Cor alto & cor basse: To blend or not to blend

Teunis van der Zwart (speaker), cor basse, Conservatorium van Amsterdam (Netherlands)
Kathryn Zevenbergen (speaker), cor alto, University of Regensburg (Germany)
Olga Pashchenko, fortepiano, Conservatorium van Amsterdam (Netherlands)

Session introduction
Across the recorded history of the horn, references can be found in tutors and treatises that speak to the character the sound of the instrument should take. A careful examination of the surviving instruments and mouthpieces of the 18th and early 19th century reveals that there were multiple styles in use, often reflecting subsection of the range that the player had chosen to specialise in. While modern horn players are taught to play as a section, each carefully adjusting his or her sound to that of the other players, in early writings we find conflicting descriptions of the ideal sound and blend a section should achieve, ranging from instructions to imitate the singing voice, to the idea that high horn players (cor alto) should sound like a flute, and low horn players (cor basse) should sound more like a viola da gamba. This speaks to a different idea of section playing, namely that a each horn player in a pair should develop a sound that compliments the other, rather than attempting to blend their sounds into something homogenous.

The earliest horn music seems not to require vastly different technique from the first and second horn player. A large collection of horn concertos, mostly by composers connected to the Dresden Hofkapelle around second quarter of the 18th century contains some early attempts at typical cor basse writing. These concertos begin to require some form of early hand-stopping technique, and the ability to play acrobatically, jumping up to two octaves in 16th note passages. By the turn of the 19th century, cor alto and cor basse technique had become so distinct that treatises were specifically written for one specialty or the other, or at the very least had a chapter for each type of player.

This lecture recital explores the different sound ideals in horn playing that arise from the use of different mouthpieces, horns, and techniques that were common during the 18th and early 19th century. Recordings and live performances will be used to help illustrate the gulf that exists between modern performance practices and what a careful reading of music treatises and performance reviews reveals, with a special emphasis being placed on the performance of Beethoven’s orchestral and chamber music. The question of the cor alto and cor basse sound will be placed into an historical context, and repertoire, individual players, and instrument building techniques will be addressed.