The British Horn Society 1980-2013
A Third of a Century of the Best of British Horn Playing
One evening at the 1st International Brass Symposium, held in Montreux in 1976, Willi and Dick, together with Bob and Jim Paxman had dinner with Barry Tuckwell, who was then President of the IHS. By Willi’s own admission, he became quite passionate about the need for something British and Barry agreed with him, saying that he would like to introduce him to someone of like mind the next day. This person turned out to be John Wates who had quite separately had similar conversations with Barry.
The seed was sown, but, at the time, John was working in Paris and it was not until 1979 that John, Willi and Dick met again and decided that the time for action had come. This meeting was in Paris at a French government sponsored horn event where the British artist involved was Alan Civil. At the time, Alan was unquestionably the most influential horn player in Britain – Barry Tuckwell was now mostly working across the globe as a soloist – and Willi felt that Alan’s support was imperative. His support was freely given and Alan duly became the BHS’s first President.
In late 1979 John Wates facilitated the formation of the British Horn Trust and by unanimous decision, Yvonne Brain and Patricia, Countess of Harewood were invited to be trustees. They were obvious choices, Yvonne as the widow of Dennis, our greatest ever horn player and Patricia was not only Barry’s sister but had studied the violin at the Sydney Conservatoire where she had become friends with Dick Merewether. Indeed it was at her suggestion that Dick gave Barry his first ever horn lesson!
Barry Tuckwell, Alan Civil and Frank Lloyd were the principal soloists and they were joined by Anthony Halstead who was largely employed as a pianist rather than as a horn player on the day. Alan Civil and Barry Tuckwell shared a recital – they played a duet version Saint-Saëns evergreen favourite, The Swan – while Frank Lloyd’s recital included a more modern classic, Alan Abbott’s Alla Caccia, the composer rising to acknowledge the audience’s applause at its conclusion.
Apart from setting a precedent for bringing the finest horn playing talent to play for the society’s members, the occasion was notable for the debut of a perennial BHS favourite, the Massed Blow, and on that occasion the 350 and more horn players blew their way through Alan Civil’s wonderful arrangement of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. The sound of the 30 or so first horns reaching for and mostly getting (!) the highest notes was something that most participants had never heard before and still resonates in the inner ears of those who were there. Willi also recalls a photoshoot involving the massed horn choir standing on the drained bed of the Barbican’s lake. At the crucial moment, Alan yelled, “Are you ready? Open the flood gates!”
Notable performances included the world premiere of Humphrey Searle’s Prelude, Nocturne and Chase played by the RCM horn students under Julian Baker on the Saturday and a magnificent arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor for 8 horns conducted by Alan Civil at the Dennis Brain Celebration Concert on the Sunday. This, alongside Bernard Robinson’s arrangement of Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture, which first appeared a year or so later, established the idea of the All Stars horn ensemble which is still a highlight of all of our more recent festivals. At the time it was a completely new concept and raised the bar on what it was thought possible for horn ensembles to play. Those early performances can justifiably be thought of as the grandparents of the London Horn Sound CD of 1999. Frank Lloyd played the Brahms Horn Trio with Tony Halstead at the piano while Tony picked up his horn to play second horn to Mike in the Beethoven Sextet for two horns and strings. Julian Baker played the Mozart Quintet and an informal ensemble concert, open to all participants, was suddenly touched by magic when the 19 year-old Radovan Vlatković performed Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro on a piston-valved Selmer horn.
From the 3rd festival onwards for several years, the BHS made its home at the Guildhall and the society provided a lunchtime concert at the Barbican which was open to the general public. Although horn playing highlights included Tim Jones and Richard Bissill playing Haydn’s Double Concerto, and, a couple of years later, Roger Montgomery taking part in Leopold Mozart’s Sinfonia da caccia for four horns, strings and shot gun, there was a lovely moment when at a question and answer session for the general public, a lady asked Alan Civil if one had to tune a horn “like a violin”. Quick as a flash, Alan said very assertively, “No Madam. I haven’t touched my tuning slide in 25 years!” Back in the Guildhall, Ifor James brought the house down when he was just about to attempt the impossible, playing the Neruda Horn Concerto – the piece trumpeters think of as the Neruda Trumpet Concerto – in its original version, on the horn, at the same pitch that trumpeters play it today. The part soars way above top C and Ifor gave it the big build up, explaining just how difficult it was. He played his tuning note and the pianist was about to start the performance when Ifor turned to the audience and said, “It’s going well, isn’t it!” Other lighter moments included performances of the music of Otto Fisch, the German immigrant horn player who, (as imagined by Mike Purton) revolutionised horn playing in Manchester before retiring to Bad Tönbrucke – Tunbridge Wells to you and me. His compositions inspired such passion in the players that in one performance the audience could clearly hear the off-stage performers having a fist fight!
The BHS was still a relatively small organisation with barely 150 paid up members and the Newsletter was simply a folded A4 sheet run off on John Wates’s photocopier, known to the early members as “the parish magazine”. Increasing the membership of the BHS was now essential for the further development of the society and the route to achieving this was via the introduction of “The Horn” magazine. In the autumn of 1992, our first glossy magazine appeared, with a photo of Mike Thompson, on its cover. Looking through those early editions today, they seem packed with an amazing amount of information about horn players and horn playing and as the BHS has always been keen to promote young players, it is amusing to find references to many of today’s superstars long before they were famous! Clearly it did the trick and soon membership had risen to over 500.
Despite increased membership, the society was barely breaking even and urgent action needed to be taken to ensure its survival. Under Ian Wagstaff’s editorship The Horn magazine had become a must-have for British horn players, but while it was produced for the BHS, it was not owned by the society and as such was a cost which became harder and harder to justify. The society’s finances were struggling and Hugh had the courage and vision to go solo, believing we could take on responsibility for producing our own magazine, The Horn Player, though he had a huge stroke of luck in discovering that our very own Paul Kampen was hiding his light under a bushel and already had a proven record as the editor of a successful railway magazine.
Arguably, the new magazine was Hugh’s greatest legacy to the society though he probably most enjoyed organising the two-day festival at the Guildhall to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the BHS. This was another of those occasions when almost every horn player of note turned out. Our President, Barry Tuckwell, made the trip over from his home in Australia to be with us, Frank Lloyd reprised his Variations on a Tyrolean Theme – which had blown the audience away at the first ever horn festival – with just as much technical assurance but with even more delicacy and style, the LSO horn section did a slot, the Guildhall students performed wonderfully and the All Stars did a live version of the arrangement of Duke Ellington’s Caravan from the London Horn Sound CD. Old friends met – always an important feature of BHS festivals – and the event finished with late-night jazz in the Guildhall bar from Jim Rattigan.
In 2008, we went to Birmingham where Alessio Allegrini was our overseas visitor. This was not his first appearance as a BHS soloist as he had previously appeared at an event organised at Radley College by indefatigable BHS supporter Simon de Souza. A brilliant executant, Allegrini also proved something of a wit on that occasion pointing out that the Italians were taking over London: Antonio Pappano was at the Opera House and Claudio Ranieri (remember him?) was in charge at Chelsea!
Mike Thompson handed over the Chairman’s reins to Roger Montgomery in 2009, though that year the Festival was held at Mike’s old school, Watford Boys Grammar School where it featured the Hungarian Szabolcs Sempléni as our overseas soloist. Roger proved to be an inspirational chairman and in 2010 took the annual festival to Edinburgh, where he showed himself to be a true renaissance man, keeping on top of organising the event while at the same time conducting the massed blow and featuring as one of the soloists. The following year, Roger was able to use his contacts at the Royal Opera House to organise a memorable horn festival at the Floral Hall, Covent Garden, featuring among much else a cut-down version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, narrated by actor and former-Philharmonia horn player Robert Maskell . This ended with the massed forces of the BHS membership and the horn students from the RNCM, the Birmingham Conservatoire and all of the London music colleges playing the final scene from Götterdämmerung – Wagner’s depiction of the end of the world – in a version which left the Floral Hall’s famous glass roof in danger of shattering.
Sadly, Roger simply did not have enough hours in his life to balance all his commitments and the Floral Hall event was to be his last. Fortunately, as so often seems to happen, when the apparently irreplaceable needs to be replaced and all seems to be lost, we found that the ideal replacement was already waiting in the wings. BBC Symphony Orchestra horn player Chris Larkin, a committee member since the very earliest days of the society, originally agreed to take on the position of Chairman only on a temporary basis until someone (as he thought) better could be found. He proved to be such a natural at it, that eventually even he realised what the rest of us could see all along, that his calm wisdom was perfectly suited to the role, and he agreed to take on the job officially.
With new blood on the committee and, with the society’s finances never looking better in better shape, largely due to Treasurer Rob Spivey’s sterling efforts, the future looks bright. Only this morning the latest edition of The Horn Player dropped through my letter box and in it I spotted a report on a player taking his place in his profession whose name I first saw in an edition of the magazine some years ago. Look out for the names of the youngsters: the British Horn Society really is the place where you hear about the movers and shakers in the horn world first. Let’s raise a glass to the next third of a century!