The Evolution of an Instrument: The French Horn

It’s been suggested that one of the things we could look at in Musebreak’s music articles is the evolution of instruments. Good idea. So let’s start with the one I know best: the horn.

Most people (in America anyway) know this instrument as the French horn. However, the instrument is primarily German in origin. Therefore its official name is simply “horn”.


Conn 8D double horn.

The instrument traces its origin all the way back to the “shofar” horns of the Middle East, horns made of actual animal horns. The early metal horns were much simpler than what they would become later; little more than a length of metal tubing with a small flared bell on the end. The design quickly gained a large loop to make it easy to carry on horseback. This was important due to their use as a means of calling the dogs during hunting. These instruments had no valves, and a limited number of pitches available. Like bugles, these horns were limited to what is called the “harmonic series”, a set of notes that can be made by adjusting the speed of the air and the tightness of the lips. (The word for lip tightness is “embouchure”.)

When composers started using these instruments in their works in the late Baroque era (around the early 18th century), it was largely to invoke the feeling of outdoor activities like hunting. Soon it was used as more of a fanfare instrument. Since the musical works were written in various keys, you couldn’t just stick any old horn in your orchestra; it had to be pitched in such a way that its harmonic series would fit in with the key of the piece. To that end, horns were made to have sections that could be removed and replaced with a different section (or “crook”) that had more or less tubing in order to change the key in which the instrument played. Today, such horns are called “natural horns”, and can be heard in ensembles that specialize in playing period instruments. If you listen to orchestral music from the late baroque through the middle classical period (1700-1800) you can hear the type of horn parts written at the time. Usually it’s a pair of horns playing one harmonic step apart from the other. In larger ensembles, composers would use two pairs of horns, one pair pitched differently from the other, which allowed for more variety of notes.

Toward the end of the 18th century, hornists began learning to alter the pitch of the instrument using a hand in the bell, which had the effect of changing the length of the instrument. They also developed their embouchure control enough to further bend the pitch. This took a lot of skill, but virtuoso performers became common enough that composers began writing horn parts with more variety in the pitches. Mozart’s four horn concerti are excellent examples of this.

Around 1815, instrument makers began experimenting with adding a valve or two. These early valves were sluggish, and were really only meant to work as a replacement for crooks. With these a horn player could change their instrument’s pitch just by pushing a lever or button. However, hornists were reluctant to accept these, and it wasn’t until much later that the demands of the compositions forced them into accepting these more versatile instruments. Eventually, the valves improved in speed and quality, and we have the instrument that people are familiar with today. The hand in the bell stayed, even though its original use is now obsolete. Hornists still use it for fine adjustment of the pitch, for playing “stopped horn” (a type of muting), but mostly just to give the instrument the sound that everyone expects it to have.

Although the horn is technically a brass instrument, it differs from other brass instruments in many ways. It has one of the largest playable ranges of any brass instrument, around five octaves, and professional hornists tend to specialize in certain ranges. A typical four horn section is voiced differently than multiple parts in other instruments; usually the voicing from top to bottom is 1st horn, 3rd, 2nd, and 4th. This is due to the historic voicing of two pairs in different keys, where the 3rd and 4th horns were thought of as a separate section from the 1st and 2nd horns. The mouthpiece on a horn is more conical than those of other brass instruments, which adds to the rich quality of its tone. This tone quality is such that composers sometimes think of the horn as part of the woodwind section, since it blends so well with those instruments. In fact, the standard instrumentation for a woodwind quintet includes a horn.

The horn still comes in a variety of configurations, but the standard one used today is known as the double horn. It has the three valves that most brass instruments have, plus a fourth one controlled by the thumb which changes the instrument from its usual key (F) to a higher one (B flat). Players treat this as simply a fourth valve and use it accordingly.

Good horn players have to become skilled at transposing on sight, since most of the early literature is still written for the horns in different keys. So if an early hornist saw a piece for “horn in D”, they’d just grab their D horn and play; today they keep the same instrument and play a minor third lower than what’s written. (Some publishers are beginning to rewrite the horn parts so they can be played without transposition, but we hornists like adversity so we keep using the old parts.)

So, to wrap up, here’s some required listening:

Water Music, Suite 2, Alla Hornpipe, HWV 349 by G. F. Handel – An excellent example of a pair of horns emulating the hunting horns in the Baroque era.

Horn Concerto #1 in D, K412 by W. A. Mozart – A two movement virtuoso horn solo originally written for a natural horn in D. Most performers today play it on a standard double horn. Recordings can be found of this and all the Mozart concertos played on natural horn.

Adagio and Allegro, op. 70 by Robert Schumann – A showpiece for the instrument that stretches the performer’s skills in range, speed, and expression. (I can tell you from experience, this piece is a bear.)

…and just for fun… “Battle in the Mutara Nebuala” from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn by James Horner – because adventure movies have been a godsend for wild horn parts.