Toot Your Horn!

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Lots of composers put the sounds of Nature into their compositions.  Think of Antonio Vivaldi's Four Seasons, or Ludwig van Beethoven's Sixth Symphony. In the 20th century, composers started putting outdoor sounds of a different nature into their work. György Ligeti's opera Le Grand Macabre (which the New York Philharmonic performed so brilliantly last week--you can hear the broadcast June 10 on WQXR), features not one, but two “Car Horn Preludes.” They're scored for twelve bulbed horns (like the kind on a bicycle), each one tuned to a specific pitch. Some of the Ligeti horns were so big and heavy that the percussionists had to stomp on them to play them!

That reminded me of the original car horn piece, by George Gershwin, who was so enamored with French taxi horns that he put them into An American in Paris. Gershwin ran around Paris rounding up the original batch of horns for the 1928 Carnegie Hall premiere (commissioned and performed by the New York Philharmonic). These days, most orchestras rent them. Carroll Music supplied the ones for Le Grand Macabre, but Steve Weiss Music, outside Philadelphia, is the go-to outfit for orchestras playing An American in Paris. It calls for four horns, pitched A, B, C, and D. When I spoke with John O'Connor and Randy Rudolph, the horn guys at Steve Weiss, they said they have a dozen sets in stock, for which they get hundreds of calls every year, from orchestras all over the U.S. (and even from Europe!). Today, the horns are made in Germany, rather than France. The Martin Horn Company started out producing cavalry, hunting, and fanfare horns (wouldn't you love to have one of those?). Now, they've moved on to ambulances and fire trucks. Of course, those horns are a lot less fragile than the Gershwin ones, which have to be tested and maintained to keep honking exactly the right notes.