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A mournful cry of 'ahhh'

The curvy English horn requires its player to pack a lot of wind -- the better to produce those sad sounds. And watch out for the razor blades.

September 12, 2004|Constance Meyer | Special to The Times

Decades ago, Ripley's Believe It or Not clued readers in about the English horn. The instrument, it declared, is "neither English nor a horn."

In fact, there's little agreement about where the name of this double-reed woodwind, a member of the oboe family, came from -- only consensus that it's a misnomer.

Good luck if you query an Englishman about it. Show him a picture and he might well correct you: "Oh, you mean the cor anglais."

But as Carolyn Hove, the English horn player with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, says with a laugh: "It wouldn't take much for cor angle" -- a possible reflection in French that the instrument was originally angled to make playing it on horseback easier -- "to become cor anglais. It's probably one of those evolution things, where one thing led to another and it's just one giant misunderstanding."

Certainly many people recognize the oboe, straight and black with its silver keys, when it plays an A so the members of the orchestra can tune their instruments. Far fewer listeners can distinguish its curvy cousin. To cognoscenti, though, the English horn's sound -- its urgent plangency -- is bolder, deeper, richer.

"A brass player uses a mouthpiece," Hove says, "then buzzes his lips. With the double-reed instruments, it's the two reeds vibrating against each other between the lips and the airstream that make the tone."

Oboist and English hornist Kim Gilad, a member of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and a busy freelancer, notes that in film scores, the English horn is "usually used in sad, mysterious or poignant scenes, much the way the sax is used in sexy ones."

To Earle Dumler, who plays oboe and English horn with Los Angeles Opera, the sound is "mournful." Dumler remembers the late actor-producer Michael Landon's words to him at a Christmas party for TV's "Little House on the Prairie," on which he played for 11 years: "Earle, as long as they're crying and dying, you'll be working."


Curve makes a difference

At first glance, the English horn resembles an overgrown oboe. But it has two things an oboe doesn't: First there's the bell shape at the bottom, which looks, if you've spent any time around school science labs, like the bulge in a snake that has recently devoured a mouse. Second is the reed holder -- the bocal (rhymes with "vocal"). Hove describes it as a "little angled metal tube, smaller at the top, a little larger as it goes down. It's got a curve to it and some cork around the outside of the bottom, which goes into the reed well."

"This curve is one of the things that changes the sound," she explains, "as opposed to the oboe, which is a straight shot."

The English horn's greater heft, it turns out, is part of its appeal to many players: Specialists refer to the comfort of its size. Whereas the soprano-voiced oboe is petite, its tenor-voiced relative, pitched five notes lower, is a better fit in certain musicians' hands.

Conversely, not all oboists learn to play the English horn because, as Gilad notes, "it's quite a bit heavier, and they find it uncomfortable. Some people get tendinitis in their arms, so they specialize on oboe and audition for those jobs." And some English horn specialists, like Stuart Horn, feel "constricted" playing the oboe. Although the busy Horn won a Grammy this year on oboe with Southwest Chamber Music in the small ensemble performance category, "with the English horn," he says, "I feel I can sing."

Still, many orchestras don't have an English horn chair; the second oboist simply "doubles" on the instrument. Dumler, for example, hails from a small town in Kansas where, he says, "two things were big in the school system -- basketball and music." At the beginning of sixth grade, he recalls, he was asked what instrument he wanted to learn. His confident reply: "Oboe." Thus he was perplexed when the teacher "came out with a little case. I had it confused in my mind with the bassoon. But I was much too proud to admit my error, so I stuck with it.

"I was always attracted to strange, obscure instruments," he adds, but "the high school didn't even own an English horn because there was no one who could play it."

He finally got his hands on one when he went to study at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where he also found that "oboe players could be very arrogant: 'Play the English horn? Certainly not.' " The result? "They stayed home -- and I worked."

Joan Elardo has held the English horn chair with the Long Beach Symphony since 1987, after a number of years playing oboe frequently with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And becoming known for her English horn playing, she acknowledges, produced mixed feelings: "I just kept getting called for English horn, and it made my oboe persona envious. In my head, I was always a principal oboe player, and the English horn was like a poor relation. You played English horn because you weren't good enough to play first oboe, right?"

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