The horn is not an instrument for the faint hearted - something the horn players in the Berliner Philharmoniker all agree on. “The thing looks better and sounds cooler than all the other instruments, but at the same time it is also an unpredictable, dangerous beastie,” says Fergus McWilliam. What makes the horn so incalculable? According to the musicians, it is difficult to hit the notes correctly and accurately. One German nickname for the horn, “Glücksspirale” says it all: playing the horn is a gamble. “When you blow into it, what comes out isn’t always what you want," admits Sarah Willis. “There are so many bends where the condensation can collect. And then there is the danger of squeaking.” “That alone wouldn’t be too bad,” adds Georg Schrekenberger, “but everybody can hear it.” And that’s why, if something goes wrong, no instrument can ruin a concert quite like the horn. Principal horn player Stefan Dohr, who at the age of nine was given a small hunting horn and fell in love at the first sound, refers to the physical challenges of the instrument. “At the end of a long Mahler or Bruckner programme, there is every chance that your lungs will be empty and your lips will be numb; but because it is such grandiose music, it’s all worth it."
Romantic, intimate, heroic
So, it’s physically demanding and unreliable in its sound, but apart from that, the horn, which has a range of four octaves, is a wonderful instrument - because of its versatility, its flexibility and its unique sound which can tenderly caress or heroically belt out a tune. And not only that: “In a community, the horn would be a diplomat, the mediator between conflicting groups and interests, who quite powerfully raises his voice but usually creates harmony and order," says Klaus Wallendorf, horn player with the Philharmoniker from 1980 to 2015. The sound of the horn mingles perfectly with the other orchestral instruments. It gives the brass a soft sheen, a metallic lustre to the woodwind and nestles warmly and with inner brightness in the sound of the strings. Its fortissimo corresponds to the power of a bull, from whose horns it takes its name. Its duties are varied: "We horn players usually get a fair bit to do when in the hero appears in symphonic poems, in operas, and especially in film music. That makes up for the many solo concertos that we were denied by composers who must have had a great affinity for the horn, because they wrote the most beautiful horn solos in their symphonies and also provided grandiose chamber music for the horn,” says Stefan Dohr.
From hunting calls to versatile orchestral instrument
The horn is one of man’s oldest instruments. Its vibrant sound made it an ideal means of communication. The sound it made could be heard far away and was used by hunters in the 17th and 18th centuries to communicate with each other. During the First Viennese School, the horn found its way into the symphony orchestra. However, at the time it had a limited supply of notes, because only the notes within the harmonic series could be played. That changed in the early 19th century when the invention of the valve horn made chromatic playing suddenly possible. This increased the possibilities of the horn in the orchestra and made the instrument into what it is today, "the soul of the orchestra" - to quote Robert Schumann. Nevertheless, composers never forgot the roots of the horn: Throughout the entire 19th century, the horn remained the symbol of hunting, the forest and nature.
A day of horn music
“Horn players are generally sociable people, and that is particularly true of the section in the Philharmoniker. In addition, we can rely on each other completely. And we’re always up for a bit of fun,” says Stefan Dohr. Highlight of the philharmonic horn year was the “Horn Marathon” in September, when musicians not only presented the versatility of their instrument in performances and events, but also encouraged the visitors to join in.