Felix Klieser performing with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. (Photo: Mark Allan)
Felix Klieser performing with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. (Photo: Mark Allan)

The Emotional Ecstasy of Playing the French Horn

Award-winning musician Felix Klieser describes the sense of achievement he gets from mastering the versatile instrument.
By Michelle Erdenesanaa
February 3, 2022
5 minute read

Something about the French horn compelled Felix Klieser to play it when he was barely 4  years old. The German musician, now 31, has gone on to study at the Hanover University of Music, Drama, and Media; release three studio albums; and perform in premier ensembles around the world, including with British conductor Sir Simon Rattle at the Berlin Philharmonic and with Sting on his world tour. Currently the artist-in-residence at the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Klieser is preparing for a busy season that includes the world premiere of “Soundscape – Horn Concerto,” a work created for Klieser by Swedish composer Rolf Martinsson that will be performed at the Kongresshalle in Saarbrücken, Germany, next month.

His passion for playing is unabating. Klieser, who was born without arms, plays the horn with his feet and a tripod that he designed himself. He puts the instrument on the stand, and presses the keys with his left foot while using the other to move the mute (which changes the sound) in and out of the bell, the end of the horn. His aim, he’s often said, is to evoke a spectrum of experience through sound. Here, Klieser describes the horn’s timbre (or what he calls “sound color”), a life-altering childhood wish, and the characters he plays on stage.

“The horn was my idea. I can’t remember where I’d seen the instrument for the first time. My parents were not even sure what a French horn was. I grew up in Göttingen, this small town in the middle of Germany where no one made music. There was one music school with one horn teacher. At my first lesson, they said I was too young to play. You need a lot of air and energy. But my idea was to play the horn, not to go to music school.

I started to play the French horn at the age of 4, without any big ideas of becoming a good horn player. My playing developed very slowly at first. A short piece took me about one and a half years to learn. When I was 9 years old, my teacher gave me a CD of horn concertos by Mozart with [Hermann] Baumann and [Pinchas] Zukerman with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. The thing that came out of the CD player was something completely different from what I was doing. That day, I made the decision to be able to play all those concertos. That was my one and only wish: not to be rich or famous, but to play this instrument as well as possible. Now, I can play concerts, travel around the world, see many countries and cities, and meet many interesting, inspiring people. I live a very privileged life, but everything I have is the result of that wish.

The horn is not that connected to other brass instruments. It’s brass, of course, but more similar to the cello in terms of its sound color. In film scores, there are many places for big French horn solos because sound color creates a specific atmosphere, and creates specific emotions. It’s a big radiation of colors, of sound. For me, [that range] is like food. If you’re allowed to eat just chocolate, maybe the first day is fantastic. But by day three, you can’t even look at it. You love chocolate, but you want something different. The same happens with music. No one particular sound, piece, or composer most interests me—it’s the range and the variation.

I never travel without my instrument. I got it in 2009, so it’s been twelve years sharing the stage, sharing the hotel at night. I gave him the name Alex, because it’s an Alexander 103. In Germany, this is typical. The model depends on where you grew up, ideas of how instruments should sound, the philosophy of the orchestra, and the country in which you play. In Great Britain, for example, you play a Paxman. In the States, you play a Holton. It’s also a personal choice, unless you want a position in an orchestra.

On stage, what’s most important is having something you want to share with people. I’m not practicing like, ‘Oh, the crescendo was one bar earlier; the accent was a little bit too left.’ I don’t like to speak about music like this, because I’m not making music. I’m trying to tell stories, and I’m always thinking in character, which could be funny, interesting, or completely crazy. It’s not important to me to keep the story exclusively in the music, either. I have to feel it. Maybe I’m having a bath, and the water’s quite warm, and outside, it’s snowing. When you listen to music, close your eyes, and follow your thoughts. Think about your position in life, what’s important to you, and what’s not. Do all you can to feel the emotion.”