James MacMillan's Horn Quintet

Published by: Andy Saunders
About: Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Sir James MacMillan

BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist and Scottish Chamber Orchestra Principal Horn Alec Frank-Gemmill will be in front of the orchestra this week for the first performances of a new arrangement of James MacMillan’s Horn Quintet.  NMS Board member (and horn player) Andy Saunders put a few questions to Alec:

How did the idea of expanding the Horn Quintet rather than writing a completely new piece come about?

I think that the SCO (specifically Roy McEwen, who retired as Chief Exec last summer) approached James MacMillan with the idea of commissioning a concerto. Having written a quintet for horn and strings not so along before, James had already been toying with the idea of expanding it for horn and string orchestra. Abracadabra!

Without giving away any spoilers, what’s the advantage of playing a piece like this in a larger version?  Does it have a radically different impact to the original chamber version?

I’ve performed the Quintet only once before. That piece needs every player to know everyone else’s part as well as their own. This the kind of thing that you often about music, but in the case of the Horn Quintet it’s no exaggeration. You can lose your way in almost every bar. The great advantage on a practical level is that for the Concertino there will be a conductor. So if he (in this case it’s Andrew Manze, a hero of mine) keeps his place hopefully everyone else will too! On a purely musical level, I think that expanding the piece like this makes sense because the strings often act as a unit independently of the horn. Finally, theatrically there is something brilliant about this work being presented with lots of noise (I.e. massed strings) and the horn blasting at the front. Spoiler alert…

A piece like this is technically very challenging and explores the extremes of your instrument’s range.  How do you go about preparing for it in amongst the other repertoire – much of it very different to this – that you have on the go during the same period?

Well that’s perhaps a bit negative! I love the variety of having lots of different music on the go at once. Actually, as with the Ligeti Trio, I’ve found that having the Quintet/Concertino “on the chops” keeps me fit for other music. In other words, if I am in shape to play this piece I’ll be in shape for pretty much anything else.

The horn writing here is vintage-MacMillan – shades of Isobel Gowdie and Rio Sumpúl throughout.  Is there anything in MacMillan’s horn writing that you think identifies it as uniquely him…?

Great question. There is probably a Master’s thesis in there. From my experience performing JM’s music (rather than employing post-Schenkerian head-scratching) I’d say yes, definitely, but I’m not sure what. Perhaps it is the way he treats the horn as a cross between a standard melodic wind instrument and an out-of-control wild animal. In this way the writing is challenging but always appropriate to the horn, rather than something that could be transferred to trumpet or trombone (as can often be the case with new music).

It’s interesting to see that, other than exploring the extremes of the range, there aren’t any extended techniques used in the solo part. Have you any thoughts on how effective (or not) the use of things like multi-phonics, half-valving and such like can be?  Do you think that it rests more with the player or the composer to make it work?

Ha! Leading questions from another horn player! It’s of course a shame when composers write extended techniques for the instrument for the sake of it, rather than to produce an effective musical expression. Another pitfall is introducing these kind of techniques in a context where they aren’t clear to the listener (and instead sound like the player struggling to do something more straightforward). That said, if the composer writes it, we’ve got to play it. It’s all too easy for us players to give up, believing a particular effect is impossible rather than really committing to mastering it.

The SCO’s core repertoire includes a lot of classical and romantic music.  Do you feel that there is a natural line through the concertos by Haydn, Mozart, Weber and Richard Strauss to pieces like this one, and Ligeti’s Hamburg Concerto?

Ligeti actually mentions Weber’s Concertino when discussing his Hamburg Concerto. The connection to earlier composers is a result of the natural horn writing that Ligeti employs. Strauss has a link to the past in his horn writing since he accompanied the Mozart concertos on the piano while his father played the horn part. What I really like about JM’s Concertino is that there is a much less obvious link here to previous horn music. It’s really NEW and that is a real achievement when writing for the horn.

Give us an insight into the mindset of a soloist about to give a world premiere of a high profile composer…what will be going through your mind as you walk on stage?

Not a lot, hopefully. New music is often very challenging and, therefore, has the advantage that most of the mind is taken up with getting the notes right and not with the importance of the occasion.

If you could commission a piece for solo horn and orchestra from any living composer (other than James MacMillan or the SCO’s resident composer, Martin Suckling), budget and timescale not an issue, who would it be?

Hans Abrahamsen. He has written a magical trio for violin, horn and piano. I’m sure he would write something beautiful, and of lasting significance, for the instrument.

If you have one crucial piece of advice to give to composers writing for horn, what would it be?

Don’t write anything that would sound better on the trumpet or trombone!


The SCO have kindly offered a 2 for 1 ticket deal for NMS members.  Details are in the Bulletin update sent out on Monday 27th February.

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