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A Devil to Play: One Man's Year-Long Quest to Master the Orchestra's Most Difficult Instrument

A Devil to Play: One Man's Year-Long Quest to Master the Orchestra's Most Difficult Instrument

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A Devil to Play: One Man's Year-Long Quest to Master the Orchestra's Most Difficult Instrument

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387 Seiten
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Oct 6, 2009


A charming and deeply funny memoir of musical obsession, A Devil to Play is the story of Jasper Rees, a man who unearths his childhood French horn, and begins a quixotic but obsessively serious challenge: to play a Mozart concerto—alone—for a paying audience within one year’s time. It’s an endearing, inspiring tale of perseverance and achievement, relayed masterfully, one side-splittingly off-key note at a time.
Oct 6, 2009

Über den Autor

A journalist with two decades of experience, Jasper Rees has written for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, the Evening Standard, and The Times. He lives in London.

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A Devil to Play - Jasper Rees




When the horne bloweth: then let them come up in to the mounten.


In the year before I took up the French horn again, an important finding was made about the universe. Scientists at the University of Ulm in Germany, analyzing patterns of hot and cold blobs observed by NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, were able to confirm that the universe is finite. The same conclusion had recently been posited by scientists at Montana State University, who contended that space is shaped like a ball. The research of their rivals at Ulm proved that it isn’t anything so banal as a sphere. According to their model, the universe narrows at one end to an infinitely distant vanishing point, while at the other it curves outward, though not forever. If a spaceship were to travel toward the expanded end, it would at some putative point hit a wall and be deflected back in the opposite direction.

Narrow at one end, curving out into a wide flare at the other? Only one answer seems possible. The universe, far from being spherical, is conical. It exists in the shape of a horn.

I grew up, at least at the weekends, beneath the South Downs in West Sussex. The oldest building in what you’d scarcely call a village goes back to 1680. No one really knows for sure, but our home is of roughly the same vintage. So if it was built in the 1680s, it belongs to the same decade as the births of Handel and Bach, who between them would give the horn its first orchestral employment.

The cottage was more burrow than house. Once you rose to anywhere near six foot, you had to duck in and out of the sitting room to avoid thudding your head on the door frame. You also had to watch out for a low beam slung across the middle of the room. We are mostly male in my family, mostly six foot or thereabouts. (I am five foot eleven and three-quarters.) We all stoop.

The pockmarked bricks of the hearth were the oldest part of the house. Across the fireplace there was a shiny brass smoke screen in which you could pull faces and watch them wobble and distort back at you. Above, mounted on nails banged into the brick, was a collection of old hunting horns. There was a short round one and, on the other side, a short straight one. Then there was a longer straight one, the kind that often have pennants draped from them and are used to announce the arrival of a royal personage. Running across the top of the wall was the eye-catcher, a magnificent straight horn four feet in length. It had, so far as I could tell, no practical application unless you were planning to summon your two brothers to a medieval joust in the garden. But the centerpiece, the instrument that drew the eye, was a slender round horn of perhaps fifteen inches in diameter. Were you to unwrap its coils, it would be just as long as the magnificent straight horn. It had a small bell, and no valves or slides. But this, manifestly, was an ancestor of the instrument I took up on March 12, 1975.

I hardly ever went near any of them. Occasionally there’d be visitors to whom, as part of a range of hosting duties, we would feel obliged to show off. In such an instance the horns came in handy. The ritual was always the same. We’d start with the smallest and work our way up to the magnificent straight horn. This would be the finale. And now, ladies and gentlemen. That was the idea, anyway, but it was more or less impossible to tease any form of note out of the two small horns, so mostly we just fought over the bigger horns. We were always genuinely surprised at how difficult it was to extract a presentable noise.

But then these horns weren’t designed to sound beautiful. In the preorchestral phase of its life, the horn’s job was to talk to the animals, or the army, or the enemy. Unlike the lyre, the dulcimer, or the lute—at home we also had one of those—it wasn’t allowed to bring its muddy boots through the front door. There was no music written for it. It just had to sound loud.

On Saturdays in winter we had firsthand evidence of this. My parents were members of that section of the population that likes to chase small quadrupeds while seated on the back of a large one. In due course my older brother became a willing recruit. He donned the jodhpurs, the tweed jacket, the domed peaked hat, and perched pertly on the back of some sedated pony. My younger brother and I were refuseniks. We kept well away from the saddle. There was no keeping our distance altogether. When we were too young to object, we were taken to the meet. The setting was always the same. On top of each horse was a person in uniform: black coat with yellow collar, hard riding hat, whip, coarsely woven white gloves, cravat and pin, knee-high leather boots. Two of these people would be our parents. Perhaps because he spent his week in London, my father seemed determined to go as native as possible at the weekend. He took to wearing a top hat, and even a pink coat. (Pink, as in red. One of the peculiarities of hunting folk is a selective form of color blindness. They also ticked you off if you referred to a white horse as white. They were always gray.) Everyone else was straight out of central casting, even the foot followers in black Wellingtons, brown trousers, and sensible windcheaters. The ladies wore silk headscarves. The men’s cheeks were rouged by wind and wine. The scene can have changed very little since the 1680s: the red-brick inn, the naked trees, the sodden earth underfoot, loamy rural vowels in harmonious counterpoint to the clipped, peremptory consonants of the mounted well-to-do. There was only one thing that firmly carbon-dated the scene to the early 1970s: the massively flared jeans worn by my little brother and me as we stood, a glass of warm lemonade in our hands, sulking to one side in our own hermetically sealed boredom.

They were all glugging port. By the time the master of the hounds parped out two short thin notes and a long thin one on his stumpy little pocket horn, everyone was drunk in charge of an animal several times his own size. Occasionally the story would come home from the field of a huntsman being severely injured or paralyzed. Some even went the whole hog and got themselves killed. But then death and the horn have gone hand in hand from the beginning.

To see the history of the horn laid out, I go to the eastern outskirts of Paris. There, in a concrete park, is the Musée de la Musique. The place is heaving with instruments of every age and description. On the top floor, past room upon room of spinets and virginals and clavichords, past display upon display of hautbois and viole da gamba and mandolini, I arrive at the horn section.

For a freshly minted horn obsessive who turns up on one of those freezing midwinter afternoons when the sun has clocked off at lunchtime, this is a sight to warm the heart. There, in a glass cabinet, are a dozen or so beautiful instruments. They are arranged in two rows, like a football team posing for a photograph before a final. There are horns from the late seventeenth century through to the middle of the nineteenth century. The makers’ names have a rough artisanal flavor. C. G. Eschenbach. Wilhelm Haas of Nuremberg. Charles Joseph Sax of Bruxelles and his son Adolphe Sax (who would invent the saxophone). Most of the makers are from Paris. Fait à Paris, reads an engraving on the bell rim of an elegant early hunting horn the size of a bicycle wheel, par Crétien ordinair à Roy rue de Laferonerie. There are several examples from the decades of technological experimentation either side of 1800, when manufacturers looked for ways to expand the limited number of notes that could be sounded on the instrument. One made by Raoux in 1797 has half a dozen detachable crooks, for changing key, stored in a wooden chest. An 1818 horn by the Courtois Frères has no valves. One from two years later has two piston valves (the full complement would turn out to be three). Horticultural decoration sprouts leafily inside the bell. There is a so-called omnichromatic horn by J. B. Dupont from the same period, when some manufacturers went down a blind alley or two. It looks like a plate of spaghetti sculpted in brass.

Alongside all this gleaming metal, at the far right of the front row, is a curling, twisting tube of hollow bone, perhaps two feet in length. Trompe en corne de bélier, it’s labeled. Yemen, eighteenth century. It’s a ram’s horn. It looks, to say the least, decontextualized. Unlike its neighbors—its teammates—it doesn’t look as if it’s been made. It was with something very akin to this, nonetheless, that it all started. All music, all musical instruments.

Picture a small, hunched, mostly unclad hunter-gatherer going about his business one afternoon in about 9000 BC. It is the early Stone Age. In the land now known as Iraq, the first attempt at sheep husbandry is being mastered. Neolithic Man is heading back to the cave. A wooden-hafted ax dangles from one fist, a fresh kill from another. On the ground he spots it: a ram’s horn. A skull lies nearby. He has seen this a hundred times, but today he notices that the horn is broken at the tip. Thus it has a hole at both ends, a smaller one, and a larger. He is curious. He picks up the ram’s horn and turns it over in his hands. In due course he applies the smaller hole to his lips and, tentatively, speculatively, or maybe just accidentally, exhales into the aperture. We can only guess at his surprise when out of the far end of this useless dead object there emerges, by some form of sonic alchemy, a note. A tone. He blows again, harder this time, and finds the sound emerging more clearly. Perhaps it even ricochets back off a neighboring hill. The first note in instrumental history has been sounded.

From here we can speculate at leisure. The discovery seems to him a sort of magic, a potential source of power, and he keeps it secret against the day when it might be useful. Or he takes it straight to his chief, and lays it before him as a token of loyalty. Or he tells everyone, and soon they are all at it: hollowing out rams’ horns, breaking off the tip at the sharp end, and blowing and blowing and blowing for pure joy. It will have been the Neolithic version of the Christmas office lunch, where no one will stop tooting on those extendable paper whistles that come in crackers.

Spool forward some thousands of years. The shofar makes its first appearance in the Old Testament in the book of Exodus, chapter 19, at the very moment when God on Mount Sinai nominates the children of Israel as his chosen people.

16 And the thirde daye in the mornynge there was thunder, and lightenynge and a thicke clowde apo the mounte, ad the voyce of the horne waxed exceadynge lowed, and all the people that was in the hoste was afrayde.

17 And Moses brought the people out of the tetes to mete with God, and they stode vnder the hyll.

18 And mounte Sinai was all togither on a smoke; because the Lorde descended doune vpon it in fyre. And the smoke therof asceded vp, as it had bene the smoke of a kylle, and all the mounte was exceadinge fearfull.

19 And the voyce of the horne blewe and waxed lowder, ad lowder. Moses spake, ad God answered hi ad that with a voice.

Thus the Tyndale Bible. It’s a matter for regret that the scholars elaborating on William Tyndale’s translation from Greek and Hebrew sources to produce the 1611 King James version chose to render shofar as trumpet. But the impact of the ram’s horn’s first entrance is incontrovertible. In its first documented note, emerging loud and bodiless from plumes of smoke at the summit of Sinai, the horn provides the musical prelude to the Ten Commandments. It is nothing less than the voice of God.

In due course, a tubular implement that amplifies sound became a proto-nuclear device and accessory to terror. In the book of Joshua, chapter 6, at the foot of the walls of Jericho, slightly to the north of the Dead Sea, with no more than fifteen centuries to go till the birth of Christ, God appears to Joshua in a dream and issues his instructions.

4 And seven priests shall bear before the ark seven trumpets of rams’ horn: and the seventh day ye shall compass the city seven times, and the priests shall blow with the trumpets.

5 And it shall come to pass, that when they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, and when ye hear the sound of the trumpet, all the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city shall fall down flat, and the people shall ascend up every man straight before him.

Thus did it come to pass that history’s first ever horn section was formed. They will have needed strong lips, those priests, and big lungs, though less in the way of musical talent. A beginner could have brought down the walls of Jericho.

I wanted to play the clarinet. I ask Dave Lee, my new friend, why he took up the horn. They said, ‘Here’s a horn.’ It was at the end of the summer term. I had to teach myself for six weeks in the holidays because I didn’t have a teacher. I couldn’t get a note out of it. I drove my parents mad.

As soon as I take up the instrument again, I start to seek out horn players. After I have established to their satisfaction that I’m probably not a slasher, this is the thing I always ask them first. Why the horn?

As a boy when I went to symphony concerts I had two favorite instruments, says Peter Damm, a short, round, jovial man who for thirty-three years was principal horn of the Dresden Staatskapelle. Oboe and horn. But at eleven I took up the violin and was in the school orchestra by thirteen. Then suddenly there was a horn available. At fourteen in 1951 I left home to study the horn in Weimar.

I was going to take up trombone, says Phil Myers, principal horn of the New York Philharmonic for the last twenty-eight years. I grew up in Elkhart, Indiana, where they make a lot of band instruments. My father was a band director, so all the instruments were around. He had a sheet of paper where you were supposed to circle what you wanted to play and I was just looking down that list for trombone and I saw a French horn and I thought, well, actually, I changed my mind. ‘French horn.’ That sounds classy, you know.

By the age of eleven it was too late for the piano and the violin, says Andrei Gloukhov, a man of munificent figure and gloomy physiognomy who has played with the Saint Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) Philharmonic since 1971. I used to be a viola player before, says Stefan Dohr, principal horn of the Berlin Philharmonic. Hermann Baumann lived in the same little village near Essen, and I went to his Christmas concert that he gave every year. I heard that and said, ‘Mm, sounds better than what I do on the viola.’ I was eleven. (We will be hearing more from Hermann Baumann.)

Thus an Englishman, a Russian, an American, and two Germans, one from each side of the old Iron Curtain, nearly fetched up elsewhere. It is a common experience among horn players to have labored at something else before seeing the light. Several, I discover, converted from some lesser instrument as late as seventeen, the age at which I gave up. I can’t help noticing that they all have barrel chests. Horn players mostly conform to a basic physical mold. They’re not thin, reedy types. Phil Myers, in particular, is a globe of a man. Nestled across his torso a horn looks like a cornet. My best weight for playing is somewhere between two-sixty and two-ninety pounds, he confides. If I get down to two-twenty-five or two-ten, then I feel as though I’m having to work a lot more. I got up to five hundred at one point. I was always out of breath, so that didn’t work, so I had that operation where they cut your stomach in half. And I got a hundred and fifty pounds out of that. So now I’m three-fifty. Half that fucking stomach weighed a hundred and fifty pounds, goddammit! At five hundred I couldn’t even stand up.

Another man mountain I meet is Lowell Greer, the most distinguished soloist in America on the early, so-called natural horn. He is an extremely tall and, despite the heft of his stooping frame, soft-spoken man with a thick beard and dark pebbly eyes. He talks in neatly trimmed sentences at the measured pace of a sonorous andante.

How did I begin? he muses. It was an accident, I suppose. I had played violin, rather precociously, commencing at the age of four years, learning by rote, as my ability to read anything was not yet developed. At six years, I had an accident with the left hand. My mother pleaded with the doctors not to amputate. They complied, but the left hand has always been clumsy, or at least that’s my excuse. When entering the seventh grade, at twelve years of age, I was required to be in the school band. Picking out an instrument was pure accident. All the girls wished to play flute (how decent!), and all the lads were seeking those high-profile posts in the trumpet section. However, by the time the director came to my name, all the available trumpets had been taken by others. The band director looked at me, and, citing my narrow lips, suggested the horn, since thin lips were good for the horn. Later, I came to suspect some collusion with my mother; she detested the trumpet as a solo instrument, along with the saxophone, accordion, saxophone, cordovox, saxophone, and a few other instruments, such as the saxophone. Her fear of the high brass must have been overwhelming. I became fascinated by the sound of the horn, and the director began giving up his Saturday mornings to teach me privately. One day he used the term ‘professional horn player,’ at which point I sat up alert. The idea of subbing out of a ‘real job’ and playing the horn for a living was a no-brainer for me. The rest is almost identical to anyone else’s story.

On March 12, 1975, the bell rang. It was a Wednesday, so we’d have just had swimming at school. On the doorstep stood a rather serious man in his twenties. This being 1975, he had slightly too much hair, semi-tamed as big wiry hair was back then by an unnatural-looking side parting. My new horn teacher had a pasty complexion and elbow patches.

In his right hand was an odd-shaped case. He must have switched it to his left hand, or put it down, in order to shake hands with my mother. Maybe he also shook hands with the ten-yearold in prep-school gray. We went upstairs to a first-floor drawing room containing high-backed armchairs and a baby grand piano. We sat at the long piano stool. My mother left the room. The visitor, my new horn teacher, unclipped the case, and out came this arrangement of metal. It was silver in color. At one end was a comically huge bell, as flared as one of my trouser legs. It was riddled with dents.

I had never seen a French horn before in my life. I had definitely never expressed an interest in learning to play one. My father was the musical one, so it must have been his idea, but he in turn may have come under pressure from his mother. Just after World War I she took the train up from Dolgellau on the fringes of Snowdonia to study piano at the Royal Academy of Music, though she never went on to play professionally. Her younger son inherited her gift. In World War II he was a chorister at Saint George’s Chapel in Windsor, the private place of worship of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. His voice was so prized that they—the school, not the king and queen—wouldn’t let my father leave until his voice broke.

My own knowledge of his musicianship was mostly confined to the Gilbert and Sullivan songs he’d sing of an evening. Accompanying himself on the piano, in which he was entirely self-taught, he lived by the credo that where accuracy is lacking, volume is an appropriate substitute. The more claret he’d drunk, the more he assaulted the keys. When we drove to west Wales every Christmas he was wheeled out to sing in more restrained style for his parents’ friends in an elegant drawing room with Gothic windows, while his mother accompanied him with delicacy and refinement at her own baby grand. Long after he’d emigrated to England and eagerly shucked off all vestiges of his Welshness, music was the one thing my father and grandmother had in common.

Insofar as any talent percolated down a generation, it settled on me. The talent was severely attenuated, a thinned-out thing that was really no more than a vague aptitude. At some point my grandmother must have said, Why isn’t Jasper learning an instrument? But why the horn? My father doesn’t remember. It seems likely, though, that if he couldn’t get me onto a horse, he could get me onto an instrument with stronger links to horses than, say, the cello, the instrument he had given up the minute he left school.

My first horn teacher asked me if I’d ever played the horn before. I said I’d played the horns above the fireplace. He said which fireplace. I said the fireplace in Sussex. He said what sort of horns. I said all sorts, but only the big ones work, but they don’t work very well. He said so you know it’s hard work. I said yes and laughed nervously.

We got down to it. He told me how to hold the horn. The smaller end went to the lips, naturally, the three middle fingers on the piston valves. The hole at the larger end—and here was a surprise—housed the right hand. He tweaked and sculpted mine into a position where it could rest on the inside of the bell. It felt unnatural, like the first time you attempt a correct bridge at the snooker table. But it didn’t feel as unnatural as the business of forming the correct mouth position. You had to purse your lips and, on pain of excommunication, keep your cheeks in check. No puffing: that was a golden rule. The idea, I was told, was to produce a buzzing sound. What it actually produced, at least to start with, was saliva. I irrigated the carpet. After a few buzzes, he whipped out a small metal mouthpiece from the case and made me blow through it until my face started to settle into the right shape. Then he attached the mouthpiece to the horn.

The initial task of any horn student is to send out a search party and look for a middle C. It’s the note that’s easiest to find. So I took that first of many deep breaths, and I blew. I blew and blew. And blew. And as happens with many a gifted player making their first foray into the world of musical self-expression on this most beautiful of instruments, a note of eloquent purity and sonorous depth, rich in color and musicality, a note that reached back on some primordial level through the encrusted millennia of history, back past the biblical horn at the foot of the mighty walls of Jericho to the Neolithic shepherd chancing one day upon the mystery of amplified sound in the horn of a dead ram, somehow failed to splutter out of the rear end of the twisted metal in my sweaty grip. I looked at the instrument with its battered bell, as if it might somehow be to

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  • (5/5)
    I feel as tho i am reading my own story!! Picked up my horn after 20 years at age of 40... first concerto i tackle in lessons.... mozart 447. This is great.... i love the laughs as well as the information!!!
  • (5/5)
    Entertaining and informative. As a lifelong advanced amateur classical music string player, I thought he was crazy to attempt his goal, but was cheering for him to achieve it.
  • (5/5)
    Rees is an engaging writer. The blend of memoir and music history is just right. I didn't feel that I totally understood why he picked up the French horn again in the first place, but I thoroughly enjoyed his narrative of what happened over the next year.
  • (5/5)
    Rees is an engaging writer. The blend of memoir and music history is just right. I didn't feel that I totally understood why he picked up the French horn again in the first place, but I thoroughly enjoyed his narrative of what happened over the next year.