Mountain Music

2016c31db0e4087f080df6baeeaf7b5fThe sound of the French horn provides one of the most emblematically Romantic timbres in nineteenth-century music. Why is that?

The French horn derives its origin from the hunting horn (in German, waldhorn or forest horn) — a brass instrument played while hunting on horseback to call back the hounds from the hunt.

Some horns, like the alphorn, were used in mountain regions to communicate and signal across vast distances.

And horns were used in the Middle Ages to call troops to battle.

So the sound of the horn is associated with the pastoral, with nature, and with the simple folk, peasants and hunters, people steeped in forestcraft and woodlore, men and women who are close to the land, and also with centuries past. The idea that the simple folk are the inheritors of a unique knowledge and wisdom is an important Romantic trope, part of the culture of resistance to the advancing technological specialization and industrialization of the age.

The nineteenth-century Männerchor (men’s chorus) was meant to imitate the sonic ambience of the woodland horn, and to evoke a feeling of the pastoral and the out-of-doors.

Brahms wrote his Four Songs for women’s choir, harp, and two horns — including the “Song from Fingal” — to evoke both folk music and a sense of nostalgia for the past: the first song is self-referential, about the effect of hearing a harp played in the landscape; the second song is a setting of “Come away, death” from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; the third song is about a gardener who loves a lady in vain, and anticipates his death from grief; and the fourth is a setting of a German translation of the Ossian verses. 

Years later, Brahms would return to the pastoral sound of the horn to open his second piano concert on B-flat Major, op. 83. As Bill McGlaughlin has observed, this is more than music: it is a landscape in sound; the horn almost seems to call out of the mists, as if from one mountaintop to another.

And of course you remember Beethoven’s horns in his Symphony no. 3. What does Beethoven intend his horns to mean?

Piping Down the Valleys Wild: Some Literary Sources

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The title page of Songs of Innocence (1793) by William Blake (1757-1827). You can view the entire 1793 edition and read commentary at the Tate Museum’s website.

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An 1802 poem along similar lines by William Wordsworth (1770-1850):

My heart leaps up when I behold
  A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
  Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

How do Blake’s and Wordsworth’s poems express a fundamental tenet of Romanticism?

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The Dream of Ossian (Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1813).

Some years earlier, the Scottish poet James Macpherson had published Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books, which he claimed were his translations of texts by Ossian, a forgotten third-century Gaelic bard whose poems had been lost until Macpherson himself discovered them on a trip around the northern coast of Scotland. Fingal was the legendary king of Caledonia, in northwestern Scotland. It is now commonly accepted that Macpherson wrote the poems himself, but at the time Thomas Jefferson enthused over Ossian, “I think this rude bard of the North the greatest Poet that has ever existed.”  Fingal was wildly successful, and was translated into every major European language. Napoleon adopted Ossian as his own guiding poet, and is said even to have gone into battle with a copy of Fingal in his pocket; the artist Girodet, the official portraitist to Napoleon’s family, painted this scene of Ossian in paradise, welcoming the souls of the French officers killed in the Napoleonic Wars, in 1805.

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Why was Ossian — later acknowledged to be a fraud — so important to the Romantics?

Could it be because these seemingly ancient poems spoke to the longing for a unified culture and community, one based on spiritual aspirations rather than on the arbitrary borders set out by the various monarchies of Europe?

Or could it be because of the Ossianesque atmosphere of mist, of caves, of the bleak landscapes of the North?

You can read selections of Ossian’s poems here.

“Das Mädchen von Inistore” (The maid of Inistore), one of Schubert’s settings of Ossian (Macpherson) in German translation.

The text, in English:

Weep on the rocks of roaring winds, o maid of Inistore! Bend thy fair head over the waves, thou lovelier than the ghost of the hills, when it moves in a sunbeam, at noon, over the silence of Morven. 

Brahms set the same text for women’s choir, harp, and two horns. Note how the instrumentation adds a sense of the mystical and the mysterious.

Mendelssohn, after a trip to Scotland, wrote his Hebrides Overture, which he subtitled “Fingal’s Cave.”