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The Basset Horn

by Georgina Dobrée

Georgina Dobree with basset horn

Like the scent of red carnations, was how, in about 1815, E.T.A. Hoffmann described the sound of the basset horn. Burnet Tuthill, for Cobbett's Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music, published in 1929, wrote of its "soft mellow timbre of rich beauty and phenomenal range of four full octaves." But Bernard Shaw, writing eight years later, regretted his decision of 1888 to adopt Corno di Bassetto as his nom-de-plume in his role as music critic of The Star. Shaw's experience of the basset horn seems to have been limited to hearing it in performances of Mozart's Requiem, which perhaps affected his opinion that "the devil himself could not make a basset horn sparkle." For at that time the instrument had become almost a rarity, particularly in England, and was owned more often by opera houses than by the individual players. Indeed, if it had not been for Mozart and, furthermore, the changing musicological climate during the present century, it seems doubtful whether the basset horn could ever have been revived so successfully, or the search begun for music written specifically for what was, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a very popular member of the clarinet family. For sparkle it certainly can! It was not to be funereal that those early players chose this instrument as a vehicle for virtuoso display.

In Mozart's day there were the Stadler brothers, David, Springer, Lotz and Dworschack, all of whom travelled widely. And there were as many to succeed them in the 19th century: Backofen, Beerhalter, Rummel, among a host of others. Alas, only a few of the pieces they played are remembered today. But Mozart used the basset horn extensively, not just in his operas but also in a number of shorter, though by no means lesser, compositions which include the magnificent Serenade in B -flat, K. 361, thereby extending its opportunities well beyond the confines of the opera house. Then into the 19th century with the single movement in Beethoven's ballet music Die Geschopfe des Prometheus and, in 1833, the delightful and deservedly popular concert pieces for clarinet and basset horn by Mendelssohn, instigated by the Baermanns, father and son. However, by 1855, so Geoffrey Rendall, in his comprehensive book The Clarinet, alleges, "the basset horn was dead," at least in Germany. But then he goes on to quote from a letter Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann in November of that year: "The aria by Mozart was sung by Frau Guhrau with orchestra. To my great joy she was accompanied by two basset horns which had been obtained with great difficulty. I do not think any instrument blends more perfectly with the human voice." So, happily, it was not quite dead. But it was not an instrument best suited to the increasingly large orchestra of the 19th century, and its continuing use was only finally ensured by Richard Strauss who, recognizing its potential in an extended clarinet section, proceeded to give it important parts in six of his operas, including Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier and Capriccio, as well as in the two great wind symphonies.

What then distinguishes the basset horn from other members of the clarinet family? Pitched in F, between the usual soprano instruments and the bass clarinet, it acquires its uniquely characteristic timbre mainly through the relative smallness of its bore relative to its length (not much wider than that of the clarinet in A or B-flat), and to its extension an extra four semitones below normal. These properties give it its richly dark sound in the lower register (from the F at the bottom of the bass staff), the capacity to produce an eerie quality as well as a brighter tone in its middle and upper registers, and, of course, its full four-octave range. Basset horns are now only in F, but in the late 18th and 19th centuries they were also built lower (in D, vide Druschetsky), and higher (in G, the instrument indicated in the first sketch of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto). These instruments soon became obsolete. And its name should not confuse it with the basset clarinets, which are soprano clarinets in A or B-flat with a similar downward extension and with a repertoire apparently confined, until quite recently, to the works of Mozart-notably as the instrument, in A, for which the Clarinet Concerto was finally completed.

Now that basset horns have become readily available, with manufacturers listing them prominently in their catalogues, it has not been difficult for enthusiastic basset horn players to persuade 20th century composers to write once more for this exciting instrument, even if they do sometimes provide for alternatives, indeed as they have always done.

Just as in earlier times, some player-composers, like the late Thomas Ayres in the U.S., have written for the basset horn themselves as well as inviting works to be written for them, such as the delightful Four Airs (For Ayres!), by W.L. Reed. In Europe, Hans Rudolf Stalder and Graham Melville-Mason have probably been the most influential of the revivers and inspirers, but so too have Heinrich Fink and, in Czechoslovakia, the home of so much of the earlier repertoire, Jirí Kratochvíl. From Britain, Stephen Trier and I have introduced new works by Elisabeth Lutyens, David Gow, Morris Pert and Dennis Milne; while in Germany, Karlheinz Stockhausen has a persuasive advocate in Suzanne Stephens, for whom he has written a number of solo and ensemble pieces. Among the arrangements for basset horn, another 20th century work that ought to be mentioned is the Ballade by Frank Martin, originally for alto saxophone but arranged by the composer especially for Hans Rudolf Stalder.

It is perhaps a curious fact that there have been many works written for three basset horns. And it is to be found quite frequently in works for ensembles of assorted clarinets (the alternative instrument here, if required, being most frequently the E-flat alto clarinet, an instrument it resembles in range though not in timbre). Occasionally it is even found in orchestral works (there is a part for basset horn in the Violin Concerto of Roger Sessions). And of course there is chamber music, especially with strings.

It is impossible to include here a full list of the music that we know to have been written for the basset horn since its invention in the latter part of the 18th century. Not a great deal is available in music shops since publishers are not exactly falling over themselves to print works with rather an obviously limited market. So a good deal of searching is needed, with rummaging through obscure archives and direct approaches to composers. And there is a wealth of fascinating information on every aspect of the basset horn in John P. Newhill's The Basset Horn and its Music.

As a clarinetist, Georgina Dohree's career has mainly been in chamber music and as a soloist. ]t was in the 1950s that she became known for her performances of contemporary music, and over the years she has had a number of works written for her, including those featuring the basset horn. Several of these have also been recorded on her own label, ChantryRecords. Her research into the earlier repertoire has more recently led to her latest enterprise, Chantry Publications.

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