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 French horn

French Horn

(Fr. cor, cor d’harmonie; cor à pistons [valve horn]; cor simple, cor à main [hand horn]; cor de chasse, huchet, trompe de chasse [hunting horn]. Ger. Horn; Ventilhorn [valve horn]; Naturhorn [hand horn]; Hiefhorn, Hifthorn, Jagdhorn, Waldhorn [hunting horn]. It. corno; corno a macchina [valve horn]; corno a mano, corno naturale [hand horn]; corno da caccia, tromba da caccia [hunting horn]. Sp. trompa; trompa da caza [hunting horn]).

A term that refers, in its broadest sense, to a variety of wind instruments usually of the lip-reed class. A distinction often drawn between horns and trumpets is that the bore of a trumpet is mainly cylindrical, that of a horn mainly conical. In the Hornbostel-Sachs classification system, however, horns are considered to be within the family of trumpets.

Horns used for signalling (and sounding perhaps only one note) have been fashioned from conches, animal horns etc., as well as metal. Horns capable of playing many notes usually consist of a conical brass (or other metal) tube in a curved, coiled or hooped shape. By virtue of its length and slender proportions the horn can be made to sound a larger number of notes in its natural harmonic series than can other brass instruments.

This article is concerned with the European orchestral horn, often referred to as the ‘french horn’, probably in recognition of its country of origin, but nowadays the adjective is normally omitted.

The modern horn comprises five parts: the body, bell, mouthpiece, mouthpipe and valve system. The instrument may be made of brass alloy or nickel silver and consists mainly of a tube in the form of a circle. The player’s right hand is held inside the bell to support the instrument, adjust the intonation, or to obtain particular timbral effects.

Of the several varieties of valve horn in use, the most common is the double horn in F/Bb with four valves. This is the model normally employed in the orchestra, and the one which players customarily use when they first begin to learn the instrument. The double horn has two independent sections of tubing of different lengths, one in F and the other a 4th higher in Bb (referred to respectively as ‘F horn’ and ‘Bb horn’), in the central part of the body containing the valves.

Of the various types of single horn that were widely used in the past, the most common type of F horn from the second half of the 19th century until the 1920s was the ‘German’ horn.

The French preferred a model which preserved the characteristic structure of the natural (valveless) horn that had been built from the 18th century onwards by Raoux of Paris. It has crooks at the mouthpipe, and a piston machine which can sometimes be replaced with a simple slide to transform it into a genuine hand horn.

The first occurrence in France of a part written specifically for the hooped instrument is likely to have been in the divertissement La chasse du cerf by J.-B. Morin, performed at Fontainebleau in 1708. An early example of the horn in a concertante role in an Italian score is found in Francesco Gasparini’s L’oracolo del fato (Vienna, 1719), which calls for two ‘trombe da caccia’, while one of the first appearances of the horn in London must have been when German (possibly Bohemian) players appeared at Chelsea College in 1704. It seems that Handel did not adopt the horn on a permanent basis before 1720.

Although the repertory for the horn as a solo instrument is not extensive, it includes some fine compositions. 18th-century concertos for horn and orchestra include those by Telemann, Christoph Förster, Michael and Joseph Haydn, Leopold and W.A. Mozart and Carl Stamitz, in addition to Vivaldi’s concertos for two horns and Bach’s First Brandenburg Concerto. The horn also featured in chamber music, most notably Mozart’s Quintets in Eb k407/386c (horn, violin, two violas and cello) and k452 (piano, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn), Beethoven’s Quintet op.16 for piano and wind, his Sextet op.81b for two horns and strings and his Septet op.20, and Schubert’s Octet d803. There are also sets of duets by Mozart (k487/496a), Punto, Rossini and Schubert, among others. Beethoven’s Horn Sonata in F op.17 was composed for Punto, while Weber was perhaps the first to explore the Romantic potential of the instrument in the overtures to Oberon and Der Freischütz, and his Concertino; the latter work contains an early use of the phenomenon of multiphonics. The association of the instrument with hunting is reflected in Rossini’s Rendez-vous de chasse for four ‘corni da caccia’ and orchestra (1828). Other early 19th-century compositions for solo horn and orchestra were written by Cherubini and Danzi.

The influential French 19th-century teacher and performer L.F. Dauprat composed extensively for the horn, as did his pupil J.F. Gallay. Between them they produced a number of concertos and works for solo horn with piano accompaniment, as well as chamber music for horns alone, and for horns in combination with other instruments. A significant solo work for the valve horn was Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro for horn and piano op.70 (1849); the composer’s equally interesting Concertstück for four horns and orchestra dates from the same year. Other compositions for solo horn and orchestra from the second half of the 19th-century include those by Mercadunte and Franz Strauss, as well as the First Concerto (1882–3) of Richard Strauss, whose Second Horn Concerto is a much later work (1942), and Saint-Saëns's Romance op.36 (1874) and Morceau de concert op.94 (1887). Rimsky-Korsakov's Nocturne (c1888) is for a quartet of horns. Some examples of works for solo horn with piano accompaniment are Rossini's Prélude, thème et variations (1857), Saint-Saëns’s Romance op.67 (1885), the Romance by Skryabin (1890), and Glazunov’s Rêverie (1890). The horn was also successfully combined with the violin and piano in J.L. Dussek’s Notturno concertante op.68 (1809) and Brahms’s Trio op.40 (1865). Schubert’s song Auf dem Strom d943 (1828) includes an obbligato horn part, as does Richard Strauss’s Ein Alphorn hör’ ich schallen (1876).

The horn was quite well served by 20th-century composers. Hindemith wrote a sonata for horn and piano, and both he and Michael Tippett wrote sonatas for four horns. The playing of Dennis Brain inspired several fine works, including a concerto by Hindemith and two vocal works by Britten with horn obbligato, Canticle III (‘Still falls the rain’) and the Serenade op.31. Among younger composers Thea Musgrave made striking solo use of the horn in her Night Music (1969) and Horn Concerto (1971). Other works for solo horn include H.E. Apostel’s Sonatina op.39b (1964), Malcolm Arnold’s Fantasy op.88 (1966), Sea Eagle by Peter Maxwell Davies (1982), Hermann Baumann’s Elegia (1984), The Dying Deer by Alun Francis (1989) and Oliver Knussen’s Horn Concerto (1994). Poulenc’s chamber works include three pieces incorporating the horn: the Sonata for horn, trumpet and trombone (1922, rev. 1945), a Sextet for wind quintet and piano (1932–9) and the Elégie for horn and piano (1957). There are also trios for horn, violin and piano by Lennox Berkeley (op.44, 1953) and Ligeti (1982).

Late Romantic and 20th-century horn parts increasingly explored a whole range of tone colours. Special effects include echoes (indicated by a cross within a circle; obtained by playing a stopped note pianissimo), glissandos, flutter-tonguing, cuivrés (loud, brassy notes), and so on. A common way of altering the sound is by using mutes. Those usually required in orchestral practice are conical (‘straight’), and made from cardboard, fibre or synthetic materials, being closed at the wider end. These are non-transposing devices (i.e. they do not affect the pitch); other types of mute have the same effect as hand-muting (partially closing the bell with the hand), which raises the pitch a semitone (for which the player must compensate with the valves).

Reference (with liberty): New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell, (editors), 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

"French Horn" Teachers:

  • Bogdan Petrosanu
  • Catalin Birsa
  • Constantin Istrate
  • Istvan Raczari
  • Mihaiela Raileanu

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