Brahms, Johannes: Op. 40, Horn Trio

However interesting and fruitful the matter of ‘original instruments’ is, it still is unusually perplexing. Even music of Stravinsky and Ravel brings up questions of which instruments—what strings, what reeds, what metals—work best. There can be no doubt that the problems of digital music will be still more intractable, as operating systems, instruments, and zeitgeists come and go. The music of Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann and other Big Romantics has been quite successfully given in the twentieth-century style, but it is of course also wide open to these sorts of questions.

Making matters worse in Brahms’ Horn Trio is that the natural valveless “Waldhorn” for which it was intended was somewhat archaic even when the trio was written. Compositionally speaking, the piece is very specifically developed around the sounds and capacities of the natural horn. But issues arose immediately, since the “Waldhorn” was so touchy, and the recently developed valve horn was so much more versatile. Clara Schumann wrote to Brahms after a performance: “The horn player was splendid! I don’t think he cracked once, which is saying a good deal; it is true he used the valve horn; he could not be persuaded to play the ‘Waldhorn’.” So the matter of authentic instruments raised its curious head almost as soon as the Horn Trio hit the streets. The pastoral quality of the horn is an any case not totally lost.

There is the further matter of the piano, which is a capital-M Modern behe- moth, and then the matter of the violin being tuned and tightened with steel… problems compound upon problems, if truth is at issue. On a nineteenth-century Streicher piano and instruments strung with gut, for example, romantic chamber music can sound vastly different, often to extremely good effect. But although the Horn Trio may work differently than Brahms had thought (and, considering the violin and piano, differently than he could have imagined), it is still com- pletely beautiful. The presence of the horn is mysterious and large; the modes
are dark and rich (especially in movements I and III); and the unusual structure and motion are well suited to tying it all together. True to the nature of the “Waldhorn,” the Horn Trio was composed in the wooded area of Lichtenberg near Baden-Baden in 1865.

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