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The Horn Concerto was written in November, 1999, for Richard Watkins, whose musical qualities
impressed me so much in the late seventies/early eighties, when he played with the ‘Fires of London’ in my music-theatre works, that I wrote him a work for horn alone - Sea Eagle.
Now I wanted to create music to exploit his particular lyrical qualities, his singing tone and the extraordinary “presence” of each note – hence, a concerto which breathes in one, long connected argument, from the opening slow introduction through to the final cadenza and coda. The horn writing is extremely virtuoso throughout – not least in exploring the full range of the horn, from the deepest notes in the bass, normally exclusive to an orchestral fourth horn player, to the highest, most exposed sostenuto of a first horn soloist, presenting here challenges of embouchure and sheer stamina I should think fairly unprecedented.
The concerto’s one movement has three sections – moderately fast, slow, and fast – on a deep level forming exposition, development and recapitulation, but on a more “surface” level referring to the three movements of a classical concerto, joined together.
The first section, after a slow introduction, follows the rituals of first subject, bridge and second subject, followed by its own quasi-development, inaugurated by the entry of the timpani. This “development is a series of transformations of material through a twelve magic square – henceforth there are no “real” repeats or recurrences of the material – it is always modified by its rites of passage, but I hope close enough for the differences to be audible and meaningful, so that the gradual changes make a “line” of argument that is sensible.
The solo timpani heralds the main central slow section – psychologically its G modality is as far away from the G flat of the opening and the close as I could go, exploring what I think of as “side alley” off the central magic square patterns. Behind the music here lurks the ghost of the development of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Second Symphony – the techniques of writing are much more clearly based on traditional sonata procedures, and upon this one in particular.
The final quick section initially has some of the gestures of a rondo, but the pressure becomes too great to let this flourish at length, precipitating the main cadenza, where the soloist spins fantasy-like figures over hushed, sustained low strings. For me the still core of the work follows – slow, low string chords with bass clarinet, and a brief dialogue between alto flute, cor anglais and the soloist – the hushed calm at the centre of the activity.
An orchestral accelerando leads to the final spring of the horn solo.
Peter Maxwell Davies