Horner’s Glory: Horns of Glory

There are certain instruments that are standard within the orchestral palette for evoking particular emotions and setting the score within a specific context. As I covered in my previous post, the oboe is a widely-used emotionally-charged instrument; at least, when there’s not dialogue underneath the score.

Another instrument that is used prominently in many scores is the horn (colloquially known as the French horn, if you’re not pedantic). The horn has an incredibly wide range, and its versatility in this regard is not taken for granted. In its lowest register, the instrument is dark and can be used for more ominous moments. Its middle register sees the most action, and oftentimes the tone of the instrument in this range fills out the remainder of the sound that other brass instruments and their overtones don’t quite cover.

The highest register, however, can be one of the most glorious sounds in the orchestral palette, and film composers are well aware of its strength in that regard. As a horn player myself, getting to play passages in the upper range of the instrument are often those moments—fellow instrumentalists will know what I mean by that. James Horner (RIP) lived up to his aptronym-esque last name by writing (and sometimes “borrowing” from others… that’s for another post) ideas that encapsulate that range of the horn beautifully. I could list and examine a dozen examples here, but one of my favorites is from the score to the movie Glory.

The whole suite is worth listening to, but the key moment is at 5:58. This is the horn melody in concert pitch—that means a pianist could sit at a piano and play this, and it would line up with what the horn is playing:

And here is the same melody transposed. This is what James Thatcher, the principle horn player on the Glory recording sessions, was reading in his part. This being transposed means that when James plays this melody on his horn, the pitches that sound are the same as the ones above:

Those two high Bs (in the transposed excerpt) are the “money notes” of this whole suite, and arguably the whole score. There’s such a brilliance in that range of the instrument that it’s almost guaranteed that anything written there will pierce through the rest of the orchestra and shine wonderfully.

Where does this range extend? That’s debatable among professionals, but typically horn players are not asked to play higher than a concert F on top of the staff, which transposed is the C just one note higher than the above excerpt. It’s theoretically possible to play higher than that, but realistically only for someone of James Thatcher’s level of expertise and experience. James Horner had a… well, let’s call it a “flavorful” reputation in the film scoring business, and there are stories of him writing horn passages beyond this range, to the annoyance of those players stuck trying to play that high.

There’s a reason why that top C is about as high as a horn player should play, and it has to do with the overtone series of the instrument. Basically, when any brass player plays a note, what they’re really playing is one of the harmonics/overtones of the fundamental pitch that that fingering (or slide position, in the case of a trombone) sounds. The fundamental pitch is the lowest note that can be played with that same fingering.

It takes a bit of studying and patience to understand fully the way the overtone series operates, but as the good folks at horninsights.com have pointed out, the overtone series for this low (written) C…

…which is as low as a horn player can play without using any valves, extends as follows:

Credit: horninsights.com

In essence, there is a point of diminishing returns once the notes go above the staff, and that C is essentially a wall. In any case, look at how many notes can be played without using any valves! It’s no wonder horn is considered one of the hardest brass instruments to play well, and why if you’ve ever spent time in an ensemble, you might be surprised at how even great horn players can miss notes. Even James Thatcher in that example above bobbles a note, if you listen carefully to the written G♯ right where the rallentando starts (about 6:23 in the video).

Horner’s Glory score and its great use of horns, though, really illustrate well how powerful the horn is when it’s played well. Just for fun, I’ll leave you with this video of a prime example of great horn playing. This is the Vienna Horns playing Alan Silvestri’s theme from Back to the Future:


nick December 12, 2012 Horn, James Horner, Orchestration