French Horn Maker Quitting the Business

Walter Lawson has built French horns in the mountains of Western Maryland for more than 20 years. Horn players in big symphonies around the country swear by them. But he's getting out of the business.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

The French horn is an elegant instrument. It requires patience and expertise to play and to make. Walter Lawson is known as a master manufacturer of French horns at his shop Lawson Brass. Now, he's retiring.

Joel McCord of member station WYPR in Baltimore has his profile.

(Soundbite of French horn making)

JOEL McCORD: For more than a quarter of a century, Walter Lawson and his sons, Bruce and Paul, have built French horns in a cluttered shop in the mountains of western Maryland. Their instruments have played by the finest musicians in the world. But Walter, who works with a radio tuned to a classical music station, is getting on in years and they're closing down.

Mr. WALTER LAWSON (French Horn Builder): Oh, I'm having some problems, physical problems, and so - and I'm 83 years old, and the boys want to get into some other things, so we just decided it'd be time to hang it up.

McCORD: They sold Lawson brass instruments to Kendall Betts, the former principal horn in the Minnesota orchestra.

Mr. KENDALL BETTS (French Horn player): Walt's done great things, they've done great things. I can carry it on, I think.

McCORD: Horn players have greeted the sale with nostalgia. Freelance musician Amel George(ph) in Washington, D.C., has been playing a Lawson horn for 16 years.

Mr. AMEL GEORGE (Freelance Musician): They have made an instrument that enables us to really enjoy our craft and what we do.

McCORD: Lawson left a successful career with the Baltimore symphony to go into the instrument repair business. He set up shop out in the woods, where you're more likely to see deer or an occasional bear than the professional musicians he was targeting. And he found customers in other circles, as well.

Mr. LAWSON: With the second year, we built a horn for a high-school girl in Texas. We've built horns for nuns, priests, doctors, lawyers, you know, a lot of - we built horns for a lot of people who you might call dilettantes.

McCORD: They make as many as 50 horns a year, priced at about $10,000 each. Lawson says these musical marvels start as a box of silver and brass parts.

Mr. LAWSON: This is the levers. These are the slide tubes. These are the crooks. These crooks will have tubes soldered on like that, and this crook is a certain length, and this is what the valves operate.

McCORD: Sure, it sounds simple, but those crooks and tubes are made from metal alloys that the Lawsons have been experimenting with for years. Amel George says no other horn-maker can match them.

Mr. GEORGE: I can't tell you how many times people come up to me, and they'll say I've never heard a horn with such a beautiful sound. Now, a horn doesn't make - it doesn't do everything. It is a player, too, but the fact is that this metal does have some particularly beautiful quality of it that truly makes their horns magical.

McCORD: To give you a sense of that magic, here's Kendall Betts, who plays one of the first Lawson's ever built with the Minnesota orchestra in a 1996 recording of Stravinsky's “The Firebird.”

(Soundbite of song, “The Firebird”)

McCORD: For NPR News, I'm Joel McCord.

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