Instrumentalists imitate the human voice more often than human singers imitate instruments. Evidence for the rule includes Louis Armstrong’s duets with Ella, Bach’s obbligato parts to sacred arias (I am thinking especially of oboe and cello), some styles of African drumming, and even some didgeridoo music. In the category of interesting exceptions–there are few–I’d put Bobby McFerrin (e.g., his duets with Chick Corea).
I suppose the most beautiful instrument must be the one that most closely resembles the human voice, man being the measure of all things and all that. If a mellow baritone voice (my personal favorite) were the goal, I’d nominate the French horn as its, um, avatar. Surely composers would have used the horn more often a century ago had they had today’s range of choices for mixing and matching dynamics. French horns simply have a lot of power, evidence I guess of their history in hunting, where it was important to be heard at a great distance. They have a lot of beauty, too: my ear always melts at certain passages in the Romantic repertoire where the horn soars wistfully above the fracas. But I wish I heard them more often in tandem with singers.
Dennis Brain was my first love. But Barry Tuckman is pretty good too! Enchanted by Mozart’s Horn Concertos.
One of the recordings that has made me muse on this question was the one of Baroque trumpet music by Kathleen Battle and Wynton Marsalis. There really are places where you no longer know which is which. But overall, I’m with you for the French horn!
Historically the English horn has been known as the Vox humana. The organ stop of the same name tends to sound a great deal like an English horn as possible, given that the organ is not an English horn. Sometimes both Vox humana and English horn stops will be present on an organ. Since I have always been told the double-reed instrument is called an English horn because it was mistakenly called a Cor anglais when its real name was Cor angle’, we can probably call any of these sounds pretty much anything (reasonable) we want to call them, and still enjoy listening to them.
Vox humana, vox dei, I reckon.
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