Tchaikovsky’s 4th with the Rapides Symphony

This weekend’s concert with the Rapides Symphony went quite well.  The horn section, and brass in general gave an excellent performance, and I’m looking forward to the rest of this season’s highlights (Dvorak 9 and Respighi’s Pines of Rome).  In this post I thought I’d share a few thoughts about this concert and playing third horn on Tchaikovsky’s symphonies in general. One thing I think that made our performance successful was that no one in the horn section tried to play too loudly, especially in the big tutti passages in the first movement.  As is the case with many regional orchestras, the equipment in our horn section varies quite widely: large bell, nickel silver Englebert Schmid triple (principal),  Lawson ambronze (second),  Yamaha 667V (third), Yamaha 667 (fourth), and Yamaha 861 (assistant).  Although it might be tempting to play full out on such great repertoire, the results really are better if everyone just lays back a notch and really focuses on blending tone quality and articulations. With diverse equipment in the section, playing at the max can cause a particular type of horn sound to stick out, making it more difficult for everyone to match what’s going on.  In addition, the hall where we normally play just had a full stage Wenger acoustical shell installed.  The shell looks and sounds great, but the brass and winds now project much more than previously.  As a result, we had to be careful not to bury the string section, especially during accompanimental passages.

Now a few words about playing third on Tchaikovsky.  As a student I remember hearing at least two horn players in major orchestras (one was a principal horn, and the other a third horn) share words of caution about Tchaikovsky’s third horn parts, and after playing third horn myself on the 4th, 5th, and 6th symphonies, I understand what they were talking about.  With the exception of the solos and some divided passages, the third horn plays pretty much everything the first horn does, except with no assistant.  Combine that with the numerous repeated fortissimo passages and you can have a painful combination.  My advice is actually pretty simple – you don’t have to play everything!  Take note of when the principal and assistant are playing together in the tutti passages – if you’re playing the same pitches, that is an excellent time to leave a few notes out to get some much needed rest. If you work it out correctly, you can take advantage of the assistant principal in much the same way that the principal does.  Also, reducing your loud dynamics by even a small fraction can do wonders for your endurance and recovery time, which will also leave you with more in reserve for the occasional triple forte passage.  Try some of these tips the next time you play Tchaikovsky – in my case they worked well, and resulted in a much more healthy (and fun) performing experience.

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“you don’t have to play everything” has gotten me through many concerts (hello Mahler?), because trust me, nobody wants to hear tired oboes.

hope the oboe solo in this went well! it’s kind of like walking a tightrope without a net.


With Tchaikovsky notating up to fffff, a mere fortissimo shouldn’t be regarded as all that loud. I tend to regard an ff in Tchaikovsky as a good solid sound without having to put much of a brassy edge to it. Three fs and you start to push the envelope a bit. Five fs means try to strip the paint off the opposite wall!

And I agree entirely about Tchaikovsky 3rd horn parts, I’ve played 3rd for most of the Tchaikovsky symphonies, and the finale movements are all pretty much continuous loud and high playing for long passages towards the end, not much lower than 1st horn. You have to pace yourself and leave out notes from time to time. Even a quaver or two can make a significant difference.


I remember reading something on the horn list to that effect. Something along the lines of Tchaikovsky having to write those exaggerated dynamics to get a particular orchestra or orchestras to actually play above a forte.


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