• Benedict Mason
  • Horn Trio (1987)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)

Commissioned by the Almeida Festival

  • horn, piano and violin with cassette player and small loudspeakers
  • 25 min

Programme Note

I: Toccata for Piano
II: Waltz
III: Sarabande for Scarlatti
IV: Toccata for Violin

A composer writing for horn trio must inevitably confront certain problems: the genre has a small but illustrious history dominated by the Brahms Trio and, more recently, by that of Ligeti. Another composer is therefore more than likely to be programmed in competition with either of these masterpieces. Problems of balance are considerable too: the rich, full sonorities of horn and piano can easily overwhelm the violin. How can three such instruments be made to interact in a coherent manner?

So when the chamber group Chamelion asked Benedict Mason to write a Horn Trio for the 1987 Almeida Festival, one of his starting points was the instruments themselves, and Mason’s confrontation with these problems is typically bold and inventive.

A violin part which makes use of the full potential of the instrument, not least in glides and slides. He's found a way of writing for the piano which is virtuosic without being heavy - in fact for a lot of the time it's essentially a single line. And as for the horn, in several passages, he asks the player to obtain the notes of the open harmonic series without adjusting the intonation, and these out of tune upper partials make a distinctive and delicate contribution to the trio texture forming another of Mason's rich mixes.

The first movement, the score says, should proceed like a piano cadenza with violin and horn accommodating accordingly, and though this instruction relates specifically to variations in tempo, it's an indication of how the movement's conceived. This movement is dominated by the piano’s voluble runs and arpeggios, games to which the others seem more or less oblivious: the violin is enclosed in a world of slides and harmonics whilst the horn, hand-stopped throughout, barks out occasional punctuations of its own.

While the outer movements are studies in perspective and distance, in the second movement, the instruments collaborate on a disorienting catalogue of waltz rhythms, at several speeds simultaneously, and Mason’s skill in dealing with a density of texture is particularly evident in this movement. Though entitled ‘Waltz’, it has surprisingly little music in 3/4 time. Instead it's a kind of collage of many different waltz characters of different tempi, brought together with great metrical ingenuity.

That's followed by a slow movement that plays not with types, but with one specific work from the past. It's called ‘Sarabande for Scarlatti’ and embedded in it is a disintegrating vision of a famous Scarlatti keyboard sonata cleverly filtered through the ages - in particular through Busoni. But you can never quite get hold of it: this material from the past remains tantalisingly unclear, never quoted exactly, yet apparently ever present: Mason says that it is as if the Scarlatti were ‘made of wax and was gradually melting before our ears’.

The finale is called ‘Toccata for Violin’ and it is similarly led by the strongly rhythmic and dominant violin part, and the instruments resume the obstinate independence of the first. But here their independence has more extreme and lasting consequences: though the piano keeps pace, the horn opts out by playing expressive phrases of his own and then by literally distancing himself, moving gradually to an off-stage position, so this piece unexpectedly opens out into a conversation across space and time, with the violin suddenly stopped in its tracks in the benevolent shade of Scarlatti.

The work was first performed by Andrew Ball (piano), Elisabeth Perry (violin) and David Cox (horn), and broadcast on BBC Music in Our Time, 3rd January 1991.