1849: Schumann: Horn Quartet in F major, age 39

Mr. Peabody Says:

I taught brass for more than 10 years and I played euphonium from age 12 in bands and wind ensembles. As a teacher I know that it can take months to get beginning brass players to make a few really good sounding, clear notes, and French horn is the hardest to learn. But these guys make it sound easy.

The four players here are just amazing. This performance is a miracle. You could go to 1,000 brass concerts and you would never hear playing like this. I can’t stress this enough. And more important: from this you know that no one ever used horn better in symphonies than Schumann.

Paul van Zelm, Ludwig Rast, Rainer Jurkiewickz, Joachim Pöltl


  • 4 horns solo horns
  • piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons
  • 2 horns (opt.), 2 trumpets, 3 trombones
  • timpani
  • strings

The rest of the story:

Schumann’s work explores the possibilities of the newly developed valved French horn, which revolutionized the horn not long after its first appearance in the concert hall.

The most dangerous instrument to perform…

I believe this is the most difficult instrument to play in a modern orchestra. It’s truly devilish to play well. When it works, when you manage to master all the difficulties, no one but another brass player knows what you did.


Robert Schumann’s Konzertstück, Op. 86, for four horns and orchestra, was written in 1849 and first performed in February 1850 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. What this means that it was written a few years after the 2nd symphony, which I just fell in love with tonight. I kept hearing things in that symphony that reminded me of this, since all composers have scales and chords that are their signatures. So in this period with anxiety and depression somehow he wrote this manic, joyful music that seems to be nothing but a celebration of life. Just amazing.

Schumann was a weak orchestrator?

A friend of mine said that years ago, and at the time I had no idea he was blindly repeating pundits who frankly know nothing, and I swear I’d like to punch the next person who says this. Schumann was a close friend of Mendelssohn, know for his brilliant orchestrations, and there is no argument about that. But Schumann’s writing is criticized for being to “thick” or “muddy”. If it sounds that way it’s because of inept playing and conducting. Schumann’s orchestration is very good, and the best players and conductors in the world make it sound that way. I’d bet $100 on the spot that Mendelssohn did not think his work was weak.

Brilliant writer for brass…

You can hear it everywhere in Schumann’s music, and how he got such mastering of brass writing is a mystery I’ve never seen answered. Normally you expect brass writing like this only from a brass specialist, for instance someone like John Williams. Brahms could never write anything like this for brass, and he didn’t even try. To find others who had this mastery you have to get to people like Dvorak, Wagner and Richard Struass who wrote fantastic concertos for horn.

So hard, it was unplayable for most players:

It’s a virtuoso showpiece for the horn, and today there are a ton of players who can make it sound very good, though not as good as the group I picked here. But for many years it  was considered unplayable. Why? Because it took many decades for new players to fully master the technique of using valves, which was new. The average modern horn player can play higher notes and nail them more consistently. They have better technique, endurance and overall better training, so when you hear a live performance like this you have no idea how hard it is. You have no idea that when someone in a concert hits a “clam”, it’s almost always a brass player, and most often a French horn player. Every note is a challenge. Playing horn live is like a high-wire act. If you screw up you don’t die, but if it’s bad you might temporarily wish you could.


3 thoughts on “1849: Schumann: Horn Quartet in F major, age 39”

  1. I’ve always loved the French horn. This is lovely. A thought: If a solo instrument is accompanied it’s a concerto – so could we say this is a “French horn quartet concerto” ?

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