FRENCH SUITE for solo horn
Program notes by the composer
The French Suite was written for Douglas Hill, hornist and teacher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in early 1982 through a series of fortuitous, but eventually rewarding, circumstances. I had been commissioned to write a horn concerto for Jon Boen and the Orchestra of Illinois (members of Chicago's Lyric Opera orchestra) and had heard through the grapevine of a book of extended techniques for the horn which Doug was writing. Hoping to include some of these unusual techniques in my horn concerto, I asked Doug if I could get an advance copy of his book. Doug made a "deal" with me; he would send me a copy of his manuscript along with the tape of the horn examples he had recorded, provided I write a solo horn piece he could play in the approaching International Horn Society convention in Avignon, France. I wrote the piece, Doug played it, and Doug even ended up playing first chair in the horn section of my Horn Concerto, replacing Jon Boen who, of course, was saving himself for the concerto's solo part (horn "section" is a term one should not take too literally, because at the end of the concerto the four sectional horns actually join the soloist at center stage for a real "Jan" session).
The four movements of the suite partake liberally of the special effects Doug had researched for his book, and the venue for the anticipated first performance gave the work its title and form: four short movements in the tempo scheme of slow-fast-slow- fast after the prototypical French suites so beautifully frozen in time by Johann Sebastian Bach. The opening movement, Fantaisie, includes the most advanced performance techniques of the work, and is actually a recitative in which the hornist functions alternately as melodic soloist and harmonic accompaniment. The following Courante features fast mixed rhythms surrounding a slow, lyrical, muted middle section. The third movement, Sarabande, owes much to the dances so often associated with Baroque instrumental suites, its wistful con sordino lines apostrophized by a little "soft shoe" suggested by a hairbrush on the hornist's mute. The concluding Fugue requires the soloist to function as four different polyphonic parts at four different dynamics, registers, and tone colors, eventually ending the work in a blaze of glory.