strauss, mozart, posthorns, and end of life issues

Richard Strauss

I’m working on the program notes for the Oregon Symphony’s January 26-28, 2013 concerts, which will be a series you won’t want to miss. The first half is given to Mozart’s magnificent Serenade No. 9 in D major, K. 320 “The Posthorn”. Now, with a nickname like that, you’d expect there to be a virtual posthornpalooza going on. Not exactly. One of the trios of one of the minuets has some prominent passages for the postally-inclined horn and that’s it. Don’t fret, however, the piece is charming and beautiful, and even borders on the sublime on occasion. The second half of the concert contains two of my most favorite pieces in the entire repertoire, and they’re both by Richard Strauss. The first is his early tone poem Death and Transfiguration, Op. 25. It was a seminal work in my journey along the path towards becoming a professional musician, and so it has a huge sentimental attachment for me. Not only that, but I think it’s one of his strongest compositions just from a musical standpoint, and also one of his most vividly told musical narratives. Plus John Williams stole the transfiguration theme for use in his score to Superman. The last work on the program is Strauss’ Four Last Songs. The last pieces he ever completed, they are autumnal settings of poems depicting the close of life with great dignity, affection, and love. Something manages to get in my eye every time I listen to them – imagine the impact of hearing them in person!

Here are my picks for my favorite recordings of the works on the program – enjoy!

7 Replies to “strauss, mozart, posthorns, and end of life issues”

  1. Happy writing.

    BTW: Is your trumpeter — er, posthornist, as it were — going to try to find a genuine posthorn (like Jim Wilt did with the LA Phil earlier this year), or will he use the same setup as, say, the big Mahler 3rd offstage “posthorn” solo?

    1. From Jeffrey Work, our principal trumpeter:

      “My plan is to use a modern trumpet pitched in E-natural with an antique cornet mouthpiece. That combination, it is my hope, will get the right combination of lightness and elegance which I think Mozart requires coupled with the chance of evoking the presumably more rustic sound and character which Mozart may have wanted by calling for a posthorn in the first place. The most common modern substitutes for a real posthorn are either a flugelhorn or perhaps a cornet or even a valved posthorn. My using an antique cornet mouthpiece (ca 1900) makes the sound mellower, allows for greater delicacy (while still being regal in character), and in effect brings the trumpet closer to the sound of the horn family.

      The posthorn originally was a fairly tightly coiled little horn which, as the name implies, was played to announce the arrival or immanent departure of the mail coach. In the first half of the 19th century, valves were added and the instrument that came into being was called a cornet… ‘Cor’ or ‘Corno’ meant “horn” and the ‘et’ was added in the same way that small cigars became cigarettes. In Mozart’s time, posthorn calls prominently featured octaves and the posthorn moment in the Posthorn Serenade certainly has that as an important element. The other obvious and famous use of (or evocation of) a posthorn is in the third movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony.”

      1. That’s great Jeffrey: we also get to play the lovely Mozart ‘Sleigh Ride’ from ‘Three German Dances’, at this time of year. This third dance calls for ‘two posthorns.’ I’m afraid, I am a little pre-authentic in that I use a modern piccolo trumpet, pitched in A.

        Brendan Ball
        Principal Trumpet, RLPO

  2. You have a great choice of recordings, Mr Noble. I like your choice, but I do like the LPO Tennstedt, Popp version of the 4 Last Songs. I reckon one can’t do much better than the Karajan D&T, but I think the choice of Mozart is perhaps affectionate, but maybe of it’s time…

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