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 don’t
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 . . . . .
You’re going to be doing
the Horn Concerto by John
Williams. Is this the first concerto that
you have given the world premiere?
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
BD: Are there
any pitfalls or
special ideas you need to look for in creating a work?
DC: For the
composer, or for me?
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?
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!
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 sections — one
movement of it is very
Challenging for you, or challenging for any horn
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
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
BD: So why
don’t you get them all written, instead of
just the one?
has to pay for that! [Both laugh] And that’s not me.
BD: You look
for someone who will commission the
Yeah. The Chicago Symphony did. I
don’t know if it was somebody specific, like the Schmidt family which
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
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
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?
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
BD: So it’s
the brand new looking at the “brand old”?
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
the story to it. When I
play a Mozart concerto, from my mind I’m creating three sections of an
BD: Do you
have ideas in your head
that create pictures, or do you let the audience then make their own
DC: I have my
own, and they can make their own.
ones are right?
Neither. Neither is right; neither is
wrong. It just is. You don’t have to talk in terms of
right. Talk in terms of what’s good, what’s enjoyable.
BD: What is
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
horn concertos. The first one was written for his father, and the
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
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.”
[Shocked] No future of music???
DC: No future
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
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
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?
DC: Sure, but I’m
not the one to be
pleased; he’s the one.
BD: Oh, you
must get some pleasure out of that!
sure. It’s nice to do it
first. I wanted a piece which would really make a difference
in the horn repertoire.
doesn’t seem to be a lot of great horn
DC: A lot of
contemporary composers write things that
are so hard that only a very few people
can play them.
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.
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
Maybe. Even I could write something that’s
[Interjecting] Anyone could write something that’s impossible!
that doesn’t prove anything. The bottom line is it’s not going to
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.
that part of our job, for each successive
generation has to sift through all of it?
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?
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.
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?
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 —
shape and the various shapes within it — are
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?
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,
must be some muscular memory in
there a little bit.
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
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
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
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
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
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?
DC: 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
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
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?
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.
mentioning names, are there some
conductors that really understand the brass section in general, and the
horn players specifically?
very few understand; very few.
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
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?
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
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
BD: So the
best orchestral performances really are
should be, yeah, where everybody’s
listening to their partners, listening to what’s going on
throughout the orchestra and making constant
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
For me, there’s no such thing as
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.
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!
BD: You do
quite a bit of teaching. Are you
pleased with the sounds that are coming from your students?
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
wouldn’t want them to sound like you?
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
DC: Does that
ability, being able to get around the horn?
getting around your instrument, or any
instrument. I want to break this into technical ability and
separate them, too, always. It’s a two-sided coin. I
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
couldn’t get it technically done. I had to spend many hours.
BD: Now you
just toss it off!
[Laughs] I don’t toss off anything; I
worked very hard at it. I’ve had some opportunities to do a lot
concerto work; I’m just
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of music?
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?
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
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.
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.
decibel level of a cough is really quite
loud, especially in soft passages.
BD: All the
coughers seem to wait until the quietest
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.
transported into the world you’re creating on
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
DC: I wish he
It was beautiful.
BD: Does it
frustrate you that some of
the other major composers didn’t write sonatas or concertos?
yeah. I would love to have had a
concerto by Brahms, or a sonata by Brahms.
BD: The Trio isn’t enough?
enough! The Trio is one
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?
[Wistfully considering the possibilities] True, very true.
One last question — is playing
the horn fun?
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!
do something else. It’s fun to do. It’s fun to listen to
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.
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,
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.
you, thank you very much.
, 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
© 2003 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in a rehearsal room at Orchestra
Hall in Chicago, on October
Portions (along with recordings)
were used on WNUR a month later. This
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.
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
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