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Finzi trust

Whilst I was still a student in London I was fortunate to be introduced to the wonderful musical happenings in the French town of Saintes. The first I had heard about the courses held there had been a photocopied leaflet that I had discovered in a rack of pamphlets at the Academy where I was studying in London. Having initially been excited to read of the course for classical and early romantic instruments that the Abbey, in association with Phillippe Herreweghe's Orchestre de Champs Élysées, were running, I then was crushed to realise that I had missed the deadline. Getting to grips with the natural horn can be problematic as horn players normally start with the classical instrument and work both backwards to baroque repertoire and forwards into romantic whilst most of our fellow students start with baroque, or even earlier repertoire and work forward. This means that it can be a very lonely existence in some institutions as finding other musicians to play with can be tricky. The course on offer had looked perfect and, damn, I had missed the deadline. Luckily the world is small and the course failed to find the full complement of horn players and through one of the Champs Élysées players who knew my teacher, I was enlisted.

I went on to study in Saintes for several years and was one of the first cohort to take their Formation Superior course. This was a formative period for me, very much giving me the opportunity to meet like minded musicians from all around Europe, and, extremely important, gave me the opportunity to study with Claude Maury. Claude's attitude was that if you were going to study in France you were certainly going to learn about the French horn players and teachers who perfected and codified hand horn technique. And quite rightly so. A large number of useful methods were written for the instrument by generations of hand horn virtuosi which are invaluable resources for anyone wishing to learn more about the instrument, the music and musicians of the time.

One of the many musicians he introduced me to was Jacques Francois Gallay and, in particular, his Douze Caprices for solo horn. These are wonderfully versatile pieces - and were especially useful for the mixed chamber music concerts that were a frequent occurrence on the courses, giving us students something to really get our teeth stuck into. Immediately I was grabbed by these works. Partially the early attraction was the "unavailability" of them - they are hugely technically demanding works, the goal of making music out of something so challenging - but from the outset there was an operatic heartbeat that drove these works. The Caprices share elements with other major works for solo unaccompanied instrument in that the performer has to infer the accompaniment. Each work seemed to me to have a different character, a different scene - maybe a solo aria, maybe a Terzetto - in a larger work. You can smell the opera house in each bar. What intrigued me was how I could present these works to an audience? Would the set work on their own? Cellists have their Bach and violinists their Pagannini, both works which seem to have no "historic" precedent for being performed in their entireity, yet both have become "cannons" of modern programming. A crucial factor was the technical challenge. A number of horn playing colleagues (the joys of facebook) questioned me on the lead up to my first performance of the set - checking whether they had got it wrong as they had heard I was proposing to perform the whole set?

The Caprices and the challenges involved in introducing them to an audience had bothered me since these student days and in 2010 I was fortunate enough to receive a Finzi scholarship that supported me in finding out how I could do this. The Gerald Finzi Travel scholarship was founded in 2005 in memory of the English composer after which it was named. The Scholarships aim to give opportunities for artists to broadening horizons or to explore new paths: their focus is arts based in the widest sense, but proposals must have a musical foundation. The application process required that quickly I clarified my thoughts and come up with a coherent and cohesive plan. I must admit in retrospect that a driving force had been wanting to do a project close to my heart and refocus on what was important to me and very quickly my "Gallay Project" took shape.

The initial proposal was simple. A month in Paris, improving my French, translating Gallay's method into English, visiting the Bibliotheque Nationale, and working the Caprices into a managable recital programme. The Finzi trust, in addition to their essential financial support, posed pertinent questions at various stages of their selection process encouraging me to think long and hard about what I was proposing and therefore helped the success of the project. The Bate Collection of Oxford were incredibly generous in lending me their Raoux cor solo - the double of the instrument Gallay himself owned, which is now housed in the Cite de la Musique in Paris, an institution which also kindly granted me access to their instrument. The (initial) culmination of the project was to be a recording of the complete caprices, with associated preludes and fantasias, the repertoire which makes up the Douze Grand Caprices programme (photos by John Croft of the sessions can be seen left). The recording was produced by Claude Mauray, the original instigator of all of this, engineered by Hannelore Guittent of Tisiris and documented by John Croft. Gallay was a prodigious composer and this project was followed by recording in April 2011 of the Grand Quatour with Les Chevaliers du Saint Hubert (myself, Joseph Walters, Jorge Renteria-Campos and Martin Lawrence all on day release from performing Le Freischutz at the Opera Comique in Pairs) followed by the Grand Trios in October of the same year.

Gallay's compositions are passionate, evocative, thrilling works. Not mere "salon music" lollipops, they represent a small sample of a vibrant, improvised tradition from the early nineteenth century. A time when much important music making was going undocumented. His unaccompanied works give us a glimpse as to what was happening "between the lines". Wind musicians at this time were famed for their ability to extemporise on famous themes or to build improvised bridges between or before movements, welcoming the audience in to a tonality, a character or an atmosphere. These form an almost hidden genre of music, one which has vanished from many performances of early nineteenth century works. Whilst the Douze Grands Caprices do not represent the type of concert one may have heard in 1830 Paris, no more than one would have heard Paganini performing his 24 Caprices in their entirety, they introduce the audience to a sound world many will not have heard before in which the operatic world of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti shines bright.

To learn more about the Gerald Finzi Travel Scholarship please click here.