Hold Your Horn Up, Hold It Like a Man!

When I was in the Amsterdam airport yesterday, I bought a copy of the WSJ and read a review of a new book about learning to play one of the most difficult instruments in the orchestra. The book is called “A Devil to Play,” by British journalist Jasper Rees.

Writer Eric Felton, a favorite of mine who makes me jealous with his ability to describe and evoke, cites the author’s 40th birthday disillusionment with pop music and a life change that pushed him instead toward orchestral music featuring the French horn. He had tried learning it in high school, and suddenly found himself dragging his old horn out of the attic to give it another shot.

Rees describes his growing enthusiasm for the hard-to-play horn, and how he enrolls in a summer music camp in the US to learn at the hands of a tough German taskmaster with no mercy named Hermann Baumann.

Baumann yells at Rees, “Hold the horn up, hold it like a man!” Rees revels in the Marine-like tough love, and tries hard to learn a difficult passage, Mozart’s Third Horn Concerto, or K. 447. He recalls the trauma of a subpar high school performance as ‘public disembowling,’ so embarassing as it was to botch it so badly.

Felton compares the memoirs of late that dwell on addiction and affliction, to this bright and uplifting tale of musical redemption. “and turning an old foe into an old friend. Mr. Rees can finally hold his head, and his horn, high.”