Kristina Mascher-Turner: Renee, your fascination with historical instruments, particularly the natural horn, goes back at least as far as your studies in Stuttgart with Hermann Baumann. Can you take us back a little further and tell us what first drew your attention in this direction?
Renee Allen: After my Bachelor’s studies at the University of McGill in Montreal, I heard a recording of the Mozart Grand Partita played on period instruments. I was blown away by the sound of the horns in Bb basso and the blend with the woodwinds. At that time, I was hired for a season in the Quebec Symphony orchestra and the solo horn player there was interested in the natural horn, so we got together and performed Mozart Divertimenti and Telemann’s Tafelmusik with gut strings. This was in the late 70’s. I had an Alexander large hooped natural horn with a modern leadpipe and bell. To transpose down to D, one added tubes to the tuning slide that pushed into one’s cheek when playing - not ideal, but enough to get me hooked!
KMT: When you finished your studies, was there a point at which you felt compelled to choose between a career in performance and other pursuits? What was/is the viability of making a living playing instruments other than the modern horn?
RA: I came to study natural horn with Hermann Baumann in 1981 because of his recent recording of the Mozart horn concertos on the natural horn. There were no study programs for natural horn majors at that time. After winning an audition for the theater orchestra in Mainz that year, I stayed on for six years. It became obvious to me, despite my love for opera and the enticement of job security, this was not why I had come to Europe. I had the opportunity to perform often with Ensemble Modern but took a conscious decision for old, rather than new or mainstream music. I quit my job in Mainz to start training as an Alexander technique teacher and devoted myself to historical performance practice, but I took another detour by playing a year in Stuttgart at the opera house, thanks to the insistence of Mahir Cakar, who had been Baumann’s assistant, to take the audition. I have never regretted going free-lance and have continued to perform opera, all the way up to Parsifal, but on historical instruments.
There was more opportunity to have a personal voice in the interpretation of early music than in a standard orchestra where the hierarchy is clearer, and the conductor has the final word. We were all researching, reading treatises, discussing, looking for the correct style, and it was a wonderful creative period. Each step brought new insights - a historical mouthpiece, an original crook, an original instrument, an unknown treatise or book of etudes - all widened my palette of colour or taught me something. Now that schools provide early music training programs, the students can benefit from all this knowledge. Although this is great, there is something to be said for getting the understanding through personal research and experience, so that performances become not just be a matter of reproducing music but making it your own. This is especially valid when you are working with unknown music where you decide the style and interpretation to the best of your knowledge - this is very freeing!
KMT: You have been an Alexander Technique teacher for many years now. For our readers who are not familiar with it, can you explain the basic principles and practice?
RA: This is a difficult question requiring a lengthy answer that I will attempt to shorten with a promise to write an article on this topic for the Horn Call in the future ;-)) The Alexander technique is based on the dynamic relationship between head, neck and back and how thought affects this delicate balance, that Alexander called the primary control. It is about using your body in an efficient way with a minimum of effort for a maximum of results, allowing support to come from your innate system of uprightness. This is done by being aligned with intention and creativity in the moment and consciously directing the outcome without attachment to it. Releasing the goal (like a hitting a high C), allows you not to do the thing you usually do that makes it difficult! Sounds very Zen? Well it is, in a way! During the learning process of recognising and inhibiting unconscious habits, your awareness becomes very attuned so that you have a more holistic sense of what you are doing or not, and which thoughts support or hinder your intention. That you gain good posture and a general sense of wellbeing is standard. Applying this to balancing a heavy horn in front of your body without pulling yourself out of alignment so that the muscles needed for airflow remain flexible, is of course a great bonus. The Alexander technique is learned with a teacher who teaches not only knowledge and concepts, but provides a direct experience through trained touch, releasing tensions and reorganising your body over time. This can be heard instantly by the improvement in sound quality. The technique is not only for musicians and can be applied to any activity.
KMT: We musicians are often reminded to breathe consciously, to use proper air support, to fill the instrument with air, etc. Our natural relationship with breath and breathing often suffers through stress and anxiety. Would you say that a particular breathing practice or meditation is the key to reducing stress and fear, or does confronting emotional blockages and anxieties help us to breathe more naturally and freely?
RA: In my own playing and teaching, I focus on the dynamic use of the outbreath, and the passive allowance of inhalation. This requires a clear mind to work against all the concepts (and physical reactions to those) I was taught about taking in air and support over the years. A silent inhalation and quiet mind allow me to stay in creative flow. I also work with a breathing tool so as to make air flow visible as can be seen in the video. I touched on this subject in my article in the February Horn Call.
KMT: Let’s move on to the topic that inspired this interview, saving and preserving the music in the book of horn solos brought out by the Fischer publishing house in Bremen. How did you first learn of this volume? What happened to the original music? What is your particular connection to the original location and era of this music?
RA: At the beginning of the new millennium, I performed and recorded Brahms symphonies on Viennese horns with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and fell in love with the city and the openness of its inhabitants. Bill Melton had given me a copy of this album shortly beforehand, and I was impressed by the collection in that it not only contains a myriad of unknown composers but also a wide range of music. All the typical genres of salon music are accounted for in various degrees of difficulty: romances, elegies, long virtuoso pieces, works using mutes or hand stopping for color, paraphrases or variations of contemporary folk songs such as the Loreley, short moving melodies with suggestive poetic titles, in short something for every level. Although mostly composed for valve horn, natural horn pieces from Gallay and others are interspersed showing a cross-section of the time when the horn was developing. The Schumann Adagio and Allegro and the Weber Concertino authorize and elevate the little-known composers to a higher status. A third of the album is comprised of shorter, simpler melodies, providing the amateur horn player with music in line with the romantic themes and ideals, to perform within the framework of a house concert.
The rest of the collection requires a high level of breath and dynamic control, endurance as well as virtuoso technique as prerequisites for performances by a professional. The original printing plates were sold to Benjamin in Hamburg in 1924, taken by the Nazis in 1932 then destroyed by bombings and fire in WW II. With the help of collectors, colleagues and research in libraries, I was able to find accompaniments for many of the works, sometimes looking in clarinet or violin files as some of the pieces were transcriptions or composed for horn or basset horn, a popular instrument of the time.
KMT: You mention that you had to approach this music with your whole body and had to re-think the way you move and breathe in order to bring it to life. What changed, exactly, and how did you make that shift?
RA: In accordance with historical methods, it is learning a controlled diminuendo that demands the most time and attention, being a process of releasing tension gradually. The key to this was (according to Alexander and historical singing methods) keeping the breastbone elevated when exhaling and not compressing or pushing the air. I had to re-educate my muscles to react differently and to consciously release effort at the end of a phrase to allow a passive inhalation, without gasping. This made the breath an integral part of the music and not a tool to achieve it. In attempting not to play static notes but to keep the dynamics ever-changing, even if almost imperceptibly, I had to always be a step ahead of the music, actively creating it anew, not allowing the sound to get out of control, which really extended my boundaries. The results surpassed my greatest expectations in that this way of playing somehow touches the listener deeply.
KMT: Period music unfolds its secrets when played on period instruments. Please tell us about the horn you used for this project.
RA: I actually used two horns, one with and one without valves as the collection has pieces for both. I had the great good fortune of playing on a Leopold Uhlmann horn that has a second engraving from A.E. Fischer on the bell, proving that this instrument was built and sold in Bremen! It is a simple F horn with rotary valves. When I first bought it, there were many leaks and the leadpipe was very large so that no mouthpiece would fit. It was not clear if it would be playable at all. The horn was restored slowly, so that I could understand the steps and the influence on the sound. I always ask myself “What kind of sound does this horn want to make?” and try not to force a pre-conceived notion on the instrument. After having the valves re-plated, it was no longer possible to use natural horn technique where one “floats freely” through the overtones (as needed for the Rummel for example), and I actually had some of the plating sanded down to make the valves somewhat leaky again! Some of the tiny leaks in the tubing I fixed myself using melted violin rosin, as was historically done. This avoided having to take the instrument apart, which it probably would not have survived. This horn is a pleasure to play with its large bell and dark, velvety sound. I chose a late, original Viennese natural horn built by Lorenz in Linz, because it has a similar construction, also assuming that in Germany, it was most likely that at the end of the 19th century, French instruments would not have been played. The recordings clearly show the similarity between valve and natural horn sound of the time and the difference is not as big as one would assume! For the piece by Gräfe, I played the Uhlmann/Fischer horn, using valves for the recitatives, but hand horn technique for the theme and variations.
KMT: How did the coronavirus affect your funding? How have you compensated for the loss of income?
RA: Before corona, I expected the funding to come together in that many of my colleagues would simply order a CD but most of them are free-lance musicians and find themselves, like myself, with a complete loss of income. Instead the universe provided in surprising ways: an ex-student whom I last saw 35 years ago when he was 16, contacted me out of the blue. He is now a successful lawyer. When he heard of the project, he was most generous. Also, an elderly lady now over 90 whom I had supported when her son was in a plane accident 30 years ago, insisted on refunding the money I had given her to help at that time. It touched me deeply knowing that things come around, that the actions that we take in a lifetime are not forgotten and that there is a circle of appreciation that connects us. Compensation? The crowdfunding was successful in that more than the amount needed was collected, refunding the recording costs of the last year and taking the edge off the financial stress of the crisis. Against all odds, the timing was perfect.
KMT: What was the most challenging aspect of preparing these recordings and scores? What brought you the most joy?
RA: A problem piece was “Le Baiser” by Gallay that is altered and shortened in the collection; it did not fit the original accompaniment that Anneke Scott provided. Eventually, my pianist Zvi Meniker composed parts in the style of Gallay so we could use the Fischer version. Zvi and I had both researched how Messa di Voce was used during this period and for the piano. Where crescendo and diminuendo are not possible on long tones, Zvi chose to interpret the markings as indications of rubato. This gave us a baseline for style where fluctuating tempo and dynamics were used as the main expressive elements. Zvi also plays preludes to some of the pieces, (even before the Schumann Adagio and Allegro!!) providing the listener with a closer historical experience of a typical salon concert. The Schumann also posed difficulties in that it is such a warhorse of our repertoire, with many great recordings by fantastic horn players and every talented student has performed it at least once in a recital! It was difficult to erase all these performances in my head and keep to our parameters. Choosing which works would be recorded was difficult not only because of the sheer number, but the practicability of what I can perform in a four-day recording period. I have worked as a featured soloist in Baroque recordings but this was a new situation for me and frankly, I could not perform this music all together in a concert. The endurance required on old instruments with original mouthpieces is considerably greater than on modern horn, but the joy comes with the rich full sound by using this equipment. I am deeply grateful that this project can come to fruition, bringing together so many aspects of my lifelong research on music, instruments, style, use of the breath and the Alexander technique.
KMT: What is next on the horizon for you, as much as any of us can know the answer to that question in these times?
RA: Although concerts and a production of Cosi van Tutte at the festival of Aix-en Provence this summer were cancelled, it will be resurrected as a concert for ARTE television. Mozart arias and Beethoven’s 5th Symphony with Thomas Hengelbrock and his Balthasar Neumann orchestra and are on the program. We are a group of dedicated musicians with a dynamic conductor and it is sure to be an exciting concert, even if we all have to be tested for Corona beforehand! More Beethoven is planned for the fall, including the 7th Symphony in Copenhagen and the Misa Solemnis later in Hannover. It is not sure if these concerts will happen, as social distancing is next to impossible in most church venues. Although festivals and concerts have been cancelled or the programs changed, I am staying positive, avoiding fear, and waiting to see what surprises are in store.
Renée Allen graduated from McGill University in Montreal and came to Germany in 1981 to study natural horn with Hermann Baumann. She played several years in the German opera orchestras of Mainz and Stuttgart before devoting herself to historical performance and the F.M. Alexander technique. She has taught natural horn at the conservatories of Leipzig, Freiburg and Wurzburg and has been teaching the Alexander technique since 1993.
She performs with Balthasar Neuman Ensemble, Anima Eterna, Concerto Köln, Freiburgerbarock Orchestra, Hannoverische Hofkapelle, La petite Bande, Concerto Copenhagen, Musica Antiqua Köln and can be heard on CD recordings with these ensembles.