John Gerber first encountered the trompe de chasse (“hunting horn”) while traveling in France.
“I was so impressed hearing this instrument,” Gerber said.
Being a professional French horn player, Gerber decided to give the trompe a try.
“I went to try one and this guy said in French, ‘Boy, you must be from the Alpes the way you’re playing that horn.’ It was an insult, of course,” Gerber said.
Gerber was surprised at how seemingly similar — and, in fact, related — instruments could require such different technique.
“I had the ego of a classical musician and I couldn’t play this thing,” Gerber said. “I took it to heart that I needed to learn how to blow into it properly and so on.”
Now Gerber is retired and devotes his time exclusively to playing the trompe. He will be joined by two fellow sonneurs, François de Radzitzky and Olivia de Radzitzky, to perform an excerpt from the overture to “La Chasse du Jeune Henri” by Étienne Méhul at 12:15 p.m. Tuesday on Bestor Plaza with the Chautauqua Community Band under the baton of Jason Weintraub. The concert will also include patriotic selections by John Philip Sousa and showtunes, and is part of Chautauqua’s daylong Old First Night festivities.
The trompe is easily confused with its later relative, the natural horn. Gerber’s career as a sonneur began with curiosity about the horn’s history.
“All of Mozart’s beautiful concerti were written for natural horn, so in an academic way I began to re-learn the horn literature using valveless instruments,” Gerber said.
From there, it was a simple matter of traveling back in time.
“I’ve just been working my way backward,” Gerber said.
The modern French horn has rotary valves and different lengths of tubing that can be activated to produce the full collection of 12 pitches in the chromatic scale with reasonably good intonation, depending on the player. In the time of Bach, Handel, and even as late as Beethoven, natural horns without valves were widely used in ceremonies and in the concert hall. Gerber calls the trompe “the grandfather of them all.”
The trompe survives in its original shape to this day, with a single cone-shaped loop culminating in a flamboyantly flared bell. Its usage since the days of Louis XV hasn’t changed much either, according to Gerber. The main difference, he said, is that one needn’t be nobility to play it.
“It’s a very democratic instrument,” Gerber said. “You don’t have to read music to be a good trompe player.”
Still, as with its modern descendant, a good ear goes a long way when playing the trompe.
“You have to play very rhythmically, you have to play correct notes and learn to sing your part before you play it,” Gerber said, noting that most aspiring sonneurs learn solfège to train their ears.
Although it can function as a purely musical instrument, the trompe is still used in hunting. Sonneurs use standardized fanfares to signal various stages of the hunt, from spotting the animal to the animal’s death.
“A lot of times, the animal wins,” Gerber said. “I’ve been on hunts where there’s a beautiful pinpointed deer, and they’ll chase it all day long. Eventually it gets in the water, swims across the stream out of reach and it wins the day.”
This style of hunting — with hounds instead of guns — is most widespread in Europe, where the Fédération Internationale des Trompes de France supervises all trompe-related activities in countries like France, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Belgium. And, thanks to Gerber, the FITF now operates in the United States.
“I invited a member of the FITF to the U.S. and he brought several of his colleagues,” Gerber said. “That began a really nice relationship between us and France, so I lobbied for the United States to be a member of FITF.”
The organization initially opposed the idea, citing the differences between English and French hunting traditions.
“By calling different hunt clubs around the United States, I discovered they knew very little about the French traditions,” Gerber said.
As a retired horn player, Gerber wants to connect the sporting tradition of the trompe with other professional musicians like himself.
“There are hunters who play the trompe and musicians who play the trompe who don’t hunt,” Gerber said.
Hunting fanfares occasionally appear in the classical symphonic repertoire, in pieces like Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 73 in D major, nicknamed “La chasse.” Nearly 150 years later, Ottorino Respighi used the traditional bonsoir fanfare, which signals the end of the hunt, in the final installment of his Roman trilogy, “Roman Festivals.”
“A lot of those fanfares wouldn’t necessarily be recognizable to classical musicians unless they were studying the trompe literature,” Gerber said.
Even though the trompe accommodates varying levels of musical ability, Gerber said it has a unique appeal to professional horn players looking to expand their horizons.
“The trompe connects professional musicians to the outdoor hunt,” Gerber said.