The persistence of the natural horn in the romantic period

K C Moore


1 Introduction

2 The horn before 1830

3 Valves

4 Omnitonic horns

5 Horns in the romantic period

6 Attitudes to the chromatic horn

7 Composers, radical, conservative and pragmatic

8 The natural horn today

9 Conclusions


1 Introduction

Although the valves which eventually led to the dominance of the chromatic horn were invented early in the Romantic period of music (1830 - 1914), many musicians continued, throughout much of the 19th century, to favour the natural horn. Many composers wrote parts for the chromatic horn which were influenced by the character of the older instrument, and some continued to write parts for natural horn well into the time when all players owned and used a chromatic one. Moreover, there were differences in national traditions of horn playing which were reflected in the design and manufacture of the instruments. These aspects of the horn and some of the interrelationships among them are considered below.

2 The horn before 1830

Morley-Pegge1 reproduces a print from a woodcut made by Sebastian Brandt (1457-1521) to illustrate a 1502 Strasbourg edition of Virgil's works. It shows two musicians, one playing a trumpet with two folds, the other what appears to be a horn with four (Morley-Pegge sees only three) open coils and a smallish (but larger than that of the trumpet) bell. The musician is wearing the instrument around his neck and holding it with both hands; the bell projects forward to the left of his head. Its layout is nevertheless such as to allow him to bring the mouthpiece to his lips. Assuming that the musician had a height of 160 cm. (5 ft. 3 ins.), the instrument would have had a length of 590 cm. and been pitched in the unusual key of A basso. If, however, Morley-Pegge is correct in seeing three coils, then the original instrument would have been in the usual key, for a hunting horn, of D.

Some 250 years later, Carlin of Paris made a horn, also illustrated by Morley-Pegge2, which differed relatively little from the early 16th century model. It has three open coils and plays in D. Its mouthpiece is detachable. (Whether the 16th century mouthpiece is integral or detachable is unclear from the illustration.) Its bell is placed opposite the mouthpipe, so that when played it projects its sound to the rear of the player. Morley-Pegge suggests that it may be an orchestral horn, since two coils were more normal for a hunting horn of the middle of the 18th century.

About that time, after two and a half centuries of very slow development, the horn established a regular place in the orchestra and began a similar period of rapid evolution and diversification. One important constructional development had already been made: the use of detachable crooks on a common body, instead of complete horns in different keys, has been shown by Fitzpatrick3 to date from the early years of the 18th century.

A major innovation in playing technique was the use of the hand in the bell, both to modify the tone of the horn and to adjust the tuning. This is attributed to a horn player in the Dresden orchestra, Anton Joseph Hampel or Hampl, though Morley-Pegge4 considers that he may merely have “extended and codified a technique about which something must have been known much earlier, ...”. The hand horn technique overcomes the limitation of the natural horn to the notes of the harmonic series, at the expense of some variation of tone quality, which the best players strive, with fair success, to minimise. For some 50 years after its first use in public (probably5 by Rodolphe, a horn player in the service of the Duke of Parma, between 1754 and 1760), hand horn technique was restricted to soloists of some virtuosity, such as Hampel himself, the celebrated Giovanni Punto, and Mozart's friend Leutgeb. Orchestral horn parts used very largely the harmonics which needed no modification, though we may conjecture that the players would soon have learnt to use the hand to correct the intonation of the 7th and 11th harmonics (a slightly flat written B flat and a note halfway between written F and F# respectively) which were common in orchestral parts.

In chamber music, on the other hand, composers expected and exploited virtuosity. For example, the first horn part of the Spohr Octet (for clarinet, two horns, violin, two violas, violoncello and double bass) of 1814 has florid passages, in semiquavers at 60 minims to the minute, which incorporate both open and stopped notes. Both the horns parts of this attractive work remain challenging on modern instruments.

A horn with a complete set of terminal crooks (ie inserted between the mouthpiece and the body) for each of the keys in which it is expected to play can be designed so that the relationship between the mouthpiece and the bell is the same in all keys. However, the more common system (because cheaper) for terminal crooks in multiple keys is to have two or at most three crooks incorporating a tapered mouthpipe in which the mouthpiece can be inserted, extended by couplers of constant cross section to give the other keys. A system with which the author is familiar has two crooks (giving B flat alto and F) and four such couplers, of different sizes, up to three of which may need to be inserted between the crook and the body to put the horn into an unusual key such as F# or C#. A disadvantage (albeit not, in the author's experience, severe) is that the relationship between the mouthpiece and the bell varies with the number of couplers.

Hampel was sufficiently dissatisfied with this characteristic that, some time in the 1750s6, he designed a new type of horn with a mouthpipe fixed to the body of the instrument and means by which parallel tubing of various lengths could be inserted to lengthen the hoop tubing. This design, first made by Johann Werner of Dresden, became, after improvement of the method by which the extra tubing was attached, the preferred design of horn in Germany, where it was known as the Inventionshorn7. Hampel's original design had a tenon and socket joint for the extra tubing. This proving somewhat less than satisfactory, Haltenhof, of Hanau-am-Main, invented a new joint8, still in use today, with close fitting tubes sliding one inside the other. Grease ensures a good seal and prevents the metal surfaces binding together. Another application of the new joint was in the tuning slide, which began to be added, about this time, onto terminally crooked instruments.

On tenon and socket jointed Inventionshorns, tuning was by insertion of straight pieces of parallel tubing of various (fairly short) lengths.

About 1780, the celebrated Paris horn maker, Raoux, took the Inventionshorn as his model and modified it by lengthening the body and providing crooks (of Haltenhof's double slide variety) only for the keys of G, F, E, E flat and D. This instrument was known as the cor solo, since it was suitable for solos, concertos and chamber music but not for the orchestra, because of its lack of the complete range of keys. With more tapered and less parallel tubing than the Inventionshorn in the same keys, it probably had superior acoustic characteristics and tuning. Its high reputation is illustrated by its use by Punto, by Türreschmidt and Palsa, successful duettists in Paris (Türreschmidt collaborated with Raoux in the design of this instrument), and by Dauprat and Gallay, professors of horn at the Paris Conservatoire from 1816 to 1842 and from 1842 to 1864 respectively. Puzzi (1792-1876), another celebrated virtuoso, who lived and worked in England after 1817, owned two9.

3 Valves

Throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and for much of the 19th, both fixed length and variable length brass instruments were used, though only latterly in the same ensembles. Myers10, Polk11, and Duffin12 deduce, largely but not entirely from iconographic evidence, that a trumpet with a single action slide was used with shawms to perform contrapuntal music during the 15th century and possibly even from as early as 1380. McGowan13 places the invention of the sackbut in the second half of the 15th century, and shows illustrations of sackbuts in a woodcut, “The triumph of Maximilian”, of 1512 to 1519 which closely resemble surviving late 16th century instruments. No surviving Renaissance slide trumpet is known, and its existence is not generally accepted. If it did exist, its larger sizes were superseded by the alto trombone and its smaller sizes by the cornett, a conical lip reed (ie blown like trumpet and trombone) instrument with finger holes, suitable for florid contrapuntal music.

With the trombone still extant in the 18th century, one may wonder why no serious attempt appears to have been made to use a slide to give chromatic capability to the horn during the classical period. One reason may have been the remarkable capability of the best hand horn players. Another is that the trombones covered much of the range of the horn and were the traditional instruments from the brass family on which to perform contrapuntal music. Smithers14 points out that, during Mozart's employment at Salzburg, horns were generally excluded from performances of liturgical music “... because of their highly visible (and audible) associations with venery (in both senses of the word!) ...”; and liturgical music was where contrapuntal capability was needed. In the classical symphony, horns spent most of their time as part of the harmonie, reinforcing chords when they had appropriate notes to contribute and tacet otherwise. The trumpet remained the instrument with least chromatic capability, though attempts were made with the keyed trumpet (c. 1770) and the keyed bugle (1810) to provide a high ranging chromatic instrument with brass timbre.

Eventually, engineering and manufacturing made sufficient progress to produce a rapid, reliable and air-tight means of switching extra lengths of tubing into horns and trumpets. The first valve for the horn seems to have been that of Heinrich Stölzel, reported, though not described, in 1815. In 1818, Stölzel took out a joint patent with Friedrich Blühmel for a piston valve of square cross section. Morley-Pegge deduces that the first valve was probably a piston valve of circular cross section, possibly with deficiencies. Valves attributed to Stölzel arrived in Paris in 1826, on a trumpet. Their design was improved by the Paris maker Labbaye, who won a silver medal at the Paris Industrial Exhibition of 1827 with a horn incorporating them. However, neither of these two designs has survived into the twentieth century: the square piston was too heavy, and the original circular piston had acoustically undesirable sharp right angled turns in the windway. The modern piston valve has the circular cross section of the Stölzel valve and the smooth transverse windway of the square Blühmel valve. It was invented by Périnet, of Paris, in 1839 and, as improved by Besson, Courtois and Dr J. P. Oates, has survived to the present, though mostly on trumpets and brass band instruments. The rotary valve seems to have arisen in Vienna about 1832. Despite this origin, it is not known as the Vienna valve: that name applies to a third design used nowadays only by members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and horn players who aspire to join it.

4 Omnitonic horns

Contemporary with the development of the valve was a curious dead end in the history of the horn. An omnitonic horn was one which contained enough tubing to be put into a wide range of keys by one of a variety of mechanical devices, such as slides or rotary taps. This change, though much quicker than a crook change, was not almost instantaneous like the valve, so that the player still needed hand technique to play his part in tune. The omnitonic horn never invaded Germany, where the use of valves came early; it became obsolete around 1870, with the spread of the two best valve designs, the improved Périnet piston and the rotary.

5 Horns in the romantic period

As the horn is usually played in a range well above its fundamental note, two valves, one descending a semitone and the other a tone, suffice to give good fingerings for every note from written A below middle C upwards. A third valve, descending a tone and a half, fills in another octave downward, in combination with the first two. Morley-Pegge shows photographs of horns with only two valves, which he dates as late as 1840. However, by the middle of the century three valves were standard. In France and England these would have been, with some exceptions, piston valves on an instrument with terminal crooks and a body short enough to allow a terminal crook of one short turn to pitch the instrument in B flat alto. Each of the loops of tubing added by the valve would have had a tuning slide, with a large range of adjustment, since the amount of tubing which must be added to cause the same relative pitch change is twice as much for the B flat basso horn as for the B flat alto. In Germany and Eastern Europe, except for Vienna, they would have been rotary valves on an instrument derived from the Inventionshorn. Gregory's15 chart implies that all horns descend directly from the end crooked natural horn, the Inventionshorn being shown as a line at the side with no modern descendants. The author disagrees with this view: chromatic horns with the mouthpipe fixed to the body and an intermediate position for insertion of a parallel tuning slide were made both in France and in Germany in the middle of the nineteenth century, are made in many countries nowadays and are clearly descended from the Inventionshorn or the cor solo. The end crooked chromatic horn was not confined to France, though it persisted longest there; Vienna horns (ie horns made in Vienna using the Vienna valve) were made with end crooks also.

Foregoing the large range of tuning given by the short body and numerous crooks of the French design of instrument allowed the German makers of the later nineteenth century to optimise the acoustic cross-section of the body tubing for the pitch of the F horn. The single horn in F (ie an instrument with a minimum length corresponding to the F harmonic series and with three valves giving the B horn as maximum length) is fairly light and robust, and has, provided the valves do not leak, potential for a good characteristic horn sound. Its main drawback is its unpredictability in the upper ranges, which led to the marketing by Kruspe of the first double horn (ie one in which valves give the range from B flat alto to B basso by semitones) in 1898 and a more satisfactory version of it in 1900. This design, which pointed the way to horn development in the twentieth century, makes a fitting conclusion to a brief technical history of the romantic horn.

6 Attitudes to the chromatic horn

Valves of high quality, similar to those still in use today, came fairly early in the existence of the chromatic horn. However, the very earliest valves, and some of later invention, were of dubious reliability or had adverse effects upon the tone of the instrument. Consequently the new invention was not greeted with universal acclaim. Moreover, the virtuosi who could unify the sounds of the open and hand stopped notes on the natural horn did not look with favour upon a device which they supposed (many players of today would claim not entirely accurately) to allow the same effects to be obtained with no effort. Of course, attitudes varied, but some were so negative that horns were made with detachable valves on a slide which replaced the plain tuning slide, and some makers went so far as to construct cases for these instruments with false panels in the lids behind which such valves could be concealed. The player could then arrive for a performance apparently with the orthodox natural horn, use it for the undemanding parts of the work to be performed and surreptitiously insert the valves in time for a passage which was beyond his hand technique.

The extremity of views on the acceptability of the new development is shown in its full absurdity in France. Dauprat, horn professor at the Paris Conservatoire in 1816 and sole professor from 1817, was open minded. The description of his post required him to teach natural horn but he was sufficiently interested in the new instrument to write a supplement for the two-valved horn to his Méthode de Cor Alto et Cor Basse, though it seems not to have been published. Moreover, it was during his time at the Conservatoire, in 1833, that his pupil, Meifred, became professor of the valve-horn class.

Meifred held his last class in 1863, and no successor was appointed to him on his retirement in 1864. Both Gallay, Dauprat's successor in 1842, and Mohr, who succeeded Gallay on the latter's death in 1864, were conservatives who wrote hand- horn tutors. Consequently the valve-horn class was not reinstated until 1897, after Brémond, who had been appointed in succession to Mohr, obtained permission from the Principal of the Conservatoire, Ambroise Thomas. Meanwhile, the chromatic horn had become triumphant in orchestras throughout Europe. Brémond, writing to Morley-Pegge, summarises the Conservatoire's curious history: “Cor simple jusqu'en 1896 - Cor simple et à Pistons de 1897 à 1902 - Cor à Pistons depuis 1903”16

7 Composers, radical, conservative and pragmatic

Romantic composers showed the same range of attitudes as performing musicians and critics. Some of them embraced the new technology enthusiastically; others rejected it; a third category attempted a synthesis of the new capabilities with a style of writing for the instrument influenced by its earlier limitations. In the following brief survey, attention is restricted mainly to composers who wrote works for the horn which are important for artistic or technical reasons.

7.1 Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn was a conservative in his horn writing, as in many other aspects of his composition, all his horn parts being intended for the natural horn. Two works are specially worth noting: the Nocturne of the incidental music to “A Midsummer Night's Dream” (1843)17, is an outstandingly beautiful piece of writing for hand horn in E, on which it is readily playable. The writing for horns 3 and 4, in F, in the scherzo of his Symphony No 3 (Scottish), though no more demanding than Spohr's chamber music or Weber's Concertino, is exceptionally difficult for an orchestral horn part of the period.

7.2 Berlioz

Berlioz was by temperament a radical, asking for a valved trumpet in his Opus 3, the overture to Les Franc-Juges, as early as 1827. In the second edition of his “Grand Traité d'Intrumentation”18 of 1855 he gives a clear characterisation of the chromatic horn. However, his description of the natural horn is longer and full of helpful advice. Moreover, much of the horn writing in his own works is for the natural instrument. A clue to his possible attitude is given in his memoirs19. He enthuses over the chromatic horns which he finds at Stuttgart in 1842, and claims that the rotary valve, as used all over Germany, is superior to the piston. He may have disliked the tone of the piston valved horns available to him in France, where even the best valve design, the Périnet, had not reached its final form. One can also regard him as a radical composer for the natural horn, however, as shown by the horn parts of the Scherzo (“Queen Mab”) of his dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette. He uses four natural horns but, very unusually (though as recommended in his “Traité”), they are all crooked differently, so that he can maintain a consistent orchestral timbre throughout an extended passage which moves freely through several keys. In other works he achieves uniformity of tone by giving the same melodic line to the unison of two or more horns crooked in different keys, so that each note occurs on at least one open horn, while the other(s) may be lightly or heavily hand stopped. At the end of his composing career, in the overture to “Béatrice et Bénédict” (1862) he writes for two chromatic horns in D and two natural horns in G (valves are not specifically indicated, but need for them is clear from the part writing). It is no surprise to deduce that valved instruments were available at the Baden-Baden opera where the work received its première: they were standard throughout Germany and Austria by this date.

7.3 Schumann

Schumann was a radical in his use of the chromatic horn, producing the first two major solo (soli in the second case) works in its repertoire: the Adagio and Allegro for horn and piano (versions with the horn replaced by 'cello or violin exist also) and the Concertstück for four horns and orchestra of 1849. Horn 1 of the latter remains exceedingly difficult, being extremely high and having long passages with no rest. Schumann writes for chromatic horns in his symphonies also, using various crooks, but mostly in the middle range: F, E and E flat.

7.4 Wagner

Wagner's horn writing developed through his composing career. Blandford20 makes the case that in Lohengrin Wagner wrote for two chromatic and two natural horns. Blandford also notes the impossible crook changes which are specified in the same work and suggests convincingly that this arises from a widespread view of the valves, from their first introduction up to about 1860, that they were merely a convenient and quick substitute for a crook change. In “Der Ring des Nibelungen” the horn parts are largely chromatic, though with some crook changes. However, Wagner keeps the historic character of the horn in mind in his part writing: Punto would have been happy to play Siegfried's celebrated horn call on his natural horn in F.

7.5 Brahms

Of all the composers considered herein, Brahms carried the historic view of the horn to its greatest extreme. Long after every professional horn player in Germany and Austria used a chromatic instrument exclusively, all his horn parts were written for the natural horn, though as Richard Merewether writes21 “... there is little likelihood that Brahms's meticulous horn parts were in practice played on the `natural' instruments for which they are notated, nor would they have sounded more effective for being so”. Brahms typically writes for two horns with one crook and two with another, though occasionally (Haydn variations) he has three different crooks in use simultaneously. He prescribes the C crook in 11 of his 16 symphonic movements and the E crook in 7. Since he prescribes nothing higher than the G crook and that in only one symphonic movement, we can be sure that his concept of horn tone was mellow rather than penetrating.

7.6 Chaikovsky

Chaikovsky is representative of a number of late romantic composers (Bruckner, Mahler and Rachmaninov were others) who adapted thoroughly to the chromatic horn without a backward glance, and always wrote for the F instrument. His horn parts are rewarding and well adapted to the chromatic horn. The solo which opens the slow movement of his Symphony No. 5 is justly celebrated. He uses the solo horn in the same way as the principal woodwind instruments and the whole section both as an individual brass choir and as part of the complete brass section with trumpets, trombones and tuba. His writing for the brass instruments shows the chromatic horn at its peak of esteem and also shows the increasing importance of the trumpet, which was to demand a greater share of the limelight in the acerbic twentieth century.

7.7 Richard Strauss

The son of a horn player, Strauss wrote two concertos for the instrument, one at the beginning and the other at the end of his career. The second exploits all the capabilities of the chromatic horn and is very difficult. The first, consciously backward looking and somewhat resembling the music of Mendelssohn, is ostensibly written for the natural horn (Waldhorn is indicated on the title page) and, indeed, is playable, though not easy, on the open E flat horn. Strauss retained a somewhat old-fashioned attitude to the horn to the end of his life: in the second of his “Vier letzte Lieder” (1948), “September”, he asks for horns 3 and 4 to be crooked in D and in the fourth, “Im Abendrot”, in E flat. By that date these parts would have been played on F horns in all countries except, perhaps, France.

7.8 Dukas

In the few orchestral works that he did not destroy, Dukas exploited all the resources of the orchestra of his time. In one work, however, he introduces conscious archaism. The “Villanelle” for horn and piano (published 1906) was commissioned as a test piece for the Paris Conservatoire and is dedicated to Brémond, horn professor at the time. It has two substantial passages which are intended to be played without valves on the F horn, the remainder exploiting the valves, so that both aspects of the students technique are tested.

7.9 Ravel

A final example, the latest the author has yet discovered [this essay was written before the publication and first performance of Ligeti's Horn Concerto], of a post-Classical composer writing for natural horn: in 1910 Ravel orchestrated the “Pavane pour une infante défunte”, which he had written as a piano piece in 1899. The original score, published by Max Eschig and reproduced by Dover22, has the horn stave annotated, “2 Cors simples en sol”, and both parts are playable with standard hand technique on the natural G horn. Unlike Brahms and Strauss, Ravel may actually have had some expectation of the technique being used, since its teaching at the Paris Conservatoire had only just come to an end. However, rather than the instrument specified, he probably expected his players to use either a chromatic horn crooked in G or an instrument with an ascending third valve, depression of which shortens the instrument and raises its pitch by a tone.

8 The natural horn today

Interest in old instruments started in this country with Arnold Dolmetsch, but he was concerned mostly with stringed instruments and recorders. The figure most associated with old wind and brass instruments was Francis Galpin (1858-1945). With the founding of the Galpin Society in 1946, this interest became more widespread. It has gathered considerable strength and become associated with the aims of “authentic” or “historically informed” performance. This is both an amateur and a professional activity. As far as the horn is concerned, makers now market natural horns of several different designs and repairers remove valves from old piston horns with crooks to create instruments which differ little in design from the natural horns of 1800 (though modern players usually play on modern mouthpieces which are substantially different).

During the last decade or so, some of the best professional players have made a study of hand horn technique and achieved high standards, though, for the present [1997], recording may be the preferred way to present their skills to the public. The use of appropriate replica instruments is well established for the classical repertoire, but has some way to go in the romantic period. However, both John Eliot Gardiner, with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, and Roger Norrington, with the London Classical Players, have made a start on Berlioz. [August 2004: Simon Rattle has now conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a performance of "Das Rheingold" at a BBC Promenade Concert. The BBC Proms guide claims that this is "the first time a Wagner opera as been played on original instruments in modern times".]

9 Conclusions

The addition of the valve to the horn was a long and contentious business, partly because of the poor quality of many of the designs of valve marketed from 1820 to 1850, partly because of the virtuosity of many players on the natural instrument, throughout the nineteenth century but particularly at its beginning. The older instrument continued to influence composers, even when they knew that what they wrote would be played on a chromatic horn in F with no possibility of fitting crooks. With the advent of players capable of playing the natural horn to a standard comparable with that of the virtuosi of the early nineteenth century, there is at last the possibility of hearing some romantic works in the manner which the composers prescribed.


1. Morley-Pegge, R., The French Horn, Ernest Benn Ltd., London, second edition 1973, Plate I, No 1.

2. Ibid, Plate II, No 6.

3. Fitzpatrick, H, The Horn and Horn-playing and the Austro- Bohemian Tradition, Oxford, 1970.

4. Morley-Pegge, R., The French Horn, Ernest Benn Ltd., London, second edition 1973, p. 87.

5. Ibid, p. 89.

6. Ibid, p. 20.

7. Ibid, p. 21.

8. Ibid, p. 21.

9. Ibid, pp. 22 and 154-163

10. Myers, H.W., Slide trumpet madness: fact or fiction?, Early Music, XVII (1989), p. 383.

11. Polk, K., The trombone, the slide trumpet and the ensemble tradition of the early Renaissance , loc. cit., p. 389.

12. Duffin, R.W., The trompette des menestrels in the 15th- century alta capella , loc.cit., p. 397.

13. McGowan, K, The world of the early sackbut player: flat or round? , Early Music, XXII (1994), p. 441.

14. Smithers, D.L., Mozart's orchestral brass , Early Music, XX (1992), p. 255.

15. Gregory, R., The Horn, Faber and Faber, London, second edition, 1969, p.27.

16. Brémond, F., letter to Morley-Pegge, 1922, in Morley-Pegge, R., loc. cit.

17. Labar, A., Horn Player's Audition Handbook, Belwyn Mills, 1986.

18. Berlioz, H., Treatise on Instrumentation, Kalmus, 1948.

19. Cairns, D., ed. and trans., The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, Gollancz, London, 1969, p. 277.

20. Blandford, H., Wagner and the Horn Parts of Lohengrin, Musical Times, September, October 1922.

21. Brahms, J., Complete Horn Parts: the four symphonies, The Horn Centre, London, 1972.

22. Ravel, M., Four orchestral works in full score, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1989.

Ken's own home page | Patsy & Ken's home page