Virtuosic writing for the court’s horn players

Sweet autumn. © Charles Thibo

A little melancholy is appropriate at this time of the year. The opening verse of that poem by Rainer Maria Rilke comes back to my mind: “Herr, es ist Zeit, der Sommer war sehr groß…” I quoted it at full length a year ago in a post on Johannes Brahms. Yes, the summer was impressive and it is time to say good-bye. And so I have picked a piece from the Baroque composer Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679 – 1745): the Capriccio No. 1 in D major (ZW 182), recorded by the Camerata Bern.

It’s a short piece – the capriccio denotes a composition in a free, irregular style, that does not leave much room for the development of themes. It is meant as a diverting piece of music, to be enjoyed by a small audience in an intimate atmosphere. Zelenka’s capriccio is written in five movements and its general mood is melancholic although the fourth and last movement – Bourée and Minuet – are of a more joyful nature. It is scored for two oboes, bassoon, two horns, strings and basso continuo*.

The manuscript goes back to the years 1715-1720, a time when Zelenka served the Saxon court in Dresden as a double bass player and composer for church music, roughly the period when he composed six other secular works, the sonatas that I have presented in a post a year ago. At the same time it was a period of study and travel for Zelenka, although details remain unclear. Accounts of a visit to Naples and study in Venice with Lotti have not been confirmed, but a Saxon court document dated 26 November 1715 ordered 1200 thaler for the journey to Italy of four Dresden musicians, among them Zelenka, as Oxford Music Online reports.

Apparently his writing for bass instruments is far more demanding than that of other composers of his era and the sonatas and capricci are exemplary models of this style. Several sources point out the virtuosic horn parts of the piece and the hornist and blogger James Boldin recounts his own experience: “Like most horn players, I was awed by the virtuosic writing, especially in the high register […] The range demands of these works are so extreme that I have heard that Barry Tuckwell [one of the two hornists on this recording] had Paxman [a British instrument builder] build him a descant in B-flat and high B-flat to use on this recording.”

As a matter of fact, Zelenka did score the piece for the “corno da caccia” (valveless hunting horn) and performing the high-pitched parts on contemporary horns or replicas of the horns of Zelenka’s time is seen as a considerable challenge. However if the player once has overcome the difficulties, the result is as wonderful as the Bern Camerata’s performance proves. Enjoy!

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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