Readers of Lessons in Humiliation will doubtless recall that I have long been the proud owner of (and indifferent practitioner on) a French horn. The instrument is a British-built Paxman Series 2 actually, built to the specifications of the “Mereweather System” in about 1973 and bought for me brand new by my parents through an arrangement with the school music department.
Today, however, FedEx is coming to take it away.
As I left the house this morning, my hallway was encumbered by a large cardboard box containing said horn. When I return this evening, it will be gone, sold on to a company of French horn refurbishers in – you guessed it – the Forest of Dean. The end of an era; the end of a bumpy forty-two year relationship with the instrument.
I spoke to the Man from the Forest on Sunday morning. (Horn enthusiasts spurn the concept of days off.) He reassured me that, yes, that my old friend is still worth a lot of cash, but also explained that the beloved horn I have cherished and played as far afield as St Omer, Strasbourg and Streatham Hill is no professional bit of kit, but a mere “student instrument”.
This news has left me reeling. Is it the case then that for the past four decades I have been labouring under a misapprehension? Have I actually been performing for my whole life upon a horn designed for a rank beginner?
Connoisseurs of my track record would expect me to make clear at this point that my playing has never been of professional quality. Indeed, out of modesty – and in my own defence – I must state that I have always been aware of my shortcomings. The rather weedy sound I have historically conjured from my horn (not to mention a certain inaccuracy in the quest for the note juste) has always been, I have believed, somehow the fault of my own technique: bad embouchure, tension in the neck, poor breathing and general incompetence in the practice room. Despite my scraping a Pass at Grade 8, I have always regarded myself as an essentially shit player.
Not so! For as a result of my conversation with the Man from the Forest, it is the horn itself which stands accused of inadequacy, not its player. I now understand that the “engine” (the round and complicated bit comprised of valves, slides and assorted curly-wurly bits of tubing at the mouth end) is a substandard lump of machinery deemed unworthy by Paxman’s long-dead artisans of being included in one of their top-of-the-range instruments. Furthermore, the bell-end (and I use the phrase technically) – the end you shove your hand up – is also below par, being moulded from a thinnish piece of cheap metal like an unzipped baked bean tin welded randomly onto the “engine”.
Unlike that of a high quality and expensive horn, my bell end is not a thing of beauty. It has not been painstakingly hewn from thick ingots of living brass by sweating elves in the foundries below Walhalla. It has missed out on the process of being heated, hammered and hollowed out for a hundred years or more. No, the bell of my Paxman Series 2 has been judged a cheapskate chunk of shite metalwork which will never – could never – resonate like the professional horns I have so long yearned to emulate.
In how many concerts have I played since my schooldays when the instrument and its owner were young, shiny and foolish? How many classical composers have I caused to spin in their graves by single-handedly massacring their masterpieces? By rights, I should be devoting the rest of my life to walking barefoot (wearing sack-cloth/eating ashes) between European musical shrines, begging forgiveness of composers whose life’s works I have done so much to defile: Dvořák, Beethoven, Weber, Schubert, Walton (completely beyond me), Richard Strauss and his father Franz – and of course Mozart.
I still suffer palpitations when I recall my gratuitous public destruction of Symphony No. 29 (in A) during a student concert in St John’s Wood in 1978. The horn parts in this symphony are high and consequently very exposed. In the old days (a century or two ago), you just shoved in the correct length of extra tube to put the horn into the right key, but these days, with horns built in the key of F, you are required to “transpose”. Thus begins the nightmare begins.
TRANSPOSITION: Explanatory Notes
For those unfamiliar with this particular area of musical expertise, the unhappy First or Second Horn in a symphony in the key of A is required to read the notes on the manuscript and simultaneously play three notes above it. Presented with any key selected at the whim of a vindictive composer, the F player transposes up one (into G), down four (into C), down one (E flat), down three (D), up nine (when he’s lost the plot altogether) and, the biggest bastard of all, down a semitone (into E).
As if the mathematical misery of transposition wasn’t enough, it is also true that the instrument itself adds to the player’s woes with its innate unreliability. You never know when your horn will attempt to make a break for freedom of expression. If a pianist (for example) strikes a correct note, that note will sound; but not even the most proficient horn practitioner is entirely immune from his instrument’s wayward character. Seven hours’ practice a day for twenty years is no guarantee that the horn will oblige in the heat of performance. The danger of it rebelling and emitting an unwarranted fart at the most delicate of musical moments (we in the trade prefer to call it a “cracked note”) drives many players to drink and eventual nervous collapse.
So it was that during the aforementioned concert at the north west corner of Regents Park, I made a valiant attempt at the Mozart, but although I certainly got one or two notes right, ninety per cent of my offerings were fluffed, cracked or missed out altogether. Nobody afterwards was unkind enough to suggest that I sell that horn and take up the tuba instead, but that was probably because nobody said anything to me at all.
Forty-two years on, I find myself in a state of post-cornal high dudgeon and disappointment. Looking back though, nobody has ever suggested that I upgrade; nor has anyone ever demanded my autograph or said “well played, Tim” after one of my many public performances in orchestras, bands and chamber groups. They have, come to think of it, always found some excuse to scurry by and avoid a situation where praise might normally be forthcoming.
Have I been wrong all these years to attribute my unreliable playing to my own incompetence or, after my chat with the Man from the Forest, am I now permitted to blame the bloody horn itself for this lack of customer satisfaction?