Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There’s a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen, Anthem


Those of you who attend our concerts regularly will know about our approach to HIP (Historically Informed Performance) at De Swaen, which is a bit more specific to the period of the music we play than other ensembles’. General practice in HIP is to use set-ups and instruments from the late 18th , early 19th or inventions from the 20th centuries to play music from the early 18th century. We are a bit more “hardcore”.
The horns you will hear today are a very good example of this.

Stadtpfeiffers of JS Bach’s time were required to play not only stringed and wind instruments but also cornetti, trumpets, trombones and horns. Today, players are much more specialised; often playing only one of these instruments and usually after “modern” training, which enhances differences in technique.
For instance, early 18th century composers wrote many horn parts pitched in high C or Bb that are outside the range of many specialised horn players but comfortable for someone more used to playing higher than this on a trumpet.

Available evidence suggests that hand-stopping techniques, now widely used to adjust intonation and allow more chromatic notes, were not practiced until the late 18th century and then mainly for solo repertoire. The earliest examples of horns with bells big enough for a hand date from the late 1760s when the practice started in major cities like Vienna. The provinces were a little slower to change. Haydn’s horn players at Esterhaza, for instance, were not required to hand stop until the 1780s.

     This...is simply fantasy from the 20th century.

Other players nowadays have horns with nodal vent holes, used to adjust intonation beyond what is actually needed. This, like the similar holes in “baroque” trumpets, is simply fantasy from the 20th century. However, such measures have been necessary because, contrary to a lot of evidence, ensembles generally want “natural” brass instruments to play within later, more tempered tuning systems, which suppress the instruments’ inherent character.

At De Swaen, our approach is to start with the historical material and find solutions from there. Today you will hear the joyous sound of “raw” natural horns, i.e.: without hand stopping or nodal vent holes. Both of our players today are from France, since in the Netherlands, this “lost” art is currently neither taught nor practised.

Instead of playing in a fixed temperament, our aim is to play, as the horns do, in the tonality of a piece, using the extra resonance of “pure” intervals to align overtones and create a rich sound. This may sound a little “new” at first because you probably have not heard it before, except in bagpipes, harmonicas, other De Swaen concerts and some acapella vocal music. Please breathe gently, allow memories of pianos and other preconceptions to leave your busy mind and imagine it’s nearly 300 years ago, when to hear music was a rare and precious privilege.

Mike Diprose, March 2009


JS Bach Brandenburg Concerto Nr 1, BWV 1046

A.Vivaldi Concerto in G Op 10 Nr 2, RV 439

JS Bach, „Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern“ BWV 1

Sat 28th & Sun 29th March 2009


*Comment. I think this was everyone’s favourite poster. Thank you Margreet!