Which Composers Have Written The Best Horn Parts ?
For horn players, some orchestral works and operas are more rewarding to play than others. There are quite a few great horn solos in certain famous works, and the entire parts of others are quite juicy. Others are not so great, either just plain difficult and awkward to play, or just not interesting.
Every aspiring young horn player at music schools etc studies the various books of excerpts for horn which are in print and practices them assiduously. They are always on the audition lists when horn openings occur in orchestras. So did I. These books of excerpts are edited by famous horn players, past and present. There are excerpt books for various different instruments, also.
!8th century horn parts by Haydn and Mozart etc are generally less interesting, because these composers were limited by the natural horn, which could not play scales of any kind , and could only play in one key at a time, needing changes of tubing to play in different keys. They can be difficult though, in that the small orchestras make the horn parts very exposed, and it's easy to miss high notes. The horn virtuosos of the day had a technique of stopping notes by closing off the bell with the pal, enabling notes otherwise unavailable to be played. But composers used this in concertos and sonatas, and mostly used open notes in orchestral works.
An exception is Joseph Haydn's symphony no 31 , which has virtuoso parts for four horns, and is virtually a concerto for four horns. Later, Beethoven gave the horn more promises, such as in the famous 3rd symphony (Eroica), which has prominent solos, and a passage in the scherzo for the three horns which has the flavor of the hunt in it. The 6th, or "Pastoral" symphony has some fine,if exposed solos, and the 9th, the world-famous "Choral", with the Ode To Joy, features an elaborate solo for the fourth horn in the slow, and next to last movement, supposedly written to show the abilities of the then new valved horn.
"Der Freischutz" (The Freeshooter ), an opera by carl Maria von Weber (1786 - 1926 ) is the story of a young huntsman who sells his soul to the devil for magic bullets which will never miss the marks in the hope of winning his beloved's hand in a marksmanship contest. Tragedy and damnation are avoided at the last minute, and all ends happily. This contains great parts for four horns imitating the hunt.
Richard Wagner ( 1813 - 1883 ), took advantage of the valved horn and wrote very juicy but extremely difficult parts in terms of endurance. Those operas are sooo long. A teacher of mine who used to play in the Metropolitan opera orchestra told me that when you play Wagner in the opera house "You're tired before the curtain goes up!". In "Siegfried", third of the operas of the monumental "Ring", the hero Siegfried plays a long solo on his instrument, played by the first horn in the pit. You're all alone and the last note is the horn's top note. It's not for the faint-hearted.
Johannes Brahms and Tchaikovsky wrote wonderful solos for horn, such as the famous solo in the second movement of Tchaikovsky's 5th. Brahms even gave solos to the 3rd horn at times.
Richard Strauss (1864 - 1949 ), no relation to Johann Strauss, was the son of Franz Strauss of Munich, who was considered the greatest horn player of the day. He literally grew up with the sound of the horn, and wrote two concertos for the instrument. His horn parts are among the juiciest ever written, and there is a famous solo in his humorous tone poem "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks". "Ein Heldenleben" ( A Hero's Life), is a semi-autobiographical work whose heroism is actually tongue in cheek, has 8 horns in a very large orchestra, and some alternately heroic and gently lyrical solo passages, The monumental "Alpine Symphony" is written for an even larger orchestra, and is also wonderful, if very tiring to play. The operas, such as Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier and Caprriccio etc, also have great horn parts.
Gustav Mahler (1860 - !911 ) was a friend and colleague of Strauss, and like him, a renowned conductor. All of his 9 symphonies contain juicy and very difficult and tiring horn parts. The thrid mopvement of his 5th symphony contains an elaborate and difficult solo part throughout the movent.
We horn players are blessed with so many rewarding horn parts , orchestral and operatic, but playing them is a always a great challenge.