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Article for British Double Reed Society Magazine 1996.

Geoffrey Browne investigates Samuel's Aerophon, and explains what possessed him to write his book 'The Art of Cor Anglais'


Very High Pressure

Technology is wonderful but it can ruin not only the day, but also the night. I mean, it seems to me that a mobile phone is a very good thing not to have, for have you noticed how new inventions change our lives? First there was the hearing aid, but granny wouldn't use it because she was frightened of the battery. Then there was the answering machine, but people did not like that because they did not want to make a recording of their voice. And now, if you have a mobile phone, granny can telephone you when you are on a crowded train and ask you if you are eating properly and if you have remembered to go to the toilet, and if she is not wearing her hearing aid then a whole carriage load of people can become reluctant experts on your innermost workings.

One of the most alarming of modern gadgets was given me by my partner as a birthday present, but sometimes I think she was thinking more of herself than of me. It was an electric device to stop me snoring. I have a microphone on my pillow and an electrode strapped to my arm. The snoring triggers mild electrocution which surprises me so much that I stop the snoring. I have decided that a better idea would be still to have the microphone by my pillow but the electrode is secretly moved from my arm to hers so she is the one who gets the surprise. I have not tried this yet.

We think technology came late into the lives of double reed players, but this is not so, for an ambitious attempt to modernise us was made as early as 1912, and by a flute player of all things. His name was Bernhard Samuel, and the device named after him, the aerophon, was intended mainly for oboe players, but was also adapted for players of other woodwind instruments. It was a bellows pumped by the foot, and a pipe took the compressed air into the player's mouth. I cannot help thinking that the pumping action of the foot may have been very disturbing and that, for very long passages, the cor anglais player may have had to ask a trusted colleague to take over the pumping for a short time so as not to disturb the embouchure. It had also occurred to me that the playing of concertos might be difficult because the foot-pumping could be awkward when standing up, and impossible if the player had only one leg. There could have been a very long air pipe going off-stage and into the wings where the pumping could be concealed from view.

It may be that for very long cor anglais solos the player had several air pipes in his mouth and that several of his colleagues operated foot pumps so as to make sure he did not run out of air. Maybe they took it in turns to work the foot pumps as each colleague became exhausted. It would have been necessary to keep careful watch over the cor anglais player to make sure he did not become over-inflated. As a safety precaution the cor anglais player may also have had a foot pump with an air line going into the mouths of his assistants so he could signal his distress if either he was receiving too much or too little air.

1912 was an unlucky year for technology since not only did it herald the invention of the aerophon but saw the sinking of the Titanic, though I think this was not designed by a flute player.

I am told that the Boston Symphony Orchestra ordered a set of aerophons in 1913 but they were never delivered, possibly because of the outbreak of war, or more probably because somebody tried them out on the way over. I telephoned the orchestra to find out more about this but their archivist told me their records do not go back beyond 1950. I thought that was a cop-out.

Researching for my book The Art of Cor Anglais was great fun but writing a serious formal textbook really meant going through it and cutting out all the nonsense. You can easily guess that the book ended up much smaller in volume than at the start. I may be wrong but I think it is the first book to set out to define the cor anglais in terms of how it developed, how composers write for it, and how to tackle the orchestral extracts quoted in it. I have tried to get a lot of facts into the book, and there is also some information on how to play in an orchestra which I hope will be interesting also for oboe players and indeed for teachers and for all woodwind players. The only difficulty is in convincing people it is a serious book; I can assure you it is. I do not really know why I like writing nonsense but it is something to do with a need to be constantly inventive; forever thinking of different ways of looking at things. Often it's nonsense; occasionally you come up with a really good idea. That's how many musicians are.

Now I will tell you something you do not know. Did you know that Stockholm is the English Horn centre of Europe? Thus says the indefatigable Bo Eriksson, with a twinkle in his eye. And you will probably think the next thing I am going to say is that London is Europe's centre for the Swedish Horn, but that is patently not so. Sweden cares very much about its art and its artists, much more than London, and last year I spent a week in Stockholm taking master-classes at the Scandinavian English Horn Seminar organised by SAMI, the Swedish Artists' and Musicians' Interest Organisation. And yes, people came from all over Europe, from the north of Norway to the south of Italy. We had a marvellous time, though I became a little hoarse by the end of it. It took months to plan this seminar and to assemble all the material, but when I got home all this was buzzing around in my mind and I thought "I must write it all down", and I did, and it is called The Art of Cor Anglais and you can get it from Howarths, bookshops, and from June Emerson. If you happen to be in Howarths then do have a look at it. You might think it is a bit expensive at 14.95 but that is largely because of the extensive use of copyright material which has to be licensed. What I hope is that people will come to realise that the cor anglais is not just a thing played by the third oboe in the orchestra, for nowadays third oboe is often played by the co-principal in the section, but that the cor player is responsible for some of the longest, loneliest, and loveliest woodwind solos in the entire symphonic and operatic repertoire, and really you need to be a specialist to do that. The longest orchestral solo I know is in the first movement of Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony, and it lasts in excess of three and a half minutes of almost continuous playing. There is only one way to tackle that sort of thing and that is knowing how to tackle it, and generally speaking we have to achieve it without the aid of Samuel's aerophon, and without the use of an electric shock machine that stops people snoring.

As the great Chinese philosopher said, "Great artistry shines through bad technique", but we can do better than that.

Geoffrey Browne (c) 1996