Quoniam, tu solus altissimus horn

I spent Saturday in Baltimore, which retains a kind of place of honor as my second home, since I went to college there and to this day have many friends there whom I do not see often enough.  Yesterday, though, the Wanderlust struck me, and I happened upon a good weekend, when many were gathering for a party, and I got to see people that I hadn’t seen in ten years, people that I thought I might never see again.

I went to a music conservatory, and so all my old classmates are musicians.  We can be a pedantic lot; in fact, this tendency was the theme of the first conversation I had after arriving in Charm City earlier yesterday afternoon.  But as we grow and mature, I like to think that musicians tend to take the world apart and put it back together again.  After all, artists, in general, demand that their Weltanschauung somehow make sense.  The conversation ten years on, therefore, becomes varied, interesting, and stimulating.

Later in the evening, I was lamenting with a friend the relative dearth of French Horn players in today’s high school bands.  Everyone wants to play the alto saxophone instead.  “What’s the difference between a saxophone and a lawn mower?” one of my teachers once asked me.  “You can tune a lawn mower.”  But a French Horn, on the contrary, has a wonderful sound, one that can tingle the spine—rather than the teeth—of the most cold-hearted.

Some people, in the face of situations such as the attack of the alto saxophones, simply give up and “surrender to the reality,” giving the French Horn parts to the saxophonists.  But not my friend.  He finds motivated people in his band and encourages them to consider this most august of Blechblaesinstrumenten.  And how does he do it?  By playing for them a recording from Bach’s D Major Mass (it’s actually the B Minor Mass, but I like to make a point of showing how silly theorists are by demonstrating that more of it is in D Major than b minor), specifically the Quoniam tu solus sanctus, which happens near the end of the Gloria:

For every instrument that’s worth a damn, there’s at least one piece of music that would make any sane man wish that he played that particular apparatus.  Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man makes one wish to be a percussionist; Mahler’s Fifth Symphony could make a trumpet player out of even the nicest Mensch; much of Brahms demonstrates the clarinet  and cello at their finest; a robust Anglican hymn sets properly the King of Instruments on its sapphire throne; and Gustav Holst’s Second Suite in F turns the euphonium into our friendliest neighbor.  I could go on and on down the list, with only a few exceptions, such as the tambourine, the harmonica, and, of course, the saxophone.

As it turns out, I can think of no greater piece with respect to the French Horn than this very Quoniam by the formidable J.S. Bach, the greatest composer who ever lived—and I don’t think that superlative is up for any meaningful debate.   My friend couldn’t have hit the nail more directly on the head than when he chose this piece.  He is calling people out of the darkness of Kenny G and into the daylight of fugues and ground bass.  And to hell with the Mozart Horn Concerto; this piece by Bach is where it’s at.

It is perhaps to risk appearing self-satisfied, not to mention slightly rhetorically disorganized, to point out something more fundamental about all this, something that transcends even the most somber subject of the saxophone.  To wit:  music, and all the arts, are essential to our dignity as human beings.  I dare say that these subjective things are even more important than the greatest treatises of Murray Rothbard or John Locke or even Frederic Bastiat.  Somehow, it seems to me, we could survive without economics and political philosophy; we would find a way to make the world work in a just and orderly manner in their absence.  But the arts give us our humanity; they remind us that we are not only legally entitled to but, more importantly, intrinsically worthy of the liberty that the philosophers have elucidated for us.  To be a musician, then, is a high calling indeed, and to teach young people the gift of music, and of the French Horn, is an indispensable necessity.

At the heart of it all is, of course, love.  Ubi caritas et amor, musica ibi est, to steal a Latin phrase.   “Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius,” said Mozart.  Here’s hoping that, through the great works composed for the French Horn, more people will come to love music, and to make it a part of their everyday lives.

And for God’s sake, whatever your children become—Redskins fans, Republicans, or even bloggers with too much time on their hands—don’t let them play the saxophone—-

unless they play like Charlie Parker.


2 Responses

  1. Yes, I am visiting your site.


  2. “But the arts give us our humanity…” – it’s neat how this phrase pops up everywhere to distinguish us from the beasts. Nobody says “the arts give us our beastiality”! A good reason for that: we are not beasts (though we act like them at our worst moments). Humans are moral beings (beasts are not), and the arts touch upon that deeply.

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