(Tip no. 39 from 100 MORE Orchestration Tips, to be released in 2018)
Default to horns 1 and 2 as much as possible when only a pair is needed.
In Tip 35 of 100 Orchestration Tips, “Horn Part Scoring Order,” (also available here on the website) I’ve touched on all the reasons why scoring horns in the traditional order (12/34) leads to the strongest, most dependable results in concert music. One of the reasons I mentioned was that inexperienced orchestrators might misinterpret the essential musical relationships between horn players that make scores work. Those relationships really deserve their own tip, though a small book might well be written on the topic.
Let’s revisit the biggest problem: orchestrators are scoring 1st and 3rd horn on the upper staff and 2nd and 4th on the lower staff more and more these days, in an attempt to simplify scoring higher and lower parts. This approach has its origins in scores such as the Boosey & Hawkes edition of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Bartók often (but not always) arranges the horns in a simple high/low configuration, with the odd-numbered horns sharing an a2 melody on the upper staff, and perhaps the lower horns doubling the same from an octave below; or scoring 4-part harmony in sequential order.
The problem is not necessarily in the placement of the parts in such configurations – rather, it’s in the lack of context that can lead to bad scoring habits. Visual convenience becomes misinterpreted as default approach, which then interferes with the natural working order of the horn group. The result is often weak and awkward scoring that could so easily be strong and elegant.
1st and 2nd horn are scored on the same staff not through some adherence to ancient, out-of-date principles, but because their relationship of intonation and nuance is perhaps the most intimate between any two players in the entire symphonic orchestra. The horn as an instrument in general presents unique technical and expressive challenges to the player; thus, any hornist in a leadership position will need to rely on a partner who is entirely dependable, because they are often putting their whole career on the line in certain passages. That partner is the player sitting right next to them, the 2nd hornist, not the 3rd hornist two seats away. In almost every instance when only two horns are required, the safest approach is to give the parts to 1st and 2nd horns. This is the main reason why default 13/24 scoring easily leads to poor choices – if 1st and 3rd horn always share a staff, the inexperienced orchestrator may start to assume they’re partners, when the truth is anything but. In actuality, the more important it is musically for two horns to work as a perfect team, then the more essential it is that the team be 1st and 2nd – in harmonic intervals, close contrapuntal scoring, and yes, even a2 scoring at times. Don’t assume that just because an a2 passage goes high and loud that it should automatically be given to horns 1 and 3. Professional 2nd horn players are perfectly capable of teaming up with the 1st all the way up to high C, and may actually sound more in sync with the 1st than if the 3rd player had the same job (though for thematic leadership in a2 horns, 1 and 3 are the best solution, and it’s best not to wear out the 2nd’s lip). The ability of the 2nd to exactly reinforce and lock into the 1st’s intonation from below in certain intervals, especially perfect 5ths, requires a close connection that’s rarely as effective between 1st and 3rd.
There are exceptions, of course. If the 2nd player might soon be needed to team up with the 4th in some low, controlled playing, then it’s better to unite the 3rd player with the 1st on high doubled notes or close harmonies. The 3rd is also the ideal partner for the 1st in any exposed melodic phrasing, in which prominent soloistic lines are doubled, harmonised, or imitated between players.
The same close musical relationship also exists between 3rd and 4th horn players, as a sort of subset to 1st and 2nd; and they can take on the same types of scoring as 1st and 2nd with the same kind of unity. If the 1st player needs a break after a long solo, or in preparation for a solo, then it’s more natural to team up horns 3 and 4 than horns 3 and 2. The same holds true if only two horns are needed in support of a 1st horn solo: it’s better to rely on the natural teamwork of the 3rd and 4th players, and to give the 2nd horn a rest.
The personal as well as the musical factors into the equation as well. The 1st horn player must be more than just the best player in the horn group – they must also have natural leadership qualities of confidence, emotional guidance, and equanimity under pressure. 1sts play an organisational role for the rest of the horns, and might take the initiative in ensuring that their section is technically as well as emotionally prepared for the task – especially in massive, large-scale challenges like Mahler or Strauss. The third horn player, on the other hand, may possess all the technique but far less dire responsibility directly on their shoulders. They may to an extent appear to be second-in-command, but often they’re more of a reserve first player, providing a counterbalance to the first’s leading voice. The important thing here is that this does not make horn 3 the ideal longterm support player (though in theory and practice, any horn player should be easily able to support any other player in a passage). The 3rd’s job is to keep the 1st on their toes, not to constantly play harmonic intervals with the 1st just because an orchestrator scored both parts on the same staff.
To each their own support player: it’s better for the 1st horn to rely on the 2nd, whose job it is to adjust their playing minutely to the 1st’s. The same, to a degree, can apply to the 3rd horn relying on the 4th. Each pair of players is minutely aware of their partners’ intonation, articulation, and breathing. This is part of the magic of four-part horn harmony, in which the two pairs interlock. While all four players are playing a stack of pitches, the relationships I’ve outlined above also play a role, with a result that is more than just a basic brass chord. Horn players can give harmony a certain flavour like no other group of instruments in the orchestra, and a lot of that skill and finesse goes right back to the good listening habits that develop from their roles and seating. Be a positive factor in that process by scoring parts that build on those roles rather than cancel them out.