New piece for horn & piano

I wrote this piece in 2022, during a series of recitals with Ben at major halls around Europe. These concerts were extremely important to both of us, and the musical experiences we had onstage left a lasting imprint on me. They also opened my mind and ears to the extraordinary tonal and expressive possibilities of the horn and piano combination, and made me want to write something that would exploit our strengths as players as well as connect to the rich musical heritage of some of the places we played.

The piece has a broad structural sweep similar to the larger of Chopin’s Ballades or Schumann’s Novelletten, with contrasting but related sections that – without being explicitly programmatic – imply a strong sense of narrative. The structure could be outlined as follows:

prelude – theme – waltz variations – barcarolle – toccata scherzando – recapitulation – epilogue

The brief prelude draws on the historical notion of ‘preluding’, whereby a musician improvises informally before beginning the piece proper. The theme that follows is lyrical and searching, and in fact it was Ben’s singing voice that I had in mind as I wrote here. He often sings rather than plays during rehearsals (to ‘save his lip’), and throughout the piece I tried to write in such a way that the nuanced vocal qualities of his playing would be showcased.

One of our recitals together was in the Musikverein in Vienna, and so the idea of including waltz music was irresistible to me. Once the theme has been stated, waltz gestures become the starting point for variations of increasing density. At the culminating point of these variations, the piano acts as a giant cimbalom, hammering out repeated notes that disperse into thick clouds of harmony through which the horn has to pierce. This music eventually gives way to a calm barcarolle (boat song), featuring the horn in its lowest register, evoking distant ships seen and heard across water. A rhythmically driven section (‘toccata scherzando’ – dancing, playful and virtuosic) emerges out of this, gathering momentum until it gets knocked off course and collides with material from earlier on in the piece. When the theme returns, it does so with greatly expanded texture, intensity and scope. Gradually, it rises higher and higher, and there is a feeling of incremental, hard won ascent. In the epilogue, this sense of climb and struggle is transformed into gliding ease.

The structure overall could also be heard as a kind of four-movement Sonata – 1. Allegro; 2. Calm slow movement (Barcarolle); 3. Scherzo; 4. Finale – where the movements flow into one another and share thematic material.

The title is borrowed from Robert Schumann (the second of his Fantasiestücke, op.12), whose music Ben and I play regularly. There are various allusions in my piece to specific works by Schumann and composers whose music he loved (Chopin and Schubert in particular). In the context of Schumann’s piano piece, ‘Aufschwung’ is usually translated as ‘Soaring’, which seemed an apt description for much of the horn writing in my piece as well as the feeling onstage during the concerts that inspired it. ‘Aufschwung’ can also be translated as ‘up-swing’, or ‘upturn’; these meanings connect in my mind to the sense of gathering optimism at a certain point in 2021/22, as live concerts began to be possible again after the Covid lockdowns.

The recording was made at Milton Court Concert Hall on 4th January 2023. Audio-only version available on request. Score and horn part available on request – contact here.