I like horns. The trumpet's quite an instrument, that's for sure, and there's many the player that has distinguished himself -- Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Harry James, Wynton Marsalis. When it plays Taps, or the Last Post, there's never a dry eye. But for me, the best horn is the French Horn, and the best of the French Horns is the mighty Roland.
As the legend goes (the real battle was far less heroic, I guess), Roland is leading the rear-guard of Charlemagne's army as it moves through the Pyrenees, returning to France from Spain. Betrayed by a fellow Frank named Ganelon, Roland is beset by an enemy force. Despite being outnumbered, despite knowing of the treachery of Ganelon, Roland refuses to blow the horn that would summon Charlemagne's help. Only after they have spent all their strength does Roland listen to reason. But when Roland decides to blow that horn, he does it all the way.
When, in the far mountains, you hear the distant, piercing wail of his trumpet, some hundred miles away, calling you to action, you can't help but feel something...
Excerpted from John O'Hagan's translation.
Archbishop Turpin their strife hath heard,
His steed with the spurs of gold he spurred,
And thus rebuked them, riding near:
Sir Roland, and thou, Sir Olivier,
Contend not, in God's great name, I crave.
Not now availeth the horn to save;
And yet behoves you to wind its call,
Karl will come to avenge our fall,
Nor hence the foemen in joyance wend.
The Franks will all from their steeds descend;
When they find us slain and martyred here,
They will raise our bodies on mule and bier,
And, while in pity aloud they weep,
Lay us in hallowed earth to sleep;
Nor wolf nor boar on our limbs shall feed."
Said Roland, "Yea, 'tis a goodly rede."
Then to his lips the horn he drew,
And full and lustily he blew.
The mountain peaks soared high around;
Thirty leagues was borne the sound.
Karl hath heard it, and all his band.
"Our men have battle," he said, "on hand."
With deadly travail, in stress and pain,
Count Roland sounded the mighty strain.
Forth from his mouth the bright blood sprang,
And his temples burst for the very pang.
On and onward was borne the blast,
Till Karl hath heard as the gorge he passed,
And Naimes and all his men of war.
"It is Roland's horn," said the Emperor,
"And, save in battle, he had not blown."
On Roland's mouth is the bloody stain,
Burst asunder his temple's vein;
His horn he soundeth in anguish drear;
King Karl and the Franks around him hear.
Said Karl, "That horn is long of breath."
Said Naimes, "'Tis Roland who travaileth.
There is battle yonder by mine avow.
He who betrayed him deceives you now.
Arm, sire; ring forth your rallying cry,
And stand your noble household by;
For you hear your Roland in jeopardy."
The king commands to sound the alarm.
To the trumpet the Franks alight and arm;
With casque and corselet and gilded brand,
Buckler and stalwart lance in hand,
Pennons of crimson and white and blue,
The barons leap on their steeds anew,
And onward spur the passes through;
Nor is there one but to other saith,
"Could we reach but Roland before his death,
Blows would we strike for him grim and great."
Ah! what availeth! - 'tis all too late.