This innovative album of pieces exclusively for solo English horn spotlights composers from the 20th and 21st centuries. The works recorded are inspired by elements of the human experience that have captivated people since the beginning of time: art, literature, dance, nature, and prayer. They include Masoudnia’s previous commissions and new pieces from Adolphus Hailstork, Robert Maggio, and Kevin Arthur, Jr.
The motivation for this project grew from the 2020 pandemic and a desire to expand the traditional English horn solo repertory to be more representative of composers of varying backgrounds, genders, and ages. During the pandemic, orchestras worldwide shut down, and it was unclear when players would be working again or if performing ensembles would ever be in business in the same way. Only able to practice at home, Masoudnia reflected on 25 years of English horn playing with The Philadelphia Orchestra. Inspired by the pandemic’s burst of creative activity on social media and by English horn player Jacqueline LeClair’s solo recording Music for English Horn Alone, Masoudnia began to compile an album reflecting the year that passed. She sought to explore and develop the repertory by commissioning pieces and adapting oboe works to the English horn. Some of these pieces were specifically written for a player trained in the Tabuteau tradition of oboe and English horn playing. This recording brings together new and rarely-heard pieces, and various perspectives for the possibilities on the English horn played in this style.
Masoudnia writes, “In deciding what to play, I realized that as the English hornist of The Philadelphia Orchestra, my talents and interests lay in the Romantic repertoire onward, with a particular emphasis on the beauty of sound and phrasing. I believe the English horn is, artistically, often most effective alone — as demonstrated in pieces such as Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Manuel de Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat, and Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. I also have observed that it is difficult to find performing opportunities as an English horn player, and there are few, if any, études written specifically for the instrument. I hope that students and professionals will be inspired to practice and perform these pieces, and that today’s composers will continue to write challenging and diverse solos for the English horn in various genres.”
The English horn is a double-reed wind instrument dating from the 18th century. Like the other members of the oboe family, the English horn evolved from the shawms of the Middle Ages. Its immediate predecessor was the oboe da caccia (hunting oboe), a curved tenor oboe pitched in F with a flaring bell, reminiscent of the horns seen played by angels in religious artwork of the times. The pear-shaped bell of these early instruments may have given the English horn its name — in the German language of the time, the word “englisch” meant “angelic.” In France, the instrument was known as a cor anglais. The English horn continued to improve in design throughout the 19th century, with more keys added and a straightening of the lower part of the instrument. The result was an instrument more manageable by the performer and with better resonance than its predecessors.
When the English horn was first incorporated into orchestras, it was as a doubling instrument played by an oboist. Surprisingly, there was little use of the instrument in the works of the early 19th century German composers. Nineteenth-century German Romantic composers rediscovered the English horn and it received a more prominent role in the lush orchestral writing of Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Gustav Mahler. The instrument’s unique sound has also made it popular over the past two centuries for exotic and pastoral musical effects. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, the English horn has remained an essential member of the woodwind section.
As orchestras have expanded, specialists in English horn have emerged, along with an abundance of new works highlighting the instrument’s full capabilities. The album introduces new English horn pieces to players and listeners and shows the range and effectiveness of the English horn as a solo instrument.
– Nancy Plum