Advice on Messiaen’s Appel Interstellaire

I was recently asked to provide my advice on learning Olivier Messiaen’s “Appel Interstellaire”, the solo-horn sixth movement of his Des canyons aux étoiles. I’ve performed this a number of times on recitals and most recently for a small electronic music showcase (for this particular performance, some very nice reverb was applied in real-time). My (highly subjective) advice follows:

1. Use whatever tool(s) you can to feel comfortable with the harmonies. Work, note by note singing at the piano; play with artificial reverb that allows you to hear the harmonies that you’re playing; play into a piano with the sustain pedal held down (although, contrary to popular belief, I have seen no indication that this is requested in the score for performance). Whatever else you decide for interpretation, this will have the biggest impact on your audience.

2. Due in part to Messiaen’s (estate’s) preference that the Appel only be performed in context, the part is only available as a rental with the rest of the work. The score is available for purchase, but the horn part is non-transposed (i.e., C alto). Consider writing out a transposition for yourself—by hand. I’ve done this once or twice; I’ve also transposed it using notation software, but the physical act of writing can be helpful to the brain, as it bridges the auditory, visual, and tactile senses.

3. As others have noted, translate the French instructions! A few of my personal gripes with others’ interpretations (even among the best recordings I’ve heard) have to do with ignoring or disregarding Messiaen’s words.

3.a. Many performers (especially in dead acoustic spaces) don’t wait very long during the “long’ rests, which in my opinion rushes the flow of the piece and connects the phrases too closely. Allow for the space implied by a long silence!

3.b. Also, to me, “comme la trompe de chasse / doigté de cor en Ré” means to play like the French cor de chasse players—and on a natural D horn fingering (and so with the naturally-tuned 11th harmonic). Brash, wide open, and (so far as you can retain control of the notes) very loud and perhaps even with a wide vibrato, like this:

3.c. I have always interpreted “sons bouchés, en echo” to mean half-stopped rather than fully-stopped, and I have found fingerings that allow me to play that way. If you are going to play fully stopped (which is both safer and more conventional), I think it should be soft enough that you avoid any of the edge or rasp that full-stopping can give. That said, consider learning to play it half-stopped! Messiaen showcases an incredibly wide range of colors that we can produce on the horn in this short piece, and half-stopping produces a better echo effect than fully stopping.

3.d. I personally interpret the squiggly line as a suggested contour, not as permission for whatever noises a performer might wish to produce. Others may disagree. In any case, I have read that Messiaen intends that to sound like an intergalactic tranmitter, and I’ve always imagined it to be the most personal part of the piece: it is the cry to the heavens, hoping that there is something out there listening to us. Also, if you use Google Translate, it is useful to note that “son détimbré” does not mean “it’s detimbered”, but rather “discolored sound”; a subtle but annoying quirk of automated translation is a preference for a pronoun to complete an incomplete sentence.

4. As others have suggested, do listen to as many recordings as you can. There are some that bother me deeply (most typically by abusing the things I mention above). My three favorites: Michael Thompson’s interpretation seems to me to be the most true to the written page; Jean-Jacques Justafré’s performance is likewise commendable; Georges Barboteau’s performance may be the most poetic and elegant I’ve heard, but his tempi are dramatically slower than Messiaen’s markings indicate.

5. Lastly, the Appel was originally written as a standalone piece, in commemoration of the life of a fellow composer, Jean-Pierre Guézec. It is a heartfelt piece requiring patience, contemplation, wisdom, and compassion. Play it like a prayer or a meditation, not just as a virtuoso work, and I think you’ll be well on the way to doing the piece justice.

Creative Commons License
Advice on Messiaen’s Appel Interstellaire by Josiah Boothby is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to share this—in whole, in part, or revised—but please credit me if you do. If you want to use any substantial portion of this commercially (e.g., if you plan to make money off of it), please ask me first! We should be able to work something out!

Horn Range

My attempt to keep this brief enough to make it as simple as it seems in my head has been a failure, but I suppose I’ve tried to make this document do three things at once. I wanted to outline the basic registers of the range of the horn along with some timbral and technical considerations that a composer or performer may face. I tried to provide enough detail in doing so that a composer or arranger may make reasonably well-informed decisions about writing for the horn. And finally, although I tried to keep it fairly general, I want it to be something people can look at to help them write for me, so certain lines were drawn in places that are most comfortable for me, as a player. That all said, here is what I have to say about the range of the horn:

Transposing for the horn is simply a matter of writing the notes a perfect fifth higher than they sound. There is an old, out-dated convention about bass clef,1 but I would generally suggest using the same transposition regardless of clef. Horn players generally prefer ledger lines in treble clef than in bass clef, so music in the mid- and mid-low registers are probably better left in treble clef; C below middle C is about as low as my eye can handle ledger lines.

I would say that most horn players of any skill can play mostly anything you throw at them within the range of about three octaves, so long as composers respect our need for rest and consider some basic limitations that the instrument imposes on us (many of which are outlined on this page). Though some hornists may have slightly different edges on the range, this is about where my practical range lays:

Practical Range

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(Note the clef preferences above and the acceptability overlap between bass and treble. I considered fixing the ‘sounding’ line so that it would be easier to read (i.e., fewer ledger lines), but ultimately decided to leave it: if you write in C and let software transpose your music, this may be useful.)


Detailed Break-Down

[image of music]

The extreme low register is impractical: the response is typically very slow, projection is unpredictable and generally negligible, and sometimes the notes simply refuse to speak, and many players simply cannot play them. They can be useful for timbral purposes and I enjoy playing in that range, but suggest using such low notes on the horn sparingly, if at all. Muting, whether with fiber/wood mutes or with the hand, exacerbates the problems of this part of the horn.

The low register shares some of the problems of the lowest notes, but is usable. Avoid fast technical passages down here. Most horn players will have problems with muting in this range (especially with the hand), no matter the tempo. I have often been a low horn player, and have a special love for playing down here—and have developed some greater proficiency in this area (including hand muting).

The mid-low, middle, and mid-high registers are often what people think of when they think of the horn, and our instruments are optimized to sound good here. As the notes get higher, they get brighter, projection becomes easier and more pronounced, and response is quicker; but higher is also, typically, more tiring, so we need more breaks. Faster passages become more possible, both for the reasons listed as well as the fact that the overtone series gives us more options for fingerings. Hand muting techniques have their greatest possibilities here, and I suggest their use whenever makes sense for coloristic and expressive considerations (though a more full discussion of hand muting should be given its own document!). In short, this portion of the horn’s range is the horn player’s bread and butter.

The high registers are tiring, but have a brilliant, dramatic sound. As with the lowest registers, dynamics become more limited—though in this case, the notes become harder to play quietly—and intonation can be less predictable. Hand muting in the higher registers becomes problematic due to the narrowing of the harmonic series, but a good hornist can generally make it work. For the sake of your horn players’ faces, please use the highest notes very sparingly; long phrases of whole notes and half notes up there are about the most tiring things that we can be given.


Creative Commons License
Horn Range by Josiah Boothby is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to share this—in whole, in part, or revised—but please credit me if you do. If you want to use any substantial portion of this commercially (e.g., if you plan to make money off of it), please ask me first! We should be able to work something out!

  1. Before valves were invented (and then for another couple generations after), notes in the bass clef were transposed an octave lower than the same notes in treble clef. There were good reasons for it at the time, but for modern purposes, keeping transposition consistent seems more appropriate.