The superiority of the French horn

This past Saturday at 4 p.m., the Lawrence University Horn Ensemble, made up of current students, alumni and townsfolk, gathered in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel to put on their final show with their revered and beloved teacher, James DeCorsey. Professor DeCorsey is in his final year here at Lawerence University after an astounding 28 years, so it only made sense to go out on a high note, both literally and figuratively. The concert, which drew a sizeable crowd, showed off the history of the horn, beginning with a showcase on horn-like instruments. Members of the horn ensemble as well as Dean of the Conservatory, Brian Pertl began the concert with a serenade of conch shell calls. Then, senior Julian Cohen demonstrated the ram’s horn, or the shofar. Dean Pertl then finished the showcase with an improvised didgeridoo cadenza. After the demonstration, Professor DeCorsey mounted the stage to show off his deft capabilities on the natural horn. This is a horn with no valves, meaning all of the changing of notes is done with the embouchure or the hand inside the bell of the horn. An extremely difficult instrument to play well, the natural horn is a common enemy of many horn players, including me. However, DeCorsey calmly navigated through the passages of lip trills and intricate articulations to elucidate the complexities of the horn to the audience. Then, the rest of the ensemble entered on to the stage, flanking a small orchestra made up of faculty and students alike. This was for the Handel. After that, we did a piece by Lo Presti, followed by an improvisational piece. Then, the main event: the Western Medley. DeCorsey has spent months perfecting his own arrangement of an amalgam of themes from iconic western films, including The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, The Magnificent Seven, High Noon and A Fistful of Dollars, among others. This masterfully crafted potpourri of Western tunes played by some 18 horns was the culmination of 28 years of both the selfless mentorship and the pure passion for music that James DeCorsey embodied in his days at Lawrence. It is my professional, unbiased opinion as a Lawrentian who attends many, many concerts, that this Horn Ensemble concert was the best and most impressive concert Lawrence has ever put on.

For those who are unaware, the French horn is the most difficult instrument to play. The partials are too close together, the mouthpiece is tiny, the range is far too wide, it takes decades to find a good tone, etc., I could go on forever. But yes, that is the claim that I am making this week: French horn is the most difficult instrument. But, it is also the most beautiful instrument. The next time you sit down to watch a movie – it could be literally any movie – wrap your ear around the dulcet melodies that the horn oozes from its golden bell. Now picture some 18 plus horn players, all of whom have spent, collectively, centuries mastering and perfecting the art of horn playing. Now imagine these horn players harmonizing together in the resonant belly of the Lawrence Memorial Chapel, performing a piece of solely Western music. I know that my opinions in this section can be contentious and even cause for outrage in the greater Lawrence community, but I expect all of you readers to back me up on this one thing: the French horn is the best instrument. At least for this week, it is.