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Horns as harmony - Printable Version

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Horns as harmony - Nayrb - 04-30-2020

Hi everyone,

In the sketch below,  I used a solo clarinet and a solo french horn for a two part harmony. I wanted something full but unobtrusive and it seems to be a good blend.

I experimented with both a four horn section and a solo horn for the horn part, but realized that I couldn't decided which would be better because I simply didn't know what a composer with more know-how than me would actually do or why. To me, the sound is largely the same, but I wondered if there were some other reason why one would be better than the other. I know the general rule is just do what sounds good, but both actually sound good to me. Because of that, I feel like there is an opportunity to learn something about writing for horns here...

So, horns as harmony? I understand soft horns can blend with most anything, and it could even be useful to build chords with just the horns (the "horn pad" of old). Does a solo horn ever come up in a larger orchestra as just one part of a blend like this?


Sketch


RE: Horns as harmony - Samulis - 05-01-2020

Horns actually are the most frequent brass instrument to play such harmonies. In the classical period, it is almost all they did, as they lacked valves and thus could only play the notes of the harmonic overtone series** and were thus melodically limited unless playing in their highest register (hence why still today the horn's fundamental is a 5th below that of a trombone, but the horn mostly plays in these higher overtones). If you listen to how folks like Mozart used to write for horn, it is almost entirely chordally with the exception of occasional solos or horn concerti. At the start of the movement, the horn would be instructed to configure their horn to play a particular overtone series (say, D). Then they have access to that series of notes (for example, D2, D3, A3, D4, F#4, A4, C5, D5, E5, F#5, G5, A5...) which contains enough notes to outline (or at least, not horribly ruin) any diatonic chord.

**With a special hand-muting technique it is possible to fill in some of the spaces in this, or alter notes (say in the case of a secondary dominant), a technique we see a still-functional remnant of today (i.e. horn players using their hand in the bell to tune), so a good horn player could be quite virtuosic in the mid and high register with only a natural horn.

This remained up until the 1830's/40's when valves became a thing in earnest, so even Beethoven's symphonies are for natural horn and you will find this harmonic treatment of horn throughout his works. Some proponents continued to push for natural horn up until the 1920's or so, with some composers intentionally instructing that horns without valves should play the piece, or even having separate parts for horns with and horns without valves.

It also should be noted the horn often appears in woodwind chamber ensembles (quintets/sextets/etc.) due to the soft blending ability you note, as well as their incredibly large range. Smile


RE: Horns as harmony - Michael Willis - 05-01-2020

I'm not qualified to comment on what more experienced composers would do, but I think your horn+clarinet combo sounds lovely. If anything, I would suggest using three solo horns to fill out the harmony more, build the whole chord out of them with a very soft dynamic and then adjust the clarinet to fit in how you want.


RE: Horns as harmony - PPH - 05-30-2020

Sounds good to me. In the first, fast part, you could use one more horn to fill the harmony more, as already said. The second part is different. I'm not sure it would benefit from that.

In the first part, you can try adding a bassoon (lower than the clarinet and the horn). That can work too.


RE: Horns as harmony - Nayrb - 05-30-2020

Thanks for the input, everyone! Sorry I haven't been active lately. Keeping quite busy over here.