I was drawn to this book by the cover – an old-fashioned French horn with a man’s head peering out of the bell with a look of utter confusion on his face. Having experienced utter confusion regarding the French horn many times in my life, I immediately picked up this book and could not have been more delighted by it.
This is the story of a British journalist’s journey to re-learn the French horn in the throes of a mid-life crisis. His plan: to perform a Mozart Horn Concerto before an audience of trained horn professionals at the annual meeting of the British Horn Society after not having even held or thought about the horn for twenty-five years.
The book details Rees’s journey in full. He introduces us to contemporary horn masters who he unabashedly seeks out and consults while he’s learning – frankly, I admire the man’s balls in doing so, walking up to the horn section of the Royal Philharmonic as a complete amateur and introducing himself like an established colleague. I suppose Rees’s journalism career trained him for this sort of behavior, because I cannot imagine doing anything like it myself.
There is also a smattering of intriguing historical information about the French horn, particularly Mozart’s compositions for the instrument and the backstory there. Rees tells us about the use of the horn in prehistoric times, in hunting parties, and as a developing orchestral instrument. Some of his historical information is couched in pure historical fiction, but all told in Rees’s endearingly self-deprecating style.
The book winds up with a narration of his performance at his big concert, a flurry of sentences in a highly emotionally-charged passage which lets us into his very thoughts as he performs the concerto. As I read it, I felt my own pulse racing as though I were standing there myself – it brought back memories of the adrenaline rushes of recitals past.
Even if you’re not a horn player or have never picked up a musical instrument in your life, this book is worth a read. Rees reminds his readers of what it’s like to be passionately devoted to something – no, to be ridiculously obsessed with it – to the point that you succeed at doing what you thought was impossible.