Horn  Player  Dale  Clevenger
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Maybe there are others or maybe it is just me, but even though my primary instrument in high school and college was the bassoon, I always loved the horn.  I am a woodwind player through and through, but for some strange reason, this particular brass instrument caught my imagination both then and now.  Perhaps it was the opening of the First Concerto by Richard Strauss which many of us sang out as a greeting to any and all other music students.  As a Wagnerian, maybe it was the Siegfried Horn Call (the full version from Act Two of Siegfried, not the truncated section featured in The Rhein Journey of Götterdämmerung).   Or maybe it was simply the full group that was featured in the Bruckner symphonies the CSO played under Solti.  That brass section, acknowledged as the best in the world, remains the Glory of the Chicago Symphony, and anchors our orchestra as it now heads to new triumphs under Riccardo Muti.  Big brass.  LOUD brass!  That is what everyone craves and is treated to on a regular basis.

Formerly called the French Horn, the single name
Horn was recommended by the International Horn Society in 1971, and is generally accepted by players and most musicians in all areas of performance and reception.  My own education included learning most of the orchestral and band instruments, so eventually I did tackle the horn.  It is pitched in F, but the physics of that did not really hit me until I started trying to coordinate what I saw on the page with what I heard in my ear.  My so-called “perfect pitch” is reliable most of the time, and it bugs me when I see a note and dont hear that pitch.  The basic clarinet is in B-flat, and I can adjust and compensate for the whole tone error.  But down a fifth???  That is just too much for me to handle.  So I played the horn by myself a bit.  I learned the Siegfried Horn Call, but abandoned any thoughts of participating even in a “Bozo Band” just for laughs.

No matter; the admiration remains, and the subject of this interview is one of the best in the world.  Dale Clevenger has been Principal Horn of the Chicago Symphony since 1966.  The performances and recordings by the CSO feature his artistry, and he even has a few solo discs of concertos and chamber music.

Having done interviews with a number of the important players over the years, it was in the fall of 2003 that I asked to speak with Clevenger.  He was about to give the world premiere of the Horn Concerto by John Williams, and even though that event needed no extra publicity, it was appropriate that I do a radio program to herald the event.  Kind and gracious, Clevenger arrived for the chat and we discussed this brand new work as well as other topics of mutual interest.

Here is that conversation . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You’re going to be doing the Horn Concerto by John Williams.  Is this the first concerto that you have given the world premiere?

Dale Clevenger:    I think so.  I’ve done Chicago premieres including Colloquies by William Schuman, but it was done in New York before.  [See my Interview with William Schuman.]

BD:    Are there any pitfalls or special ideas you need to look for in creating a work?

DC:    For the composer, or for me?

BD:    For you.  You’re the horn player.  Aren’t you creating it?

DC:    No, I will recreate it.  He created it.

BD:    Don’t you create it at the premiere?

DC:    I’m interpreting those black notes, and therefore, yes, I suppose you could be correct that I am creating an interpretation of what was in his mind.

BD:    Is it easier or harder when you don’t have anything to look back on, any previous interpretations to call on?

DC:    I suppose it is somewhat harder.  I’m making my own interpretation the first time around.  That sort of goes without saying.  There’s nobody to listen to!

BD:    So they’re mostly your decisions, or are you trying to do what the composer says?

DC:    We’ve had quite a few chats on the phone, and a couple in Los Angeles.  I went out there and spent quite a bit of time with him.  We spent two and a half hours playing through the piece, and seeing what was playable and what was not, and what he liked about his own stuff and suggestions that I had.  My suggestions were more like,
“Why not write this section in the treble clef instead of the bass clef?  The piece is playable, but there’s a couple of sectionsone movement of it is very challenging.

BD:    Challenging for you, or challenging for any horn player?

DC:    It would be challenging for anybody.  

BD:    Did he write some special things just for you, because he knew you could do them?

DC:    No, I doubt that.  You’d have to ask him that.  I don’t think so, but it’s written for me and dedicated to me.  This was a long time coming.  We’ve been after this concerto for several years now.

BD:    It took that long to just bring it to fruition?

DC:    To get a composer who was significant in and of himself, in his own right, to do it.  People other than I had asked Bernstein, for instance.  Before he could even give an answer, he died.  So it’s not something that just anybody would have been asked to do.  There probably could have been at least two or three very good horn concertos written.

BD:    So why don’t you get them all written, instead of just the one?

DC:    Somebody has to pay for that!  [Both laugh]  And that’s not me.

BD:    You look for someone who will commission the work?

DC:    Yeah.  The Chicago Symphony did.  I don’t know if it was somebody specific, like the Schmidt family which has done things before.  But I don’t know, actually, where the money comes from.  Williams is not doing it for the money.  [Both laugh]  You can’t compare what he will make.  He said, “This is not for the money.”

BD:    He just makes sure that it doesn’t cost him any out-of-pocket expenses for copying parts?

DC:    Even that wouldn’t bother him.  He is such a nice man; really, really nice!  I have enjoyed getting to know him and spend time with him, and chat with him, dine with him, play golf with him, and play his piece.

BD:    I assume you’re pleased with what he has come up with?

DC:    Oh, yeah.  Oh, yeah!

BD:    Are you going to be surprised when you hear a tune or a little fragment of this in a film three or four years from now?

DC:    I wouldn’t be surprised.  He will keep his eye open for it and be the major beneficiary!  But this is not film music; it’s his impressions of medieval life.

BD:    So it’s the brand new looking at the
brand old?

DC:    Right.  There are some subtitles of the movements which suggest an impression.  That’s all; they’re not a story.  We play the music and the audience puts the story to it.  When I play a Mozart concerto, from my mind I’m creating three sections of an opera.

BD:    Do you have ideas in your head that create pictures, or do you let the audience then make their own pictures?

DC:    I have my own, and they can make their own.

BD:    Which ones are right?

DC:    Neither.  Neither is right; neither is wrong.  It just is.  You don’t have to talk in terms of what’s right.  Talk in terms of what’s good, what’s enjoyable.

BD:    What is it that makes a piece of music good, or even great?

DC:    Well, I asked him.  I told him my ideas of what I think would be good for the concerto and for him as the composer, and in doing so, I looked at what makes the Mozart concertos good.  Mozart wrote them for a specific person and for that person’s talents, and they are gems.  The same goes for the Strauss horn concertos.  The first one was written for his father, and the second one was written for Dennis Brain.  That’s my understanding of both of them.  He had the various talents of each of those performers in mind.  The Britten Serenade was also written for Dennis Brain.  For me, the Britten Serenade is one of the greatest pieces of any kind, concertos or otherwise, written in the twentieth century.  It’s extremely listenable and it’s very challenging!

BD:    Does the audience understand the first and last movements which are supposed to be on a natural horn, with the out of tune notes?

DC:    They don’t have to understand it.  It can be explained to them if they read the program notes, and usually that stuff is in there.  But I said to Williams that if he writes a piece, my wish list is that it be audience-friendly.  I think all of his music is audience-friendly.  It’s not pots and pans, and effects and so forth.  There’s some interesting effects in this piece, but it’s not a whole piece of effects.  And it is playable.  If it’s not playable, it would have a very short shelf life
like much of the contemporary music which we play.  It’s too bad, but...  I had a very interesting audience with Giulini about two years ago in Milano, and he asked me if we still did a lot of contemporary music.  I said, “Yes Maestro, we do,” and he shook his head.  This is a ninety year old man who’s been conducting since he was twenty-five or so.  He said, “No future.”

BD:    [Shocked]  No future of music???

DC:    No future in contemporary music.  Now, I have to disagree with him.  He’s basing it on all that he has heard;
the hundreds and thousands of pieces which survive, and which people want to hear and musicians want to play.  It’s probably been that way ever since Mozart!  So, what is audience-friendly?  There are twenty-five hundred people in every major city who will sit and listen to a whole concert of nothing but atonal, effectual, contemporary music, plus the critics because they think they have to.  I’m being a bit facetious, but if we didn’t listen to it, we wouldn’t find out what’s actually good and worthy, and what is not going to have a shelf life.

BD:    Do we not have to sort through all of it to find the gems?

DC:    It’s such a dichotomy of what must be and what should be.  I don’t have to like it all, but if we don’t play it, you won’t find out if it’s good or not.  To me, this piece is playable.  It’s going to be very listenable and enjoyable.  And it’s playable with an orchestra or a chamber orchestra or a piano, which exponentially gives him more possibilities of performances.  It’s playable by very talented conservatory students, as well.

BD:    Is it going to please you when two or three, or ten or twenty, or two hundred horn players take this piece to learn it and perform it?

clevengerDC:    Sure, but I’m not the one to be pleased; he’s the one.

BD:    Oh, you must get some pleasure out of that!

DC:    Oh, sure.  It’s nice to do it first.  I wanted a piece which would really make a difference in the horn repertoire.

BD:    There doesn’t seem to be a lot of great horn repertoire.

DC:    A lot of contemporary composers write things that are so hard that only a very few people can play them.

BD:    What advice do you have for a composer
, not necessarily John Williams, but any composer who wants to write a sonata or a concerto for the horn?

DC:    They need to know something about the horn.  They need to know what’s playable and what’s not, and what’s a good effect.  They need to study it.

BD:    Should they take a few lessons?

DC:    At least listen and talk with somebody.  One of the hardest, most difficult horn concertos was written by a horn player, a very famous one, whose name I’m not going to mention, but it got a very short shelf life because it’s so hard that nobody can play it.

BD:    Could he play it?

DC:    Maybe.  Even I could write something that’s impossible...

BD:    [Interjecting]  Anyone could write something that’s impossible!

DC:    ...but that doesn’t prove anything.  The bottom line is it’s not going to get played!

BD:    So what is the ultimate purpose of music?

DC:    That the listener, as well as the player, the performer, gets some kind of joy in reproducing these black notes on the page into sound, and that’s reasonably pleasant to listen to.  That’s very arbitrary, because what is pleasant at the time of writing or performing may or may not be pleasant years later.  Only time will tell that.

BD:    Isn’t that part of our job, for each successive generation has to sift through all of it?

DC:    Yeah.  My part in this is, of course, to play the piece, but also to get a fine composer to write it.

BD:    Was it your part to play the piece, or to play the piece brilliantly?

DC:    Both!  I’ll try, you know.  The first time around will be interesting.  He would like to record it; with whom, it’s not certain right now.  That has to do with time and schedules and money.

BD:    I assume if he asks you, though, you will gladly accept.

DC:    Oh, there’s not a question he wants me to record it.  But that means I’ve got to keep it in my fingers.

BD:    In your fingers, or in the embouchure?

DC:    Both.  That’s a euphemistic term.

BD:    In brass playing there’s so much to deal with in the embouchure, even more so than the woodwinds.

DC:    I don’t know that I could say that.  It would be impossible for me to say that, as a matter of fact, because I don’t play a woodwind or a string, and only if I did would I know if it’s any harder.  But I do know that the metal that we put up to our face is a constant; that the manufacture of that metal
the shape and the various shapes within itare just a whole series of compromises in order to be able to accomplish, to play high, low, loud, soft, short, long.  Basically it’s a piece of metal that you put to your face.  When you put it on your face, the muscle tissue and the air that flows through the lips is an enormous variable!  And it’s a different variable every day.  I’m not the same any two days in a row.  To try to make that as much of a constant as possible is a part of my mission.

BD:    Do you ever wish that the embouchure could just always be the same?

DC:    [Smiling broadly]  Oh, ho, ho!  Don’t I!  [Both laugh]  Yes!  I tell my students I don’t play by feeling, which is not exactly true; I certainly do a little bit, but I don’t feel the same two days in a row
physically, mentally, emotionally.

BD:    There must be some muscular memory in there a little bit.

DC:    Sure, there’s lots of muscular memory.  But if you play primarily by how it feels on your face, you’re opening yourself to potential problems.  When it does really feel different, and you have to play, and your mind is concentrating on how it feels rather than how it sounds, there are problems that will abound.

BD:    Can you really hear yourself and hear the way it sounds?  Don’t you have to step away a bit from the horn to actually hear the sound?

DC:    We hear ourselves in a really good concert hall several different ways.  You hear immediately what’s coming out of the bell, which is not what the audience hears.  It has to do with perspective.  I like my students to listen to the orchestra from behind the orchestra, and if they happen to hear a performance twice, then listen out front to hear the difference.  There is a big difference.  We play the same, approximately, and they’re hearing different.  Their perspective is quite different.  In a wonderful concert hall, it sounds good every way.  What comes out of the bell sounds good, the reflected sound around us sounds good, the sound that goes out into the audience and comes back to us sounds good.  You have all those possibilities, but no performer can ever hear themselves the way an audience does.  You experience it only by your imagination.

BD:    So you have to adjust all the time?

DC:    All the time.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve made a number of recordings.  Do you play the same for the microphone as you do for a live audience?

DC:    Well, you try to.  In the course of my career, and with any musician who does any recording, you learn something about the kind of sound that you want, ideally, and where the microphones need to be to get that.  Basically, horns play with a reflected sound; trumpets and trombones have a direct sound.  So the microphones need to be carefully placed in order to hear a reflected sound the way an audience hears it.  How the engineer records me is rather crucial.  I usually give my opinion about how I want it to sound, how it ought to sound.  If they don’t let me, I just play and do my best.

BD:    Are you pleased with the recordings that have been issued so far?

clevengerDC:    Yes, in general.  In my opinion, the best sound of the recorded concertos that I have done are the Haydn concertos.  It was a phenomenal recording studio, just a small dancehall in Vienna called Casino Zogernitz.  If you drove past this place, you wouldn’t recognize anything about what it is.  It used to be a dance hall, but there’s millions of dollars of equipment in there now.  The sound in that place was wonderful.  Similarly, I like the sound on our recording of Mahler Eighth with Solti in the Sofiensaal.  But for the Haydn they had put the mikes in a very good place in front of me, and a reflective surface behind me.  The sound was as I imagine I would really like to sound if I were listening to myself in a wonderful concert hall, which is possible only in my imagination.

BD:    Would you want to clone yourself so that you could be performer and audience?

DC:    As paradoxical as it sounds, you have to try to do that in your mind.  Of course it’s not possible, but horn players who don’t do that wind up playing for themselves, and to me it doesn’t sound as interesting.  It has to do with how much you exaggerate everything
— pianissimo, fortissimo, articulation, colors.

BD:    Without mentioning names, are there some conductors that really understand the brass section in general, and the horn players specifically?

DC:    Very, very few understand; very few.

BD:    Why?

DC:    When you conduct, the primary thing that you’re trying to accomplish is get a good string sound, a good string effect, which is the orchestra.  The orchestra is not the brass section or the woodwinds; we are helpers.  Without strings, there is no orchestra.  It’s a band, it’s a wind ensemble.  Then we’re to fit into that context.  Very few conductors played a brass instrument.  There’s quite a few, I think, who played woodwind instruments.  I never played with him, but one of the best that I heard of was Rudolf Kempe, who was an oboe player.

BD:    Most of the conductors tend to be pianists or string players.

DC:    Pianists or string players, yeah.

BD:    So what do you want to tell them?  You have two minutes to talk to every conductor in the world.  What do you tell them?

DC:    They don’t need to tell us anything to do on our instruments.  Just listen to us; see the creativity that’s going on, the color and the sound, and to appreciate it, if it’s appreciate-able.  And to nod once in a while, or smile once in a while.  Giulini was a viola player.  He played professionally; he claims not very well, but I’ve heard different.  When he conducted, nobody played a solo well that he didn’t glance at them and smile, or what we call a smirk, a little grin, or something.   He noticed it, which means he noticed what was going on.  He listened to us.  With Giulini it was always, “Let us make music together,” not, “I will conduct you.”

BD:    So the best orchestral performances really are chamber music?

DC:    They should be, yeah, where everybody’s listening
to their partners, listening to what’s going on throughout the orchestra and making constant adjustments.

BD:    Does it do your heart good to know that you’re part of the brass section that’s known as the best in the world?

DC:    A very quick answer to that is yes.  [Both laugh]  I listened to this orchestra on record long before I got in it.  At least ten years or more before I got in it, I was listening to records, and it’s a wonderful tradition.  There are some other very good orchestras which rise and fall on a periodic basis, depending upon how their strings sound and how their soloists sound.  Sometimes a wonderful soloist comes along who is absolutely head-turning, on any instrument.

BD:    Are you one of those?

DC:    I hope so!  As I say, I cannot ever hear myself the way you hear me.

BD:    Of course.

DC:    It’s just not possible.  So I’m imagining how I’m being heard, and I’m always trying to tell a story.

BD:    Are there ever performances that you get absolutely perfect?

DC:    No.  For me, there’s no such thing as perfection.

BD:    I assume you always strive for it, though.

DC:    Perfection is in my head, rarely in my horn.  Just getting all the notes is not necessarily perfection.  To some people it is; if they don’t miss any notes, they’ve played a perfect performance.

BD:    That’s technically perfect.

DC:    Yeah, but musically how do you make something that’s infinite perfect?  I don’t think that’s possible, but it’s great fun trying!

BD:    Sure, new adventure every night!

DC:    Every night.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You do quite a bit of teaching.  Are you pleased with the sounds that are coming from your students?

DC:    Yes.  They are individuals; they are human beings.  They come to me with varying backgrounds and conditioning.  They’ve studied with somebody else; they want my opinion, and ask me to give them information and inspire them, hopefully.  But they sound like themselves; they don’t sound like me.

BD:    You wouldn’t want them to sound like you?

DC:    No!  If they play in my section, we need to sound pretty similar.  Still, each person has his or her own personality, and when that personality takes over, there’s wonderful creativity going on.  That’s what turns heads.

BD:    Over the years that you have been teaching, has the technical ability gotten better each year?

DC:    I can’t say that, no.

BD:    It seems like the tide is going up, in general.

DC:    Does that mean technical ability, being able to get around the horn?

BD:    Just getting around your instrument, or any instrument.  I want to break this into technical ability and musical ability.

DC:    I separate them, too, always.  It’s a two-sided coin.  I suppose there are technicians who can do things that fifty years ago couldn’t be done.  When I was in college, I could not play the Glière Horn Concerto, or the Strauss Second Horn Concerto.  I simply couldn’t get it technically done.  I had to spend many hours.

BD:    Now you just toss it off!

DC:    No!  [Laughs]  I don’t toss off anything; I worked very hard at it.  I’ve had some opportunities to do a lot of concerto work; I’m just very lucky.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

DC:    The future of music?  Sure.  I don’t think that there’s ever a time when sensitive, caring people will stop listening, or wanting to listen to a Mozart opera or symphony or chamber music.  I could go through the whole repertoire of composers.  To be in that group would be a major goal, if I were a composer, which I’m not.

BD:    Do you ever want to be?

DC:    I’ve never gotten the bug to write down my thoughts.  I think I could do it as well as some who have written things for us.  You don’t play a musical instrument unless you have to, unless you’re compelled to.  You shouldn’t compose unless you’re compelled to, unless it’s a part of your being, who you are.  So far, that’s not me.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I’ve asked you about advice for composers and conductors.  What advice do you have for audiences who come to hear you, either as soloist or as a member of the orchestra?

DC:    Bring a handkerchief and cough into it.

clevengerBD:    [Laughs]

DC:    The decibel level of a cough is really quite loud, especially in soft passages.

BD:    All the coughers seem to wait until the quietest little sound!

DC:    Well, that’s because that’s when you hear them.  They cough in loud spots, too, but you don’t hear them.  But just enjoy it, keep coming, and let us know that they enjoy it with their money or with their emails or with their letters or with their applause or whatever.  We do it to give joy to people in an age of incredible problems in the world.  For a couple of hours you can sit and just forget the outside.

BD:    Be transported into the world you’re creating on the stage?

DC:    Right.  That’s why people listen to music and records at home.

BD:    On one of the Mozart records, you did the little fragment of the Fifth Concerto.

DC:    I wish he had finished.  It was beautiful.

BD:    Does it frustrate you that some of the other major composers didn’t write sonatas or concertos?

DC:    Oh, yeah.  I would love to have had a concerto by Brahms, or a sonata by Brahms.

BD:    The Trio isn’t enough?

DC:    Nothing’s enough!  The Trio is one of the great chamber music pieces ever!  But just consider what he wrote.  If he had a written a horn concerto, wouldn’t it have been wonderful?

BD:    [Wistfully considering the possibilities]  True, very true.  One last question
is playing the horn fun?

DC:    Absolutely!  I would not be sitting here talking to you, or playing in the orchestra in my thirty-seventh or eighth year if it were not fun. 
February the 7th, 1966 was my first day in the orchestra.  I just wouldn’t do it!  I’d do something else.  It’s fun to do.  It’s fun to listen to and it’s fun to re-create these pieces many times over.  There’s always somebody in the audience who’s never heard a major symphony, who’s never heard a particular piece that we’re doing.

BD:    It doesn’t drive you mad that there’s going to be someone at their first concert and someone at their thousandth concert at the same performance?

DC:    Not at all.  Mad?  No, no, I’m pleased to play with both of them.  A lot of those people who are at their thousandth performance are very good friends of mine now, and I know how much they like music and how much they support what I do.

BD:    I hope you can continue for a few more years, anyway.

DC:    Whatever is possible, that’s what I’d like to do.  It’s very, very enjoyable.

BD:    Thank you so much for being with this orchestra for so long, and thank you for the conversation.  I appreciate it.

DC:    Thank you, thank you very much.

DALE CLEVENGER , principal horn of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since February 1966, is a versatile musician in many areas. He is a graduate of Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh. His mentors are Arnold Jacobs and Adolph Herseth. Before joining the Chicago Symphony, Mr. Clevenger was a member of Leopold Stokowski's American Symphony Orchestra and the Symphony of the Air, directed by Alfred Wallenstein, and was principal horn with the Kansas City Philharmonic. He has appeared as soloist with orchestras worldwide, including a recent solo engagement with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim, conductor. He has taken part in many music festivals: Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, Florida Music Festival, Sarasota, Marrowstone Music Festival, Port Townsend, Washington, and Affinis Music Festival, Japan. His conducting career has included guest appearances with the New Japan Philharmonic, Tokyo, the Louisiana Philharmonic, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, the Florida Symphony, Tampa, the Civic Orchestra Chicago, the Toronto Conservatory Orchestra, the Northwestern University Summer Symphony, the Santa Cruz Symphony, California, the Western Australia Symphony Orchestra, Perth, the Aguascaliente Symphony Orchestra, Mexico, and the Osaka Philharmonic Orchestra.

© 2003 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in a rehearsal room at Orchestra Hall in Chicago, on October 16, 2003.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNUR a month later.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2010.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.