the cor anglais – the horn that’s not

Rachel Tolmie and cor anglais

In her September series of ‘ Bach in the Dark’ concerts, cellist Rachel Scott has teamed up with Rachel Tolmie playing the cor anglais. (See our post on ‘Bach in the Dark’ for concert dates and venues). Admittedly there isn’t much in the repertoire for this unusual pairing of string and wind so the musicians have been busy writing their own arrangements for the performance. 

Contrary to the implications of its name, the cor anglais (English Horn), is in fact an alto oboe with a range that is a fifth below the oboe. It stands to reason therefore that the cor anglais is longer than the oboe, and no, players don’t need to evolve longer arms thanks to the reed being placed in a metal tube that curves back to the player’s mouth.

 Another important difference is that the oboe has a wide flaring bell whilst that of the cor anglais is pear shaped and constricted at the base. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Music the cor anglais was infrequently used in classical times, but came into its own from the time of Wagner. 

Rachel Tolmie, like many oboe players, doubles up on the cor anglais, the sound of which, like the cello is well suited to mellow,  plaintive legato phrases.

  She says: “The cello and cor anglais complement each other beautifully. The cor anglais plays in the viola range and indeed sits behind the violas in the orchestra. Therefore the combination with cello is very natural, like the bottom half of a string quartet”. 

 This unusual combination of instruments  has necessitated some special preparations. Firstly, the music  they are playing is written at a pitch different to the tuning of the cor anglais. Tolmie says ” The cor anglais is a transposing instrument and its music is written a fifth higher than it is played.  All the music is written at concert pitch (in C) or in other  words, as the oboe would play it. Therefore I have written out all parts at a different pitch so that it can be played in the right key with the cello”. 

Secondly, the works are originally piano or string works so the phrases don’t allow for breathing spaces and Tolmie confesses  “The biggest challenge about playing the cor anglais in this concert is making sure I have enough breath!  Because there are no breathing spaces in the music I have to be careful to breathe where it won’t disturb the flow of the melodic line. However, having said that I think this program will work beautifully on cor anglais”.

 Spot the cor anglais in Paul McCartney’s hands on the cover of the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club album, and hear it in the opening theme of the 2nd movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No 9, From The New World


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