Horn orchestras

At Yale I sang in the Yale Russian Chorus, where I was introduced to a great variety of sacred and secular music from Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, and elsewhere. This year I have enjoyed learning the balalaika—the quintessential Russian folk instrument—by playing in the Russian Ensemble at the University of Illinois. But a whole repertoire of Russian music remained unknown to me until recently: the роговая музыка or “horn music.”

Drawing of a group of men in military uniforms holding long musical horns.

The first horn orchestra was founded in 1751 by J. A. Mareš, a Czech musician. The style of music enjoyed general popularity through the eighteenth century but subsequently began to decline, although it was still featured at the coronation of Nicholas II in 1896. During the Soviet period, the practices of horn music were gradually lost.1

The key feature of this music was that the horns could produce only one pitch each. This apparently created a purity of sound that many-holed wind instruments couldn’t match, but this limitation demanded great precision in the timing of the notes. The orchestras could be made up of more than a hundred players, usually serfs or soldiers, who were each assigned multiple horns.2

In recent years, several groups have begun to resuscitate the art form by fashioning instruments based on museum models. One is the Российский роговой оркестр (Russian Horn Orchestra), which appeared last year on a St. Petersburg television program, playing several songs and answering viewers’ questions. It’s worth taking a look; if you don’t understand Russian, you can skip through to the musical sections:  http://www.tv100.ru/video/view/25046/. They mostly seem to play popular western classical music pieces (e.g., Bolero), but there are some more period pieces sprinkled in, such as the March of the Jäger Regiment. (If you do speak Russian, keep an ear out for the point halfway through when the conductor explains that his group doesn’t have women players because their lungs are “too fragile.”)

Notes

1 Russian Wikipedia, s.v. “Rogovaia muzyka,” accessed February 24, 2011, http://ru.wikipedia.org/.
2 Grove Music Online, s.v. “Russian Federation,” by Marina Frolova-Walker, accessed February 24, 2011, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/.

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