This article is Part 1 in the Exploring Orchestral Music series.
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, 1 A more detailed description of the trackers and cookies loaded by the embedded Spotify player can be found on the Blacklight privacy inspector so make sure to disable third-party cookies and use a tool like Privacy Badger if you choose to use this option.
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.
Bonus: Holst The Planets, Second Movement “Venus, the Bringer of Peace”
Another famous and incredibly serene French Horn solo. Also incredibly difficult for the same reasons.
Mahler Symphony No. 5, First and Third Movements
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) 2Most people consider French Horn to be a hard instrument to consistently play in tune due to how much the pitch can change, depending on what you do with your lips. 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.
Ravel: Pavane for a Dead Princess
An all time classic. Incredibly beautiful.
That’s it for today - the next post will be looking at ways to explore living and diverse composers.
Articles in the Exploring Orchestral Music series:
- Part 1 - Exploring Orchestral Music via a Favourite Instrument (Current Page)
- Part 2 - Exploring Orchestral Music: Race and Gender Representation of Composers