9th Biennial Conference on Baroque Music


Bach’s Horn Parts: Alternatives to Nodal Vents and Hand Stopping

J. Drew Stephen

Music written for the horn by Bach and his contemporaries presents a particular problem for performers today. While the writing is generally restricted to the harmonic series, some notes (11th, 13th and 14th harmonics) need adjusting to play them in tune, and composers occasionally wrote others which lie outside the harmonic series (usually a half step below). To obtain these notes, modern performers generally rely on two techniques: nodal vents (holes drilled in the instrument) or the hand in the bell to lower the pitch. But neither of these solutions is without controversy: the earliest known use of nodal vents dates from long after the period in question, and there is no evidence that hand-stopping techniques were known to performers in Bach’s time.

This paper presents two alternatives to these techniques: (1) bending the pitch of notes with the embouchure, and (2) a more flexible approach to tuning. Because modern instruments and mouthpieces tend to ‘centre’ pitches, the ability to bend notes is neither a necessary skill for today’s performer, nor one that is practiced. But period instruments and mouthpieces allow for greater flexibility of pitch, and an eighteenth-century musician certainly learned to bend notes as a matter of course. Likewise, our definition of ‘in tune’ is quite narrow, whereas there are many instances where the ‘natural’ (i.e. sharp) 11th harmonic would have been appropriate in an eighteenth-century context. Justification for using these techniques will be drawn from contemporary treatises and the music itself; the ideas will be illustrated through live demonstrations on the Baroque horn.

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Last updated on 22 March 2000 by Yo Tomita