Exploring Orchestral Music via a Favourite Instrument
I like Orchestral music quite a lot. I used to be in a youth orchestra, I work for an orchestra now—orchestral music plays a big role in my life.
However, lots of people find getting into orchestral music intimidating. Even I do, from time to time. So I thought I would write about some creative ways that people can explore orchestral music and find new pieces that they like. My hope is that this will be informative for people who are new to orchestral music, and interesting to people who already feel they know orchestral music pretty well.
I’m going to start with the way that I found a lot of pieces I like to listen to now: by looking at pieces that feature a favourite instrument. If you’ve played an instrument, and liked it, that’s often a good way to get into music. However, even just being a fan of a certain instrument is a great way to find some music that you’ll love.
Pieces with good French Horn parts
I played French Horn throughout high school and into University, and this helped introduce me to a number of great pieces of orchestral music. In some cases, I learned about pieces I liked by playing them (e.g. Tchaikovsy’s sixth symphony, Bizet’s Carmen), but in other cases I learned about pieces through excerpts.
Excerpts are small sections from pieces that musicians have to play when they do orchestra auditions. (In most cases, they will be required to play a full piece or movement from a pieces as well). Excerpts are meant to demonstrate their ability to play a broad range of music and their skill with some of the most challenging or high-stakes parts they might encounter playing with the orchestra.
Naturally, if you’re a fan of a certain instrument, looking through the pieces on an audition list is a great way to find pieces that feature some pretty amazing parts.
I’m going to take some top picks for French Horn, but you could do this for any instrument you’re a fan of. Just search for “favourite instrument” + “excerpts” or “favourite instrument” + “audition list” and you’ll find lots to get you started. Maybe I’ll do a couple other instruments in later posts.
I’ve put links to albums on Spotify and also links to the International Horn Society’s excerpts pages so that you can easily find the parts I’m talking about.
Embedded Spotify Players
If you click the button below, it will load embedded Spotify players for each of the pieces described. However, you should be aware that they also load several ad-trackers and third party cookies, so make sure to disable third-party cookies and use a tool like Privacy Badger if you choose to use this option.
The Naxos Music Library is also a great way to listen to orchestral music, and you can get free access to it through most local library systems.
Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5, Second Movement
This is probably one of the most beautiful French Horn solos in the orchestral repertoire. Although it doesn’t sound like it, it’s absolute murder to play since holding long, high notes without a break is a real workout for the lips.
The horn player in this recording is presumably Dale Clevenger, who retired in 2013 after nearly five decades as Chicago’s principal horn.
Bonus: Holst The Planets, Second Movement “Venus, the Bringer of Peace”
🔗 Spotify: Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Another famous and incredibly serene French Horn solo. Also incredibly difficult for the same reasons.
TSO’s principal horn is Neil Deland. Maybe it’s home team bias, but I’m always blown away by the quality of his sound and how it just totally fills the hall.
Mahler Symphony No. 5, First and Third Movements
🔗 Spotify: Philadelphia Orchestra
If you like things to get loud, Mahler is a pretty safe bet. (One of his symphonies famously features a comically large hammer as an instrument.)
Good horn parts are everywhere in this one, including in:
- The opening fanfare
- A scale, but dramatic
- The happy part in-between all the turmoil
- The part where four horn players have to play the same loud note in tune (just after 1:00 in the linked clips) 1
Philadelphia’s principal horn is Jennifer Montone - she’s played on a wide range of recordings that includes her work as a soloist, in orchestras, and in chamber groups. Jennifer Montone’s Discography
🔗 Spotify: Philharmonia Orchestra
If you like fanfares and big soaring passages, you’ll probably like Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel and Ein Heldenleben too.
Philharmonia’s principal horn is Nigel Black. I thought it might also be interesting to link this video of Sarah Willis from the Berlin Philharmonic giving a demonstration of Till Eulenspiegel and also a common Beethoven excerpt. I think it’s a good demonstration that being a good horn player often isn’t about playing things that are super complicated and fiddly, but rather playing things that often sound simple while achieving the best sound possible.
Ravel: Pavane for a Dead Princess
🔗 Spotify: Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg
An all time classic. Incredibly beautiful.
This recording was conducted by the TSO’s new Music Director, Gustavo Gimeno. The horn player I would guess is OPL’s principal, Miklós Nagy.
🔗 Spotify: Cleveland Orchestra
If you like the French, you should check out this other Cleveland Orchestra recording, which is of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. The principal horn on the recording is Shelly Showers, who now is part of the Philadelphia Orchestra (they’ve got some incredible horn section bench strength over there…)
That’s it for today - the next post will be looking at ways to explore living and diverse composers.
Most people consider French Horn to be a hard instrument to consistently play in tune because of how much the pitch can be affected by what you do with your lips and the hand that sits in the bell. These four notes are particularly difficult because they have to be played with the bell end of the horn held up in the air, which makes playing in tune even harder (no hand control and harder to keep the mouthpiece stable on your lips). The video with Sarah Willis linked below gives a good demonstration of how the hand can sometimes be used to help manage pitch. ↩