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Understanding Horn Notations in Later Works of Wagner

Note: This article continues the topic begun in the previous article, "Unusual Notations in Works by J. R. Lewy." The below text is as presented in my 1995 dissertation, but with musical examples numbered as presented when this was published in 1997 as “Joseph Rudolphe Lewy and Valved Horn Technique in Germany, 1837-1851,” The Horn Call Annual 9, 23-35.

John Ericson

While the use of the valves as crooking devices as requested in some of these works of J. R. Lewy is very interesting, this technique would be of only minor historical interest if it were not for Wagner applying this technique to a major operatic work.  These works of J. R. Lewy bear a close resem­blance to the horn writing seen in the opera Lohengrin (1848).  Wagner composed this work in Dresden while he was conductor and Lewy was principal horn.  Note the frequent changes of crook required in the following example.


This example can be performed on the Ab crook, fingering the second valve in the G horn sections, the second and third valves in the E horn sections, and all three valves in the D horn sections, using some right-hand technique.  There are numerous sections in Lohengrin which call for a similar technical approach; it would be utterly impossible to make the changes of crooks requested in this work in any other way than with the valves.

Why did Wagner change his technical approach to the horn so drastically from that of Der fliegende Holländer?  It would appear that he was not satisfied with the valved horn at that time and turned to the technical ideas of J. R. Lewy to reform the instrument.  Two sentences of the preface of the Lewy etudes deserve to be highlighted again: ". . . the valves are to be employed only when the natural horn is inadequate for the bright and distinct emission of the sounds. . . .  In this way alone will the beauty of tone of the natural horn be preserved, and the instrument acquire increased capabilities."[1] These comments were in fact later mirrored by Wagner himself.

The most extensive commentary by Wagner on the valved horn is found in the introductory note to the published score of Tristan und Isolde, which appeared in 1860.  His statement about the horn and on his methods of writing for it sheds light on his underlying reasons for attempting to use multiple transpositions in his horn parts in Lohengrin.

The composer feels called upon to recommend that special attention be given the treatment of the horns.  The introduction of the valve has doubt­less done so much for the instrument that it is difficult to ignore this improvement, although the horn has thereby suffered undeniable loss in the beauty of its tone, as well as in its powers of smooth legato.  In view of this great loss, the composer, who is concerned with the preservation of the true character of the horn, would have to refrain from employing valve horns, had he not learned that excellent performers have been able to eliminate these drawbacks almost completely by especially careful execution, so that it was barely possible to tell the difference in tone and legato.  In expectation of a hopefully inevitable improvement of the valve horn, it is urgently recommended that the horn players study their parts in the present score with great care in order to find the proper applications of the appropriate tunings and valves for all require­ments of execution.  The composer has already definitely called for the use of the E-crook (as well as the F-crook).  The horn players themselves must decide whether the attachment of the respective crooks will permit the other changes of pitch that frequently occur in the score for easier notation of low tones or of the required timbre of higher tones; but the composer has generally assumed that the individual low tones, especially, can be produced by transposition. -- The individual notes marked with a + indicate stopped tones; and even if these occur in tunings in which they are open, it is still assumed that each time the player will change the pitch by means of a valve in such a way that the intended tone sounds like a stopped one.[2]

An important point to first consider is the loss in the beauty of the tone due to the valve and its disruption of the horn's power of legato.  His comments parallel those of others in this period [3]. Wagner recognized the superior tone and legato of the natural horn compared to that of the valved horn.  He also recognized that artists on the valved horn could overcome these deficiencies, and that further improvements would come.

It is clearly stated that primarily the E and F crooks were to be used on the valved horn in Tristan und Isolde.  Lower and higher crooks were also requested in his horn parts, both for easier notation of lower tones and for the tonal color of high notes.  He understood that transposition was likely in the case of the low crooks (especially for the numerous, isolated low range notes frequently encountered in his later works [4]), but he did expect that the higher crooks would be used.

Finally, in Tristan Wagner was not looking for any variations of tonal color, except for pitches specifically requested to be performed stopped with the hand.  The notation "+" was used to make it clear even if a note "looked" open from the standpoint of hand horn technique, that the hornist was in fact to play it stopped in the same manner that a stopped note would have been performed on the natural horn.

That Wagner was willing to listen to the technical preferences of hornists, as Lohengrin seems to evidence, is also shown in another later source.  Wagner was aided in the final preparation of the score of Die Meistersinger (1867) by hornist and conductor Hans Richter (1843-1916) [5].  Richter, who spent 1866-67 preparing the fair copy of the score of this work, is quoted as saying that Wagner at first did not understand the valved horn [6].  Richter, who became a famous international conductor, especially of the works of Wagner, may have been in a position to know.  Two examples given by Richter, verbally reported by Friedrich Adolf Borsdorf (1854-1923, a leading German-born hornist in England) and related by Blandford, are worthy of note.

At one time Wagner conceived the idea of reforming the horn notation altogether, and propounded a scheme for writing in one of the C clefs, presumably treating the horns as non-transposing instruments--not in itself altogether a novelty.  From this he was only dissuaded by Richter's earnest representations of the confusion that it would cause.
Also, when in Die Meistersinger he gave to the first horn the subject of Beckmesser's serenade, he actually wrote it at its present pitch for the E crook, on which he expected it to be played.  Again Richter, having procured his horn, demonstrated experimentally that it was utterly impracticable, and induced the composer to transfer it to the G crook, where it remains and on which it should obviously be performed [7].

While these sources focus on Wagner's later works, they do reveal several points.  First, Wagner was entirely willing to reform the notation of the horn.  But more importantly, Wagner's horn writing style as seen in Lohengrin undoubtedly has a lot to do with a general notion of maintaining the best qualities of the natural horn on the valved horn.  This ideal is also consistent with the type of valved horn playing he would have encountered in France, the technique with which J. R. Lewy was also familiar.  Wagner had undoubtedly seen an early version of the etudes of J. R. Lewy and applied his technical approach to his operatic horn parts.  The pure theory behind this style of writing for the horn must have fascinated Wagner for him to go to the trouble of writing all of the required multiple transpositions.

Perhaps if one were trained for years in this method of using the valves, performing Lohengrin exactly as notated would be possible.  In practice, however, performers attempting to use the notated method of playing these horn parts must have found it terribly difficult to change tonal centers so frequently.  In spite of Wagner's grand design and the great pains taken to write the horn parts in this way, transposition seems to be the only reasonable method of actually performing this work.

Another factor to consider with the impracticability of the horn parts of this work as written is that Wagner, while he may have consulted with performers, was not a performer himself.  Wagner is quoted as saying to a harpist who drew his attention to some of the impossible passages in his part, "I am not a harpist.  I have given you my ideas.  It is for you to arrange them for your instrument [8]."  His impression of what J. R. Lewy recommended technically probably did not reflect the practical reality of this approach to playing the valved horn.

It is possible that J. R. Lewy may have never been consulted either.  Wagner later recalled the "bugler" Lewy with some hostility in connection with his involvement in the formation of an orchestra union in this period in Dresden [9], regarding him as the main spy of management [10], and Lewy also later received the following mention in the diaries of Cosima Wagner:

While we are talking about Josef Rubenstein's piano playing, R. says how curious it is that Jews seem neither to recognize nor to play any themes; he recalls that Levy in Dresden (not the Viennese one) played through the whole of the Holländer without recognizing the Dutchman's theme [11].

Whatever they may have thought of each other [12], J. R. Lewy probably never performed any of the music of Lohengrin.  Wagner, due to his involvement in the failed 1849 revolution, fled the country and was then banned from returning to Germany.  Thus, while originally intended for performance in Dresden, Lohengrin was not premiered until 1850 in Weimar under the direction of Franz Liszt.

The unusual horn writing in Lohengrin seems not to have influenced other composers, and was never repeated by Wagner.  Wagner carried Lewy's ideas too far in Lohengrin and quickly moderated his approach to writing for the valved horn.  In his later works it can be seen that Wagner relied mainly on valved horns crooked in E and F, using the valves as fingerings.

The system of using valves to make fast crook changes is quite cumbersome.  There is no evidence that J. R. Lewy used this technique in the earlier part of his career in the Schubert and Reissiger works written for him, which suggests that it was a later development, perhaps influenced by the French use of the right hand on the valved horn and the omnitonic horn.  Even at the end of his career it would appear that Lewy thought both in terms of fast crook changes and fingerings, with a stated ideal of maintaining the best qualities of the natural horn in his valved horn playing.

His innovative techniques would appear to have had no influence on other players of the period.  If any one player might have been influenced, his nephew Richard Lewy (1827-1883) would be a likely candidate.  A wunderkind on the valved horn (he performed a "große Fantasie" for the "chromatische Waldhorn" with the Hamburg Philharmonic in 1838 [13]), and in the same year appeared as a soloist with the Gewandhaus Orchestra [14]), Richard Lewy became a prominent performer in Vienna [15].  Richard Lewy was, however, passed over by Johannes Brahms in an 1867 performance of his Trio, Op. 40 (1865), as he was unwilling to perform on the natural horn [16].  This seems to indicate that Richard Lewy also did not use right-hand technique on the valved horn, as his uncle had; otherwise he could have easily performed the natural horn on this work.  Richard Lewy's own undated Concertino also shows no evidence to indicate that he used the valves to make crook changes.

Much experimentation was being carried out by early valved horn players and composers.  The technique of using the valves to make fast crook changes, as seen in some works of J. R. Lewy and Wagner, was a dead end.  These unusual works illustrate the mutual desire of Wagner and J. R. Lewy to maintain the best qualities of the natural horn.  It is in this light that the unique technical approach developed by J. R. Lewy makes its most significant impact.

This article is the conclusion of a three part series – Return to Part I



1. Trans. in ibid, 694.

2. Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde (Leipzig: C. F. Peters, [ca. 1911]; reprint with trans. New York: Dover, 1973), vii.

3. For example, consider the contemporary comments of composer and author Ferdinand Gleich (1816-after 1866).  In his Handbuch der modernen Instrumentirung (Leipzig: C. F. Kahnt, [1860]), he made the following commentary on the valved horn and its use in the orchestra.

It is used [by composers], but the beautiful, noble, and pleasant sound of the waldhorn has nearly disappeared with the insertion of valved horns into our orchestras; only a few hornists still go to the trouble of using it on older works written for the simple horn.  The majority of the players take everything on the valved horn, and transpose each and every horn part on the valved horn in F, probably only to save themselves the bother of plugging in crooks!  With compositions that were written specifically for the valved horn, which therefore are impractical on the natural horn, it is naturally in its place, but to use it [the valved horn] on works of Beethoven or Weber is a vandalism. (Gleich, 41).

4. Passages of this type are found in Eb, D, and C in Tristan.  Wagner appears to have used this notational device to avoid requesting low notes not possible on natural horn, but is not rigorous in its application.  In addition, as he hinted in the note to the score, writing the lowest part in a lower crook does avoid writing excessive ledger lines.

5. Hans-Hubert Schönzeler, "Richter, Hans," New Grove, vol. 15, 847.  Tarr, "Romantic," part 2, 200 also notes that Richter was a horn student of Richard Lewy from 1860-1865.

6. Tom S. Wotton, "Notation of the Horn: Some Altered Meanings," The Musical Times 65 (September 1, 1924), 810, citing Paul Gilson in Le Guide Musical, January 2, 1910.

7. Blandford, "Studies . . . Wagner . . .," part 2, 697.

8. Quoted in Wotton, 812; the original source is not known to the author.

9. Richard Wagner, My Life, authorized trans. (New York: Tudor, 1936), 463.

10. Ernest Newman, The Life of Richard Wagner (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1937), vol. 2, 47.

11. Martin Gregor-Dellin and Dietrich Mack, eds., Cosima Wagner's Diaries, trans. Geoffrey Skelton (New York: Harcourt Brace Javanovich, 1978), vol. 1, 523.  The entry is dated August 14, 1872.

12. There is one later quote of Wagner in reference to an 1864 performance of the overture to Der Freischütz sometimes cited in support of their close relationship as artists (for example, Morley-Pegge, 2nd ed., 163).  Wagner stated "Under the sensitively artistic leadership of R. Lewy, the horn players patiently changed their whole style of blowing . . ." (Richard Wagner, Über das Dirigieren, trans. in Brüchle and Janetzky, Kulturgeschichte, 218).  Unfortunately, the quote actually refers to a performance in Vienna by E. C. Lewy's son Richard Lewy (1827-1883).  The previously cited quotation of Cosima Wagner likely makes reference to the Viennese Richard Lewy as well.

13. Kurt Stephenson, Hundert Jahre Philharmonische Gesellschaft in Hamburg (Hamburg: Broschek, 1928), 117, cited in Seiffert, 46.

14. Pizka, 278.

15. Wagner's comments on R. Lewy have already been noted.

16. David G. Elliott, "The Brahms Trio and Hand Horn Idiom," The Horn Call 10, no. 1 (October, 1979), 65.

Copyright John Ericson. All rights reserved. This article posted online in 2016


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