A friend whose son plays the French horn was struck by the quality of Jasper Rees’ writing and sent me a copy of A Devil to Play, thinking that I would enjoy this memoir of renewing acquaintance with a musical instrument abandoned in Rees’ final years of school, and of course she was completely right. On one level, Rees’ story is a common one: middle age has not only approached, it has arrived, bringing with it the end of a marriage, a New Person in His Life, and reaching back to a defining feature of his youth, perhaps in an effort to reclaim some of it. So far, so pedestrian. Rees makes no effort to hide what is happening, or how much he has in common with many other people who have gone through similar passages; indeed, one of the charms of Rees’ writing is his very British ability to make fun of himself, not to take himself too seriously. It can be annoying in person, when you eventually come to wonder if they can take anything seriously, but within the confines of two covers, it makes for witty companionship.
A slightly random moment with the New Person recalls Rees to his days playing the horn in the school orchestra. That leads to his collecting classical music that includes the horn, which leads to his picking up his old Lidl, which leads to his joining the British Horn Society (BHS) in a group of seventy players doing the Hallelujah Chorus. That, in turn, reminds him of how great it was to make music as part of an ensemble, even when one is doing it badly, and so Rees conceives of the idea of playing a solo a the next year’s meeting of the Society. A Devil to Play combines the story of that year with the history of the horn in Western music and civilization. It is, so to speak, a hoot, and the best part of it is spending 300 or so pages in Rees’ amiable and self-deprecating company. He’s arch about some things as well, as when he first addresses the question of why he is doing this slightly crazy thing.
In the Albert Hall at this point [in the Hallelujah Chorus] there would be a single vainglorious trumpet taking on the thousand-strong choir. It’s good for announcing things, is the trumpet. It’s not good for much else, this side of Louis Armstrong. Suddenly the answer steals up on me. I am here because the horn is not the trumpet. The horn is not the bassoon or the trombone or the flute. The horn is, incomparably, the horn. In the right hands, it is the most beautiful instrument in the orchestra. In the wrong hands, it’s still better the trumpet. (p. 14)
[By the end of the 18th century] the trumpet will be so marginalized by the horn that in search of its lost mojo it will have to go off and invent a whole new musical form. (p. 99)
But he’s not always insufferable about the horn’s place in the musical firmament.
And yet there is an image problem. By some strange miscarriage of justice, the horn is somehow deemed among all the brass instruments—with the possible exception of the tuba—to be the most irredeemably uncool. … It doesn’t help that the horn has no Miles Davis. There is no Charlie Parker of the horn. The horn doesn’t snap like the trumpet, it doesn’t slither and slide like the trombone. The horn didn’t hang around Parisian nightclubs in the early 1950s smoking dope and glugging bourbon.
The instrument has never quite shaken off its aristocratic roots; it’s never quite removed that trace of the silver spoon. You don’t sound so effortlessly superior without a whiff of privilege attaching to you, like a permanent spray of expensive eau de cologne. Of all the brass section, the horn players are the ones who look to-the-manor-born in white tie and tails. There is a reason why the horn has never muscled its way into the colliery brass bands of the north of England. It’s just not brassy enough. A horn hanging out with euphoniums and cornets is a landowner mucking in with feudal tenants. It makes everyone feel uneasy. (p. 16)
Which, Rees writes, is exactly what he feels on stage with the British Horn Society. There’s a deeper unease, too. As a journalist and interviewer, he’s been out of sight for all of his career.
What all this observing has made me, this dogged apostolic witnessing of other people’s effort, is an absentee from my own life.
On an inchoate level I have known that at some point in my future this stifling must stop. I’ve never known when that might be. I yearn to counted. I want desperately to contend. As I play my little part in the “Hallelujah” chorus, it seems to me that I have stumbled on the gateway to my own adventure. (p. 20)
It’s a fun adventure, alternating between a stroll through the horn’s history and Rees’ own faltering progress toward a self-imposed deadline of a major performance in a year’s time. He traces its origins to animal horns in prehistory, used as signals to herds and shepherds and armies. Along the way, there are diversions into composers’ lives, tales of horn players who were famous in their time, and bits about both the social roles of various horns and their technological development over time. Rees’ own narrative bounces among his new lessons, his experiences with the instrument during his school years, and encounters with some of the contemporary luminaries of the profession.
The one thing that made me uneasy about the book is the colossal amount of privilege required to undertake the quest to re-learn an instrument in the way that Rees does. The New Person in His Life is a theater producer in London working with Andrew Lloyd Weber. The current production has secured one of London’s, and by extension the world’s, best horn players for their orchestra. Rees parlays this connection first into a brief discussion but eventually into a situation where Rees is taking regular instruction from someone who “as I would find out, has been in the horn section, mostly as principal, of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. And the Michael Nyman Band.” (pp. 9–10) Rees also seeks out top horn players from around the world; I suppose that is a reflection of his occupation as a writer for British newspapers, and that it is an essential element of constructing the book. (The relationships can be reciprocal; Rees uses connections that he never specifies to get an appointment for him and his teacher to handle an manuscript in Mozart’s own hand of the concerto Rees is preparing to play.) I think that’s the other aspect of my uneasiness, though. This is not just, as the cover would have it, one man’s attempt to master an instrument he abandoned in his youth. It’s his effort to do regain skill with the instrument and, quite consciously, to write a book about it.
Not everyone’s parents are hunting friends with a French duc and duchesse of an ancient family, so that seeking out the trompe de chasse in its natural habitat is not exactly an option. Not everyone has the connections to gain the use of Lloyd Weber’s conservatory for a friends-and-family concert. Not everyone’s phone calls to the principal horns in Berlin, Vienna and St Petersburg will be returned. Rees brings back excellent stories from all of these encounters, but I wish he had addressed his position more directly.
That said, the stories are excellent, both in the history and in the memoir. Professional advice about his plan to play a solo performance in one year’s time can be summed up as “Don’t.” But the horn fraternity (and it is almost exclusively a male profession at the time of publication in 2008) is jolly and welcoming, and so people are willing to help Rees, even as they neglect to mince words about how he sounds. On the other hand, the horn is notoriously tricky, and split notes are a fact of life for everyone who takes it up.
“Don’t be afraid of the second note, please,” says Stefan Dohr, principle horn of the Berlin Philharmonic. “If you are afraid of the second note, the rest of the piece is gone. We hear it in auditions. Even great players, they come on and go, da deurgh!” (p. 77)
A Devil to Play is angelic to read. Rees is companionable all the way through; there is something interesting on practically every page, usually served up with something funny. Contradictory advice on playing the horn is a particular specialty.
In all, I asked about six professors of horn in horn camp how to trill. They all had a different answer. One of them even managed to flog me a book on the subject.
Dave’s theory is the simplest. “Start slurring slowly between the note and the note above, and gradually speed up until the movement between the two notes is so fast it sounds like a trill.” I ask him how long it takes. “Took me about six years,” he says, and laughs his head off. (p. 210)