"This is the first time that I have ever been affected by musical sounds." --Samuel Johnson on the sound of the horn
"It sounds like a cross between a saxophone and the bleating of a mountain goat." --A French critic on the sound of the horn
The truth is that the French horn, perhaps the most trouble-prone instrument in the orchestra, can induce either the ecstasy of Dr. Johnson or the agony of that critic, depending on the state of the instrument and the skill with which it is played.
So these days, it is out of concern for the quality of their instruments that many of music's horn virtuosos bring them here to Walter Lawson. For, incongruous as it may seem, right outside this western Maryland farming town (pop. 1,140), in two rugged buildings deep in the woods and just down the ridge from the Appalachian Trail, lies one of the world's leading workshops for the repair and building of this noble brass instrument.
Lawson, the man who created this mecca for players of the horn--with his gaunt face, his wiry frame and his simple work clothes--looks more like one of his many neighboring farmers than like an important figure in the world of symphonic music.
Lawson, 60, refers to Lawson Brass Instruments as "just another small business, with all the problems of a small business," as if his workshop were as conventional an institution in the Boonsboro economy as a feed store down on the main highway.
Summer is just as busy a season at the brass workshop as it is at the feed stores. That's when the horn players in symphony orchestras take their vacations. Lawson has hundreds of repair customers from around the world and he tries to prevent backups by having his customers make reservations ahead. Many also send their instruments by mail. (The horn, obviously, is less fragile than the violin, and thus it travels better.)
On a warm afternoon last week, things were especially busy. There were dozens of horns and bores and mouthpieces and bells of horns lying around on timber work tables and shelves in the lofty workroom--all for use in building new horns or rebuilding older ones.
Two Washington horn players had brought their instruments for diagnosis and treatment. And a player from Thunder Bay, Ontario, had driven down, as he does regularly, to have his horn worked on. The idea was to leave it for three days while he went on to vacation in Philadelphia.
There are a few other such horn shops in the country--in New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles. But in addition to its age and the extent of Lawson's experience, this shop has assumed special prestige as he has ventured deeper and deeper into experimentation with the perfection of the horn as a musical instrument.
In recent years his close associate in that work has been Barry Tuckwell, who is by far the world's most celebrated horn player and the only one to achieve fame and fortune as a solo horn player--both from concerts and recordings. Tuckwell is Australian, and he lives in London, but he has made frequent trips to Boonsboro ever since he and Lawson met more than a decade ago at a conference of the International Horn Society, and Tuckwell had Lawson take over all work on his instruments.
Tuckwell could hardly be more lavish in his praise of his friend: "I wouldn't entrust my horn to anyone else," he said once. "He has the same air as a great violin maker."
It was Tuckwell who took a major role in the experiments that led Lawson and his three sons to start perfecting their own horns, instead of just repairing others'. And Tuckwell has become such a frequent visitor in western Maryland that he has now taken on responsibility for developing and conducting Hagerstown's new Maryland Symphony Orchestra.
For all its rustic appeal, Lawson Brass Instruments did not have its roots in Boonsboro. It has developed, under a variety of names, since Lawson began a career repairing horns in Baltimore, at The Musician Shop in 1949. "That makes me the oldest repairman in the business," he notes quietly. That same year he joined the horn section of the Baltimore Symphony, where he continued to play, most of the time as second horn, until 1975. His business "might never have happened," he recalls, "except that there was no such thing as a 52-week symphony season in those days and we had to supplement our incomes."
The firm itself was founded in 1956 in Baltimore with his partner William R. Cook. Between 1950 and 1970 much of the attention of Lawson the experimenter was focused on mouthpiece design.
It was near the end of that period that Lawson bought his 18 acres on the mountainside near Boonsboro, "basically so that my sons would have a place to go camping."
The Baltimore shop remains in business, and the oldest son, Bruce, 31, is there for now. One thing that proved impossible under those circumstances, though, was building his own horns. "We didn't have the facilities and also it's impossible for one man to do it by himself. But one day the boys came to me and said, 'This is always what you've most wanted to do, so why don't we go into business and do it? So we incorporated. And we decided the main shop should be the one out here."
Even with Lawson and his two younger sons--Duane, 27, and Paul, 25--working full time, the pace is slow. "We can't produce more than about 15 a year, maybe 20 under certain circumstances." Lawson horns went on sale in 1979, and they are already widespread in the music world. Prices may vary depending on the model, but Lawson says his professional-level horns go generally for "more than $4,000." The Lawsons don't profit much from making horns, he says. "Last year it was just about $2,000."
Two of the most beautiful solo horn performances heard in Washington during the summer were on Lawsons, one by the National Symphony's new assistant principal horn, Laurel Bennert Ohlson; the other was by Baltimore Symphony first horn player David Bakkegard.
Bakkegard says the key to a fine sound in a horn is to match the sound that the player is seeking, much in the way that pianists will try dozens of grands before finding one that suits their ideas.
Bakkegard, who bought his Lawson because of its "well-centered sound that is not so loud," was especially impressed with Lawson's spirit of adventure. "He is trying like crazy," he said. "He is doing more research than anyone else--of all kinds."
Lawson describes his quest for the perfect horn in more practical terms: "The idea is to get the noise out of it, and in the process we are seeking efficiency and the least effort for the most sound."
There is general agreement that shape has less effect on a horn's tone than the quality and evenness of its surfaces. The Lawson shop is stacked with tubes of raw pipe and other objects from which horns are bent into shape. The circular horn consists of more metal than would be thought at a glance. There is 12 feet of tubing wound around in an F horn, for instance, and nine feet in a B-flat horn.
Perhaps one reason why horns are so hard to play is that they were not originally invented to function as musical instruments--like a violin or a piano. They were, literally, horns, carved from the horns of animals and used as signals in the hunt. The horn as an instrument in the orchestra dates from the early 18th century. Its harmonic capacity was quite limited (no chromatics, for instance), and for that reason horns played a largely supportive, if vital, role.
Then with the invention of what are called valves, the capacity in terms of range and power was greatly expanded. The result was that the horn with its full sound became a major solo instrument, and composers such as Wagner, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner and Mahler gave the instrument some of their most inspired material. Still, reliable valves took some time to develop, and the French did not all adopt them until late in the century (though called the French horn, the instrument in its present estate might more accurately be called the German horn).
It covers both the tenor and baritone ranges--conceivably from low F-sharp to high C, almost four octaves. But players are most comfortable in the middle range--in material like the famous solo melody that opens the second movement of the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony.
Different orchestras cultivate different sounds. Lawson points to the rich "wishy-wishy" sound of the Vienna Philharmonic horns, and suggests it comes in part from lead valves. The Lawson horn produces a leaner, cleaner sound. The only orchestra whose whole horn section consists of Lawson horns now is the Dallas Symphony. Its appearance at the Kennedy Center last year was true music to Lawson's ears.
There is personal irony for Lawson in the development of his own horns. He is not eager to talk about it, but as a result of an injury he does not play his own instruments. Several years ago after a concert in Frederick, he was mugged on the way home. The lower part of his face was "paralyzed." Though one could not notice the effects of his injury in his conversation today, his horn technique was impaired. Now, he says, he "can only play a horn well enough to tell if it is all right."