Robert Berger, from Levittown, New York, has written many spirited e-mails to me, starting long before this blog. The latest fills out my earlier comment on orchestral horn sections, with all kinds of “he was there” color and detail I don’t remotely have.
Here’s what he told me (posted with his permission, and with many thanks):
As a horn player (no longer active because of a physical disability), I read your comments on the use of assistant principal horns in orchestras with interest. The use of an extra horn players is a necessity for first horn players. A study was done several years ago ranking a wide variety of professions on their stress levels. Being principal horn in a major orchestra was right at the top! Playing those long Bruckner and Mahler symphonies, and many other works is extremely grueling.
The assistant first does not only play passages which the principal decides to stay out of, but also doubles some louder tutti passages with the principal to reinforce the sound of the horns. At the Met, playing first horn on a complete Ring cycle without an assistant would be a fate worse than death!