Get to know Villanelle for horn

The recital piece Villanelle for horn and piano is a beautiful piece that mixes old with new. Many of itsmelodies can be played on natural horn (horn without valves, aka a hunting horn), giving the piece an  “antique” sound. Written in 1905 by Paul Dukas, of Sorcerer’s Apprentice fame, he never made an orchestrated version of the piece. In 1966, the famous Russian horn player Vitali Bujanowski wanted to play it with orchestra, so he made the light and transparent orchestration that we will play, complementing the lightness and agility of the horn’s music.

Horn players, you will want to hear Richard Sebring play Villanelle January 25 & 26, 2019 in Concord. Lovers of horn music and lovers of music in general, Dukas’ Villanelle is an extra special treat. It’s great to step beyond the Mozart concertos that are the usual fare when there’s a horn soloist. By the way, Gus will also play Haydn’s Horn Concerto No. 1.

Here are notes by our soloist Richard Sebring (know to us as Gus).

Villanelle by Paul Dukas

Composer, teacher, and music critic Paul Dukas was a perfectionist, abandoning or destroying much of what he wrote. We are fortunate to have this showpiece, Villanelle, in our repertoire, that perfectly captures the many moods, technical challenges, and expressive range of both horn and piano. Though Dukas was a master orchestrater (Sorcerer’s Apprentice, La Péri), he left only a sketch for orchestrating this work, brought to life later by several arrangers, including RussianVitali Bujanowski.

The term villanelle translates literally from its Italian equivalent as “peasant” or “a country girl.” Starting in the 14th century as a rustic dance, music for such a dance, or lyric verse similar to a ballad with no fixed form, it was simply considered a “country song.” A strict form of poetry known today by this term started with a Renaissance poem in 1606 in France, was popular in the 19th century, and since then is most often written in English. In music, villanelle is usually interpreted as “scenes in a rural setting.”

Dukas (1865-1935) spent much of his time as a teacher, instructing Olivier Messiaen, Maurice Duruflé, and others of the next generation of French composers. He counted Debussy and Saint-Saëns among his friends, and his style combines classical, romantic, and impressionist elements.

Villanelle was composed in 1905 (published in 1906 by Durand) as a test piece for the Paris Conservatoire, with the dedication à Monsieur François Brémond. Brémond (1844-1925) was a horn player and teacher who preferred the natural horn for his own performances but taught his students valve horn, introducing it at the Conservatoire in stages from 1897 to 1902 and eventually decreeing that test pieces be played on the valve horn. Natural horn (the type of horn played for centuries before valves were invented about 1815) was still an important part of horn studies, and sections of this work are labeled sans les pistons (without the valves), although most performers today use valves even in these sections. In addition to high and low range, lyrical and fast technical passages, and a variety of articulations, Dukas calls for en echo (partially stoppedwith the hand in the bell) and sourdine (muted).

After an opening fanfare, we settle into a lilting, expressive 6/8 theme. Freedom with varying tempos and dynamics brings descriptive detail to this bucolic picture. A quick section is followed by a lyrical section, then en echo, smooth phrases into the lower range, muted, a return to the first theme, and an exciting finish.

Vitali Mikhailovich Bujanowski (1928-1993) was a horn player, teacher, and composer in Soviet Russia, principal horn in the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, and professor at the Leningrad Conservatory. He was elected an Honorary Member of the International Horn Society in 1985. His compositions are performed regularly by horn players. During his lifetime, students traveled from the West to study with him. He appeared widely as a soloist and recorded many horn standards, including Villanelle. When orchestra parts were not available, he made his own orchestration in 1966 from the piano score, now published by Compozitor in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Bujanowski described Villanelle as a genre scene; i.e., the horn player is entertaining country people with folk melodies, and the huntsman’s horn, resounding from afar, is interspersed with recitations.

As horn soloists, we are blessed to have not only many concerti by the masters, but also great vignettes like Villanelle that bring joy to audience and player alike!

‒Notes by Richard Sebring

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