for it.

Many people don’t know what a French horn — simply a “horn” to purists — sounds like because the instrument typically is heard in an ensemble. Imagine the golden sound of a hunting horn blossoming through the woods, calling dogs to the chase. The French horn sounds something like that.

The natural horn emerged in Europe in the mid 1600s and began to show up in operas and orchestras around that time. But it wasn’t until the 1800s that valves were added to the coiled brass horn, allowing players to change pitch with relatively simple finger movements.

Because the natural horn lacks valves, its pitch is manipulated by hand-stopping — a subtle movement of the hand inside the horn’s bell. By altering the degree to which the hand covers the opening, a player can achieve a variety of notes, each with a unique tone. On the modern horn, by contrast, all notes have a consistent tone.

A music history course on Mozart first piqued Calvert’s interest in the natural horn. She wrote a paper and gave a presentation on Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 3 in E-flat Major (K. 447) and then attended a workshop where she heard the natural horn being played.

With guidance from music history Assoc. Prof. Antonia Banducci, Calvert embarked on a Partners in Scholarship (PINS) project, which she later turned into a senior thesis. With the help of a $500 PINS grant, Calvert worked with an instrument repair specialist to build a natural horn out of broken horn parts. Then, she enrolled in lessons with a Greeley musician to learn how to play it.

As she studied the nearly lost art of hand-stopping, Calvert recognized a distinct difference in how Mozart’s horn concertos are played today and how they likely were played in his time. “Composers like Mozart wrote with few articulations and dynamic markings. For this reason, interpreting the music comes with an inherent challenge,” Calvert says, noting that even the intended tempo of Mozart’s horn concertos is in dispute. However, Mozart did pencil in slurs on some 16th notes — a nod to the natural horn’s technique.

“The hand is all the way in then has to come all the way out,” Calvert says as she demonstrates the hand-stopping technique, which can result in a blending of the notes.

“Mozart may have written the concerto with the distinct timbre and technique of the natural horn in mind,” Calvert speculates. “Perhaps the slurs should be there in modern performances as well.

“This project has made me have so much admiration for the musicians of the time,” adds Calvert, who says that it’s easy to miss notes on the natural horn. “It was just as virtuosic as what we do today.”

“Thinking about how a composer wrote for a particular instrument or performer allows for more expression and informs ones own performances,” Banducci says. “Sloan’s performances will be more insightful. This experience will make her a finer musician.”

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