There can be no doubt that the French Horn is the most capricious of the instruments of the orchestra. Those who play it deserve our encouragement; those who play it well (and The Alderley Edge Orchestra is indeed fortunate in having some excellent exponents) deserve our unreserved admiration and gratitude.
So why should this handsome instrument present such a challenge to the player? For a start, there's a surprising amount of it, despite its apparently modest size. A fully grown specimen contains some 6 m (20 ft) of coiled tubing, much of quite small bore, widening at the end into a very characteristic large funnel-shaped bell. This makes it a relatively hard instrument to play in sheer physical terms - so much so that it is common in large symphony orchestras for an additional player (a 'bumper-up') to be engaged to help out the principal horn when he or she is faced with extended sequences of taxing notes. Another challenge for the horn player is the cultivation of the exact lip embouchure required for a specific note: high notes require the lips to be pursed and pressed very hard against the mouthpiece, while low notes need an entirely different relaxed lip configuration.
The origin of the instrument is lost in antiquity. Undoubtedly, the earliest horns were of animal origin, used mainly as a means of signalling; it was probably an accidental discovery that the instrument could also be used to generate a pleasing range of sounds. The simple horn can of course, only generate the notes of the harmonic series, and in due course instruments were developed which had the facility whereby a player could insert additional short lengths of tubing ('crooks') in order to adapt the instrument to play in different keys. Players in classical times had to become remarkably expert in the use of crooks: for example, Mozart's opera Don Giovanni calls for no fewer that 35 changes of crook, requiring considerable agility on the part of the player. It is the good fortune of horn players today that the needs for crooks has been eliminated through the introduction of a system of valves which achieve the same effect in a much simpler fashion; further flexibility is also often provided through the expedient of a fourth valve which can instantly convert the basic F instrument into the B flat instrument which is often needed to facilitate the playing of some of the higher notes.
The notation of horn parts is of such complexity that it virtually defies understanding by normal mortals. Briefly, the problems stem from the fact that horn parts have, over the years, been written for a variety of different transpositions. Alto and basso B flat horns were commonly specified in classical times (and to complicate matters further, Mozart and Haydn didn't always specify which, occasionally resulting in debate at rehearsal); a rare F sharp horn is called for in Haydn's 'Farewell' Symphony No. 45, and Horns in H (the Germanic equivalent of B natural) are commonly specified in the music of Brahms. It may be added that the latter horn requires the awkward transposition of a tritone, never a welcome proposition to the long-suffering horn fraternity.
However, during the nineteenth century, a transposition around the increasingly standardised Horn in F became the general practice, and horn players nowadays tend to relate notes automatically to the F horn, whatever key they happen to be playing in. But the complications continue. Horn music is, alas, written in both treble and bass clef, and by tradition notes in the bass clef are transcribed an octave down. The result of this is that when horn players are required to play very low 'pedal' notes, they are set out in the part many leger lines below the bottom of the bass clef - a practice condemned by later composers who thought it was more logical that bass clef notes should transpose in the same way as those in the treble clef.
The inevitable consequence is that the horn player is likely to encounter both notations side by side, and it is not always obvious without a degree of detective work whether a composer is using so-called 'old-notation' or 'new-notation.' In general, traditionalists such as Mahler, Ravel and even Stravinsky preferred old-notation, while Debussy was a champion of the new. Confusingly, Elgar was rather caught in mid-stream (possibly finding himself on the 'horns of a dilemma'?) and achieved the dubious distinction of being one of an extremely select band of composers to use both notations during the course of a single work (his Enigma Variations).
Oddly, horns parts are usually printed without key signature, all sharps and flats being indicated as accidentals as the music proceeds.
Mention should be made of the practice - puzzling to the rest of the orchestra - which requires horn players to insert their right hands into the bells of their instruments as though they are trying to keep their fingers warm. Quite by accident, a horn player called Hampl in Dresden in 1770 responded to grumbles from the strings that he was playing too loudly (nothing changes) by stuffing some wool down the bell. To his surprise, he found that this lowered the pitch by exactly a semitone, and - even more conveniently - he could achieve the same effect by inserting his right hand instead. He also found that by putting only part of his hand into the bell, the sound could be very effectively muted without changing the note itself; furthermore, if he moved his hand while blowing the note he could produce a 'swooping' or portamento effect which further enhanced the flexibility of his instrument. Thanks to Herr Hampl, such 'hand-stopping' remains today an important part of the horn player's technique.
Well-known solo works for horn include Mozart's much-loved four Horn Concertos, three concertos by Haydn (plus a concerto for two horns), and two excellent concertos by Richard Strauss. General orchestral music contains many notable contributions from the horn: two fine examples are the opening solo bars of Schubert's 'Great' C major Symphony No. 9 and the finale of Chopin's F minor Piano Concerto No. 2.
Finally, we alert the reader to the existence of two imposters that make false claims to be members of this noble family. The basset-horn is, in fact, an alto clarinet; whilst the cor anglais ('English horn') is actually the alto member of the oboe family.
It isn't difficult to identify the musical influences that led to Pam Wellings becoming Principal Horn. Her father was a versatile dance band musician, playing not only the trombone but also the double bass and euphonium. For good measure, her brother Philip Hill was principal oboe with the Hallé Orchestra and later with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
Her acquaintance with the horn could not have started in a more casual way - her father happened to bring one home one day and the young Pam, finding it lying on a chair, decided to have a tentative blow. But it was not until later life that she returned to the instrument and started to have serious lessons.
In addition to The Alderley Edge Orchestra, Pam also plays with the Macclesfield-based King Edward Musical Society (KEMS) Orchestra and admits to a passion for the music of Dvorak and other late romantics. Outside music, her main interest is geology and she is currently in the middle of an Open University degree course on this topic.
Mother of three grown-up sons, Pam lives in Macclesfield, Cheshire.