A bust of DaupratLouis-François Dauprat

Duos for Natural Horns, Op. 13

Volume 1

Richard Burdick, cor alto &
Beverly Wilcox, cor basse


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Horn duos were once a popular form of music. Professional duetists toured the capitals of Europe, and dozens of books of horn duos were written. Some consisted mainly of the rustic calls of the hunt, but others were clearly intended as art music. One of the best composers of these was Louis-François Dauprat, who began his musical career in the armies of Napoleon, later studied composition with Anton Reicha, and served as a professor for a quarter century at the Paris Conservatoire National. His Opus 13 duos were published sometime between 1818 and 1824.

The natural horn, like the valve horn, uses the harmonic series to produce its notes. A tube of a given length will amplify vibrations at frequencies that are multiples of the frequency of the “fundamental” note. These so-called “open” notes are shown below. Nineteenth-century concert reviewers and composers frequently complained about the intonation of the four marked notes.

a chart of the overtone series

     The valves of the modern horn make it possible to fill in the missing notes of the scale.  When the hornist depresses a valve, more tubing is added to the length of the horn, creating a new series of open notes. With three valves, every note of the chromatic scale can be played as an open note. The natural horn, however, fills in the missing notes with a series of rather obscure tricks. First, crooks (detachable loops of tubing between the mouthpiece and the body of the horn) can be used to set the length of the tube to different fundamentals for different keys, thus providing as many open notes possible. Second, the composer can stick to the upper half of the harmonic series, where there are fewer missing notes.

     Third, the hornist can raise or lower the open notes by inserting the right hand into the bell of the instrument. Inserting the hand all the way lowers the high notes by a half step, and the low notes by a whole step. Inserting the hand part way into the bell also lowers the notes, but not as much. The hornist, like a slide trombonist, must possess a good ear, as the degree of insertion varies depending on the note, its harmonic function, and the dynamic level. Taking the hand out of the bell raises the notes slightly. The sound of the horn becomes more muffled as the hand goes further into the bell, and these notes become edgy or brassy when played forte. 

     Fourth, the hornist can “bend” the lowest open notes downwards by deliberately buzzing the lips at a frequency below the harmonic, and can fully stop the bell and overblow these lowest notes to produce an unstable (and extremely ugly!) note a half step higher. The “ugly duckling” note can be clearly heard near the end of II:4 (2nd Duo, 4th Movement) at the fermata, and it is immediately followed by four of the “bent” notes in the extreme low register.

     Dauprat’s intimate knowledge of hand horn techniques makes this opus a compositional tour de force. Not only does he use all twelve notes of the chromatic scale in nearly every piece, he also pioneers the use of key signatures of up to four sharps and four flats for an instrument which was generally restricted C major. His stated purpose in writing these duos was to write in “all the major and minor scales practicable on a single crook.” His ideas of what was “practicable” went far beyond the usual practice of his time, and his goal was at least as much aesthetic as technical. He exploited the positioning of stopped notes to produce distinct moods and tone qualities for each key, much as J. S. Bach did in the Well-Tempered Clavier. For the natural horn, C major and the sharp keys are cheerful and brilliant because they contain many open notes.  The sharped notes are often leading tones, so the hand position is more open than would otherwise be the case.

     Dauprat constructs several lively melodies almost entirely of open notes, for example the C major openings of I:1, I:3, I:4, and the Trio of II:2. The stopped notes are often placed on weak beats or used as passing tones, so that the open notes accentuate the meter. These same techniques work even better in G major (I:4, measures 12-60), since F-naturals require full stopping but F-sharps are half-stopped in the lower octave and open in the upper octave. Dauprat uses key signatures of two sharps in IV:2 and three sharps in parts of I:2 and IV:1.

     The flat keys (C minor and Eb major in the second duo) sound calm or even somber. One must close the flatted notes slightly more than normal to make them lead downwards to resolution. The key of A minor, although it contains no more stopped notes than C major, takes on a different character because the stopped notes include the tonic (half-stopped) and its upper and lower neighbors. This effect can be heard clearly in the lovely Siciliana dance movement (I:2). The stopped notes sound veiled and mysterious, rather than deficient.  This sound was so highly regarded that the Conservatoire National did not abolish its natural horn curriculum until 1903!

     Dauprat pushes the natural horn to its limits in remote keys. His audiences must have been truly startled to hear the rapid modulations in the miniature development section of I:4 (E minor to A minor to D minor to F major), and a retransition constructed almost entirely of  chromatic scales. The path of IV:4 is even more adventurous, with an abrupt modulation from E minor to F major. And V:3 (to be recorded next year) is in the unlikely key of F minor.

              Richard plays a horn made by Marcel-Auguste Raoux in the 1840s, and Beverly plays a Finke copy of a 1830s Belgian horn, both modified by Lowell Greer. We tuned to A=430 and used mean-tone temperament, referring frequently to a Peterson AutoStrobe 490 tuner for guidance.

  Duo No. 1 in C major   
1 Allegro moderato  2:34
2 Siciliana:  Andante 4:15
3 Minuetto:  Allegro 2:28
4 Finale:  Allegro        4:34
  Duo No. 2 in C minor  
5 Maestoso poco agitato 5:10
6 Minuetto: Allegro 3:46
7 Adagio 4:47
8 Finale:  Allegro poco vivace 3:47
  Duo No. 4 in A minor  
9   Allegro moderato 5:05
10 Adagio       4:25
11 Minuetto:  Allegro moderato       3:55 
12 Rondo Finale:  Allegro non troppo 5:20
Total time 50:20