Monday, September 28, 2009

Light Cavalry Ovituary

I'm amazed that Dennis Brain, one of the finest 20th-century hornists, was only 36 years old when was killed in the crash of his Triumph TR2 in 1957.

As a (very difficult) lark, Brain famously played a horn concerto by Leopold Mozart [Wolfgang's father] on a length of rubber hose fitted with a mouthpiece and trimmed with garden shears to the correct tuning.

Brain performed this amusement during one of the kooky Music Festivals thrown by Gerard Hoffnung.

Hoffnung was only 34 years old when he died on this date exactly fifty years ago: 28 September 1959. In a grotesque homonymic coincidence, it was a brain hemorrhage that killed him.

Here's one of those brief Oxford DNB "Life of the Week" biographies about Hoffnung that will last a short time. The Wikpedia entry should be up longer.

Which makes me consider the death of classical music familiarity. Now that few recognize compositions by Wagner, Haydn, Brahms, Dvorak -- or even lighter stuff that used to be in cartoons, like von Suppé, Ponchielli, Rossini, fewer will make jokes out of them. I don't care greatly for the light music (as opposed to some of the "heavier" stuff) but I will miss the jokes.

Speaking of jokes, Hoffnung's instrument was the tuba and I'm sure he would have enjoyed a practical joke that made the rounds, perhaps apocryphally. It's true that Anthony Braxton wrote his Composition No. 19 for 100 Tubas in 1971, and the existence of the piece was famous among brass players. Purportedly some prankster called every tuba player in the New York musicians union and hired them to rehearse the piece at a specified place and time.

Of course, the tuba players showed up, scores of them milling about with their unwieldy instruments and ... there would be no actual rehearsal. Just a lot of irate tubists.

The piece sat unperformed for decades. Until, in 2006, the Bang on a Can festival recruited tubas (and Sousaphones, double- and single-belled euphoniums, Wagner Tubas, contrabass bugles, helicons, and perhaps others) and put on an outdoor performance in Manhattan.

It looked something like this:

Video of the performance is here. It's a serious avant-garde piece and the performers mill about with the audience. Braxton conducts, such as it is.

As with the Hoffnung Music Festival performances -- you had to be there.

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