French horns and TV memories

Nothing does nostalgia as well as a theme tune. All those hours we lolled on the sofa as kids, developing poor posture and resolutely not playing outside, were laying down the switch that can now be flipped by the first bar of a long-forgotten melody. Music and smells: the double doors of a time machine we keep forgetting we carry with us.

Because I did a lot of my lolling in the 1970s and ’80s, the classic American shows were a bit grown up for me but I snuck in next to Dad and got away with it. These composers knew how to use a brass section. Anyone can write a tune for a trumpet. Sassy, bright and extrovert: the trumpet is the Byoncé of the orchestra, strutting out in front. You just know it could twerk if it wanted to. The French horn, however, is arguably more subtle. It isn’t in your face – the bell points backwards and has a hand shoved up to muffle it, for heaven’s sake. Until you razz, and there is nothing like a horn section letting rip. They are the solid fruit cake under the trumpets’ impressive yet friable icing. Anyone getting hit with a lobbed fruit cake will know what carried the weight (just go with this metaphor: musical ones are hard).

So: we begin with Dallas, by Jerrold Immel. The horns start it off, just to show everyone else how it’s done. The trumpets have a turn with this simple, square melody, which is all very singable and jaunty. But then you get the horns returning with the harmony, and suddenly it’s all angular and much more complicated. And must be a bugger to play: it hops around all over the range really fast, and all off the beat. And that last high note! [I always mistrust anyone who can’t sing the horn part to Dallas when challenged. You have to set the bar somewhere.] Round one to the horn players.

The Rockford Files by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter aren’t quite that horny (comedy GOLD, this). It starts a bit country, with harmonica and guitar after that iconic telephone ring we now all try to recreate on our iphones. It’s not until 2 mins 48 seconds that you get a glorious horn go on the theme, and then it’s off again with the guitar. I think it’s worth waiting for.

Hawaii Five-0 by Morton Stevens starts on a trumpet tune with trombones doing the off-beat chords, but in the development, the horns again get the harmonies. It just wouldn’t sound so groovy without them. Also, this is just an excuse to pretend to surf. If you didn’t stand up and pretend to surf during that (or at least tap your foot) we can never be friends.

After all that American escapism, we end with the mother and father and most of the ancestors of The Great French Horn TV Theme: Black Beauty. Written by Denis King and titled Galloping Home, this will set any girl of a certain age cantering into the middle distance on an imaginary steed. It won an Ivor Novello award for Best TV Theme in 1973, and deservedly so.

The first double entry of the timpani catapults you there instantly, the horns majestic and unstoppable. WHAT a tune! This time it’s the trumpets who have to wait for their go in the development section, after the horns have had a good old razz before they let them in. OK, I grant you, there is then far too much of a syrupy violin bit in the middle section, but you can hear the horns try to return with those sweeping octaves, and by 1 min 59 seconds they are back in their full glory. And who else but the British could have a big finish with a full brass section accompanied by a manic glockenspiel doing a descant?

I haven’t time to mention all the good themes, and fully expect to return to this page to find a comprehensive list of links in the comments of ones I’ve missed. I can’t be the only one who loves them.

PS Yes, I used to play the horn. Can you tell?