Kismet Story: An American Discovers the Vienna Horn

Through the generosity of the Tokyo Foundation’s Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leader’s Fellowship Fund, SYLFF Chamber Music Seminars have annually brought together 12 to 15 students from Juilliard, the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris, and the Universität für Musik und Darstellende Kunst Wien since 2006 for an intensive week of rehearsals, coaching, and performance. Hosted in turn by each school, Vienna’s program for the October 2009 exchange included two major works near and dear to the hearts of wind players. When I saw this, I immediately grabbed the phone to ask my colleague in Vienna if Juilliard’s horn player, Alex Kienle, might play those works, but not on his American-made Conn 8-D instrument, rather on a Viennese pump horn. My friend’s voice broke into charming gales of laughter as she said, “No, it is not possible. An American cannot play a Viennese pump horn with only a few days of work; it takes years of training.” But I persisted. Weeks of negotiation followed, and when at last the word came from Vienna that the answer was now “yes, ” the concerned Viennese insisted nonetheless that he be prepared to play on his American instrument ... just in case. Less than 24 hours before our departure, their deep skepticism was underscored with the arrival of a final e-mail reminding me to make absolutely certain that Alex bring his American horn with him. His story follows. But I shall beat him to the punch line, for while all four of our Juilliard students won over the Austrians with their artistry, it was “Alex the American, ” Wiener pumpenhorn under his arm, who embodied a new sort of brotherhood with this unexpected intercultural exploit. 

Horn student Alexander Kienle performed on the Vienna horn during a music seminar in Austria. 


—Bärli Nugent, Assistant Dean and Director of Chamber Music

My first evening in Vienna was blissful. Bassoonist Ben Moermond, violist Megan Griffin, pianist Hong Xu, Bärli Nugent, and I arrived at the airport on September 27, fatigued by the flight from New York and excited to meet our French and Viennese colleagues and begin rehearsing. The Austrian coordinator for the trip, a pleasant and accomplished woman named Dorothea Riedel, greeted us at the airport with a smile on her face and horn case in her hand: a Viennese horn from the instrument collection of the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien. We piled into a van and drove to our hotel, where I spent my first hour with the horn. 

It was love at first play. I loved the sound—compact, ringing, rustic; the feel of blowing into the instrument; the lightness of the horn in my hands. After a few minutes of warming up and finding a fitting mouthpiece from my collection, I played for Bärli and Dorothea. They approved of the sound, assuaging my fear of sounding like the musical equivalent of a green, bug-eyed monster. 

Around the world the majority of horn players use the double-horn, which is essentially two horns in one—an F-horn and a B-flat horn that share the same leadpipe and bell. The B-flat part of the instrument gives the player additional security in the high register, whereas the F side has a more desirable sound. My training at Juilliard has been exclusively on this instrument. Viennese horns, on the other hand, have only the F side. They have less mass than double horns and are far more resistant, making them notoriously difficult to play; but the sound is very light and smooth. 

My affair with the Viennese horn began in the summer of 2002, when I was 17 years old. Larry Johnson, a horn player in the Oregon Symphony and one of my childhood mentors, runs a weeklong brass seminar in northeastern Oregon called Brass at Wallowa Lake. Larry introduced us to true Viennese playing with a CD unremarkably titled Vienna Horn, a recording released in a spurt of inter-European rivalry after the success of another CD, The London Horn Sound. Both albums hold a dozen or so tracks of popular and classical works arranged for large horn ensemble with percussion. If the London players popularized the genre, the Viennese mastered it. They play as one mind, one sound. From the moment I heard that recording, I knew how I wanted to sound when I grew up. 

My first two days of rehearsal in Vienna were difficult. As much as I loved the sound color of the Viennese instrument, playing it felt like blowing through a garden hose with a kink in it. Every articulation flopped, my intonation was inconsistent, and I was cracking notes for no good reason. The mouthpiece I was using was not working well enough. At the end of rehearsal, I asked an Austrian colleague if she had a mouthpiece that I could try. She lent me one made by Franz Windhager, a mouthpiece-maker specializing in Viennese horn, and the difficulties cleared up. 

As the week progressed I found myself becoming even more enamored of the horn. The sound was exactly what I wanted: at loud dynamics the Viennese horn is brassier than American horns, yet when played softly it blends effortlessly with woodwinds. Never before had I experienced such pleasure playing horn. The music coming out of the instrument was, many times, precisely what I hoped to convey. I imagined that the Viennese horn and I were meant to be together.

For our concert at the Esterhazy estate in Eisenstadt on October 4, I performed in two chamber works: Haydn’s Divertimento in B-flat Major, Hob. II/46, and the Beethoven Septet in E-flat Major, Op. 20. Playing the Haydn was a breeze: it was a straightforward horn part with no technical challenges. During the Beethoven, however, I rode to battle. The hall was hot, and the pitch of the instrument rose. The scherzo movement begins with a descending E-flat arpeggio, and I missed the first note of it from every possible direction—the first time, from below; on the repeat, from above; and at the de capo from below again! On my double horn I can call in reinforcements for dire circumstances; alternate fingerings that make notes more secure. The Viennese horn has no such safety device, and I paid the price. 

It was a worthy price. The Viennese value beauty above accuracy, and in spite of the flaws, the performance was more exciting and colorful than it would have been on my own instrument. Thanks to the generosity of the Tokyo Foundation and the hard work of Bärli Nugent and Dorothea Riedel, I experienced a new world of musical color and excitement. To hear the Vienna horn, I recommend catching the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall on February 25—the sound is otherworldly. 

—Alexander Kienle, Second-Year Master’s Student


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