The Legendary Alto Horn
Recollections of a friend
Listen to Colonel Chesham Play "Robes of White" CMI 1959
The late Lt. Colonel Howard Chesham of The Salvation Army was a groomsman in my parents' wedding, June 16, 1938, and one of my dearest friends in life. I played in the Chicago Staff Band with him for over ten years and knew him well until his dying breath. He was undoubtedly the greatest alto horn player of all time. His last working position was as Treasurer for the National Salvation Army in America, a most considerable position of trust and responsibility. Most importantly, he was a Christ-centered gentleman of the highest order.
First, Howy is the only person I know of who (seventy years ago!) received a performance degree in alto horn. He took up the alto horn as a solo instrument when Sousa (under whose baton Howy played once) was in his last years of banding. This was an era when the cornet was the darling of all soloist instruments (keep in mind that Sousa's band was far more prominent and popular than Symphony orchestras of the day). When all the boys were trying to be like Herbert L. Clarke, Howy Chesham was charting territory that none since has explored - the alto horn as a true virtuoso instrument.
Let me vouchsafe my claims regarding his virtuosity by quoting some truly great musicians. I saw a letter to Howy from the redoubtable Erik Leidzen stating that Howy was "the greatest alto horn player in the world" . . . and Leidzen was hardly given to faint praise! Later, in the late 1960', while Howy was my guest for lunch at famous The Cliff Dwellers' Club in Chicago, my party (consisting of Howy, Lt. Colonel William Scarlett, Eric Ball and myself) encountered Will Scarlett, trumpeter with The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who was accompanied by the world renowned principal trumpeter Adolph Herseth. Will introduced Howy to Bud Herseth as "The greatest alto horn player in the world". Many years later while entertaining the great brass band composer/conductor Eric Ball in Cambridge, Massachusetts I recounted these two incidents and Eric quickly added "Add my name to that list!" In addition to this, both Emil Soderstrom and Irwin Fischer adored Howy's playing. Sodertstom wrote a solo for Howy, and Leidzen wrote the now famous "Old Rustic Bridge" for Howy. Fischer, when writing his "Wonderland Camp" march, used the alto horn as most composers would use the solo cornets, because Howy played solo horn in the band for which it was written. Chesham commissioned me to write a solo for him which resulted in my profoundly difficult "Fantasy Suite for Horn and Piano - Aberystwyth" which he played with disarming ease and profound artistry. In 1935 the great Bernard Smith wrote a solo for Howy for the first Central Music Institute of The Salvation Army, "Robes Of White", which Howy alone ever played. Half a century ago Howy wrote a horn trio, "Wonderful Words of Life" which was rejected for publication because The Salvation Army in England could not find three horn players to audition it for the Music Board! The Chicago Staff Band horns routinely played it through several generations of players, always with Howy in the lead. Most recently, while lunching with retired Chicago Symphony trumpeter, Will Scarlett, he commented of Howy: "I've never heard such a big horn sound! He was a great artist, who just happened to play the alto horn." Amen!
I have heard the best that the British contest bands have ever had to offer over half a century and the best that The Salvation Army has ever produced and will state that I've heard none that would be fit to carry Howy's horn case.
Howy was an artist. His greatest asset was his tone. It sounded like he was playing from the bottom of a deep well or inside a cave. Unlike other hornists, he had power beyond imagining. His technique was flawless and his stamina unbelievable. He played like a poet, with phrasing and dynamic nuance never to be equaled. The late Ren Schilke created a Howard Chesham model mouthpiece because of his respect for Chesham. Fifty years after the fact I looked at a score that Howy and I played together and the mere recollection of his playing a portion of it brought me to sobbing tears . . . so beautiful was his playing. This from one playing the lowly "peckhorn"!
I have been privileged to count among my closest friends many musical giants, and I hold none in higher veneration than Howy. I thank God for his very being and for his counting me (in his words, see photo) one of his "finest friends". I have been blessed.
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