The horn sings, joyously, for him

Today’s morning music, playing when I came to wakefulness at 2:30 am, was Beethoven’s joyous Natural Horn Sonata in F major, Op. 17 (played on a natural horn by Lowell Greer, with Steven Lubin at the piano) — a contrast in textures: the rich velvety resonance of the horn (wordless song by a male singer with a wide range, with a timbre comparable to the cello’s) and the brightness of the piano (which, in Beethoven, is never mere accompaniment, but a second voice joined in song).

The music set me up to sail through the day, remembering my man Jacques — who died on this day in 2003 — with affection. (He was a great fan of Beethoven’s chamber music and his piano music.)

As it happens, my wife Ann Walcutt Daingerfield (Zwicky) was born in the spring (May of 1937), and died in the bleak midwinter (January, in 1985); while my husband-equivalent Jacques Henry Transue was born in the bleak midwinter (January, in 1942), and died in the breaking of summer. Giving me two periods of mourning every year. With the current one now softened by Beethoven.

But to the music.

From the website of Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music, in the Davee Media Library, on 1/24/20:

Professor of horn Gail William and pianist Kay Kim perform Beethoven’s Sonata for Horn and Piano in F Major, Op. 17, as part of the 24th annual Winter Chamber Music Festival. [a video of the performance is included in the posting]

Giovanni Punto was one of the most colorful musical characters in Enlightenment Europe. His reputation as a virtuoso spread quickly: he toured throughout Europe as a soloist (playing concertos of his own composition) and held positions with several important court orchestras. The young Mozart met Punto in Paris in 1778 and was so inspired by the hornist’s playing that he composed for him the Sinfonia Concertante for Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn, and Strings.

After some years in Paris, Punto arrived in Vienna early in 1800 and met Beethoven. The hornist scheduled a public concert for April 18 in Vienna’s Court Theater and invited his new friend to compose a horn and piano sonata for the occasion; Beethoven agreed to write the piece and to join Punto on the program.

The instrument for which Beethoven wrote his Op. 17 Sonata was the valveless natural horn, which required agile hand-stopping to produce most of its chromatic pitches. Punto was said to have had a great influence on the development of the natural horn’s extended technique, and Beethoven’s music paid a fine tribute to the mastery of his playing.

[AZ: the Sonata is most often performed on the French horn (as here) rather than on a (valveless) natural horn, which is the province of specialists like Lowell Greer]

The first of the Horn Sonata’s three movements is in a compact sonata form, initiated by a solo fanfare from the horn. The second movement is little more than a slow-tempo preface to the finale, a joyful rondo filled with wide melodic leaps and dashing figurations

The Wikipedia article on Beethoven’s Op. 17 horn sonata adds an entertaining anecdote:

Beethoven was not well known outside of Vienna at the time of this composition, and after a performance of the piece in Pest [AZ: the Pest of Budapest], played by Punto and Beethoven, a Hungarian critic wrote, “Who is this Beethover (sic)? His name is not known to us. Of course, Punto is very well known.”

Now, the pairing of horn (of either sort) and piano turns out to be unusual (in contrast to the pairing of cello and piano); the International Music Score Library Project has only 275 entries in the category “For horn, piano”

The masterpiece recording of the sonata with French horn was made in 1944 by the astounding Dennis Brain (with pianist Denis Matthews) on 78s, reissued by Columbia on a 45 rpm disc —

The Columbia album

— and reissued in other formats thereafter.

Meanwhile, extraordinarily, Brain and Matthews made a video of one of their performances. with Brain introducing the work at the beginning of the video; you can watch the YouTube video here.

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