Gavin Higgins’s Horn Concerto’s London premiere: Colin Clarke discusses it with the composer and soloist
It is not every day a new horn concerto is premiered. On Wednesday, February 7 Gavin Higgins‘s concerto receives its London premiere by the London Chamber Orchestra under Christopher Warren-Green, with Ben Goldscheider as soloist. The piece appears in the company of music by Elizabeth Maconchy (Music for Strings), another Horn Concerto (Mozart No.4), and Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony (a report will appear on this site).
The orchestra in question, the London Chamber Orchestra, in fact continues its 2023/24 season with two commissioned works: in addition to Higgins’s concerto, there is one from composer-in-residence Dani Howard (Howard follows on after previous composer-in-residence, Freya Waley-Cohen).
Gavin Higgins is currently composer-in-association with the BBC National
Orchestra of Wales, and his piece forms the focus of the concert at Cadogan Hall. The concert opens with Elizabeth Maconchy’s Music for Strings which was premiered at the 1983 BBC Proms, and finishes with Sibelius’s iconic Fifth Symphony, a work commissioned to mark the composer’s fiftieth birthday in 1915.
The New York Times wrote of Gavin Higgins that he is ‘a talent to watch, not least for the way he handles large orchestral forces with impressive clarity and purpose’. He has a history with brass: he did cornet, horn and now doesn’t play anymore. It was my pleasure to meet with him (virtually) prior to the London premiere of his Horn Concerto.
I started my musical life in the local brass band. I had a cornet given to me at a very early age, and it went from there. It was the only way we could’ve done any music; I grew up on a council estate, free school meals … there was no option of buying your own instrument. As long as I was in the band, I had a free instrument. I moved on to tenor horn, and got quite good, then auditioned for Cheetham’s School of Music (which we thought was a music course for summer!). I played on the tenor horn a fast and complicated Air & Variations. They asked me if I could play any piano music, and the only piece I could play was the theme from Titanic!. I got in, they gave me a full scholarship. They wanted me to move onto French horn. I was a little reluctant, but agreed.
It was my first time experiencing classical music, I got to play in an orchestra, hear Stravinsky, Rachmaninov. I’d never heard an orchestra before. I persisted, and went on to the RNCM [Royal Northern College of Music], where I was taught by Peter Francomb for four years. In the fourth year, he wasn’t invited back, and my next teacher didn’t work. My self-confidence went through the floor and I started composing more, and playing less until about 12 years or so go when I stopped playing entirely. It’s not like a piano when you can pick it up after a while; if you’re not practicing every single day it completely falls apart. So sadly I stopped playing and had never written a piece for it before until this year.
A homecoming of sorts, therefore, I suggest.
I got the job with BBC NOW as Composer-in-Association in 2020 and was thinking about what I wanted to write. One of the big ones was the Concerto grosso I wrote last year (for brass band an orchestra, which I call a love letter to brass bands) and another big piece was finally a piece for my instrument.
As to the present horn concerto, Gavin says that …
… in my head I know it was going to have something to do with forests. If ever there was an instrument associated with that, it’s the horn, and having grown up near a forest myself this was the perfect vehicle to explore
When it came to who to write the concerto for, the only person to come to mind was Ben Goldscheider.
There’s no-one else. We had a conversation during Covid, and it’s been a great collaboration.
There’s a lot of high writing in this concerto, which makes it is so exciting.
What is the purpose of a concerto if not to push the instrument and the players onwards? That’s part of the nature of the thing. I love the hand horn. When I was at college we did some natural horn stuff, and it all suddenly made sense. When I heard a Beethoven symphony for the first time [with natural instruments], it completely changed the way I felt about Beethoven. I can’t even listen to Beethoven symphonies now on modern horns – it’s too heavy. On hand horn, it’s zippy and punchy. Ben plays on an Alexander: he can zip around in an elegant, contained, focused way. It’s perfect for this piece, which is very agile. There are bits of it which feel very hand-horny in a way, some of the high stuff.
I suggest that some of the gestures are taken from the hand horn but moved into a chromatic space.
The highest note is actually a top E (the one in the Schumann Konzertstück) but we decided to leave that out; there’s a lot of orchestral stuff going on, and it’s a lot of effort, so the highest note is actually a top D. The lowest is a pedal F (these are for Horn in F), so it’s the full range of the instrument.
There is the issue of the concerto’s length, it is one of the longest: apart from Higgins’s piece, there is Rolf Martinsson’s Soundscape (Horn Concerto, Op.118) and Christoph Schoenberger’s Concerto both coming in around thirty minutes, and Laurence Glazier’s Horn Concerto in C, lasting nearly three quarters of an hour. The longest concerto even vaguely in the repertory is the Glière. This brings in the question of lip stamina. It’s a long time …
In reality the piece is closer to half an hour than 27 minutes [claimed by the score]. Part of the commission was that most concertos are fairly short – Mozart, Richard Strauss – and Ben wanted a ‘proper’ concerto. It’s for full symphony orchestra, not a chamber orchestra. It was always going to be a big piece. He’s playing a lot, and high. The first movement, the instrument is on his face for most of it. Ben’s stamina is amazing.
The relationship between the solo horn and a quartet of orchestral horns is important in Higgins’s piece.
We’d been thinking about the Ligeti, which has a concertante group, and I really like that idea. Whenever I write a concerto, I ask what is the relationship between the soloist and the orchestra? This old-fashioned idea of the soloist against orchestra? I think it’s more complex than that. The orchestra can obviously also act against the soloist, but for me it is about finding the conversation between them. Having the four horns there as a group between the soloist and the orchestra seemed a great idea to me. The horns do play in a more upfront way that they do in a normal concerto; they are definitely not background. Sometimes they are more part of the orchestral texture. I like the idea of the solo and the horn quartet having some sort of conversation. In the first movement they are literally answering each other; in the second Ben does all this high, pretty beautiful solo stuff and in the middle the horns finally come in, this new, intense line. They play together a lot, actually. It’s a way of binging the orchestra and the soloist together while having a conversation. Sometimes they are an extension, sometimes they add, sometimes they interrupt …
Nature, woodland and trees are all key influences. I suggest equating the E-flat of the opening and with that of Das Rheingold. Also the Britten Serenade? (a high C ceding to a high B, a notorious moment in the Britten).
There are a lot of subtle and not so subtle nods to important horn things in my life, so, yeah, that top C, that’s Ben’s favourite part in the whole piece. And that sort of falling minor gesture, you’ll find that in all of my music. I find it the most expressive intervals. The beginning is absolutely an evocation of the opening of Wagner’s Rheingold, the idea of Nature waking up. It’s that, but on steroids, more crunchy, more dirty. It’s an E flat major that builds, with gongs and quarter-tones, and glissandos …
I have to mention another piece around nature and trees: Tansy Davies’s Forest for four horns and orchestra (review here).
It wasn’t an influence, although I know the piece very well, I went to the premiere. But it’s much more personal for me. I grew up in a forest and I was surrounded by trees for all of my childhood. I’ve been endlessly fascinated by forests and trees – particularly in this country, we’ve lost our connection with those places. We have rain forests in this country that no-one knows about, tiny patches, whereas it used to span the entire West Coast of Scotland. Now they are vanishing. We’re losing trees because of disease; all these native trees are being ousted by imported trees. for me it’s a far more personal thing. If ever there was a chance to explore this, it would be in a horn concerto …
There’s a mycological (think fungi) aspect to the finale, and the second movement has an indication ‘like falling leaves’. The finale, a network in the forest, seems to exude an undercurrent of angst.
Yeah, as a horn concerto, it just has to end with a rondo, it makes sense. And they tend to be quite optimistic; and I am optimistic about the future of our forests. the reintroduction of animals: beavers, wild boar, and even wolves in Scotland (the deer are destroying the forests up there). There are islands in Scotland that are getting rid of imported trees to let the native trees, like oaks, take up the space. In the long term, these will I think have positive effects, but I have to temper my optimism: but just because things are moving in the right direction doesn’t mean they will continue to do so.
The finale takes in the idea about communication between plants, particularly via mycelia.
It’s literally how all plant life communicates, and we know so little about it. The idea of a wood-wide-web (!) sounds fun, but we need to look to forests as a sign of how we should run or own societies. I’m always drawn to the idea that in a natural forest, if a tree is ill or dying, the other trees will pass that tree nutrients through mycelium to prop it up. What an amazing way to live …
Higgins’s concerto will be recorded on Lyrita, in late 2024/5: it will be coupled with his cantata The Fairy Bride, which they recorded at Gloucester Cathedral (Three Choirs Festival) last year, a live recording. That was written during Covid and is a big, 45-minute piece for orchestra, two singers and chorus on a Welsh myth, a fairy who lives on a lake and comes to live with a human.
It is quite a sad story: There is a lot of Nature in it, a lot of dirt and weeds, it’s all very tactile, so I think these two pieces will work very well together. It’s also this idea of liminal spaces. In a lot of myth, things like lakes are liminal spaces, a gateway between the human world and the other, fairy world. What’s reflected above is reflected below. I will say, the Forest of Dean is a liminal place, on the very edge of Wales and England. When you grow up in a place like that, it is odd as you try to work out where your identity is. I’ve never felt totally English, that close to Wales. I worked with a brass band in Wales for years and years so feel like I’m an honorary Welshman. So, it’s also a disc about liminal places.
Both pieces are linked to romantic archetypes: the forest as the unconscious or a dream space. In fairy tales, the forest is both palace of refuge and of danger. And as he points out about water: it’s beautiful, pristine, but there is always something underneath ready to drag you in.
Both of these pieces have that, they are not cute Nature. pieces. There’s a lot of darkness, and dirt, a lot of grimy aspects to this piece
Ben Goldscheider is the most sought-after horn player on the current scene in the UK. When I speak to him, I comment the horn part looks very difficult.
Well, I think you’re right, it is difficult, but Gavin was a horn player himself. It’s difficult within the realms of somebody knowing what they’re doing. So his background is in the brass band world, and for me the particular challenges were that he took some of the slightly more dextrous writing that you might find in a brass band, whether that be for a tenor horn or a euphonium with the piston valves, and he put that on the horn. So, for example, the third movement is extremely fast. For the middle section of the third movement you’ve got this extraordinarily fast triple tonguing which is quite isolated and in the middle of long melodic lines. For me, that was the biggest challenge, to get that up to scratch and not to sound sloppy. There’s also the scope of the work, it’s 29 minutes long. That presents issues of stamina, it goes very high, it goes very low. But actually, it’s extremely well written and I had a lot of fun preparing it, and once you’ve got over a few of the obvious challenges, it fits very nicely with the fingers and the lips.
One of the challenges at that speed is the co-ordination between the column of air and the movement of the valves
Exactly. That was the biggest challenge. It’s wonderful to hear the horn doing that sort of thing. The piece is well-written, and I still feel strong at the end of it.
I ask about the relationship of the solo horn and the orchestra’s horn quartet, who in an ideal world are supposed to be front stage with the soloist.
For the premiere the horns of the BBC NOW didn’t sit at the front. I think for the London Chamber Orchestra they will be. It’s a homage to the Ligeti Concerto which does the same thing. What’s nice about Higgins’s concert is that the solo horn flits in and out of the collective. There are many moments when the five horns play together and you get this horn section sound that everybody loves, and there are many moments where I am indirect conversation with them or bouncing off them. And I think the physical proximity and even just the dramatic effect of having five horns at the front lends itself to the best way to present these ideas.
The reference I have in my head is at the end of the Richard Strauss Second Concerto when the solo horn links in with the orchestral horns.
Exactly: there are many moments where you can see there could be a connection
The whole first section of Higgins’s Horn Concerto is an evocation of the opening of Wagner’s Ring, and the pedal F is the dominant of that; which leads to the idea of the story of the Ring as a desecration of Nature (perhaps best expressed in a staging via Stephen Langridge’s staging of the Ring at Gothenburg). How does this affect Ben as a player, to know those concepts?
It doesn’t change the way you learn the notes, it changes the way you think about things such as timing I’m not necessarily one of these musicians that attaches a narrative; I don’t need a narrative or story to play a piece of music. But for example, in the second movement you have moments when time stands still, and knowing the programmatic ideas behind it allows you to think in such a way as to what these things might represent. So, it affects you in terms of timing and intention. But the horn is so connected to Nature anyway, with the idea of the hunt, with the idea of a horn call. So for example the last movement, if you knew nothing about the horn, if an alien came down, they might just play the notes on the page, but I go for a bit more of a raucous side to the sound as I think that’s what he’s trying to evoke.
Like Strauss’s Second Concerto (as one of my own horn teachers put it, ‘there’s never been an Etude written like it’), Higgins’s piece despite its challenges, remains formulated around the harmonic series.
Certainly in this opening section, it is very much built around not necessarily the harmonic series, but arpeggios. When something is written really well, it often sounds more difficult than it is. And that’s the case with quite a few passages in this work. Even in the second movement, there are some slurs, pianissimo, going up to top A. Knowing which notes ring nicely on the instrument is important… a semitone lower or higher it would really be very awkward, but it is not. And that comes from knowledge you only really get from being a player.
There are no extended techniques here: chords and so on.
There’s a lot of hand-stopping, but that’s not really considered extended any more. It’s very much true horn writing. What I find so endearing about this piece is that it’s so obviously a horn concerto, it has so many tropes associated with the horn. So, it very much takes its place within the canon, but does so many new things and I think having one foot in tradition and one foot looking forwards is a really nice stance to take and think that was one of the reasons which makes this a very successful piece.
Was the piece modelled on your strengths as a player, I wonder?
I’ve done a lot of new music, and the way I like to work is to leave the composer totally alone. If they have questions, I’ll answer them. But I much prefer them to think in a limitless manner, and then the responsibility is on my shoulders to try and realise that. My idea is let them roll with it. It was the same with Dennis Brain and the Britten Serenade. Britten wrote this thing that was extraordinarily difficult … people weren’t writing pianissimo top B’s and so on. And Brain went away and showed us all it’s possible, and I find that very inspiring.
Goldscheider has been involved in the commissioning, totalling some fifty works for horn, whether for solo or chamber. I wonder about audience reactions to Higgins’s piece – when we spoke there had been two performances, one in Swansea and one in Cardiff (review here).
I was really quite pleasantly surprised. It’s one of these pieces that has a visceral quality about it. It’s not an abstract piece of contemporary music that you need a certain level of knowledge to understand. On first listening, it’s very impressive. His ability to create incredible orchestral textures and so many orchestral colours audiences appreciate so much. Across the board, audience reactions have been very positive.
The Cadogan Hall performance was on Wednesday February 7 whilst the performance from Hoddinott Hall of Gavin Higgins’s Horn Concerto is available on BBC Sounds here.