You may be curious to know why "French" in French horn is usually noted in parentheses throughout this site. While it is true that some of the horn's history originated in France, it is far from its exclusive heritage. Actually, in France it's know as the horn ("cor") or German horn, and in Germany it's called the hunting horn. In fact, it's only called the French horn by the English. Consequently, the International Horn Society has been lobbying for a long time to change the official term for their instrument to "horn". This could happen if all composers began to call for only "horns" in their music, if writers of band, orchestra, and ensemble programs and personnel rosters would begin to list the instrument as "horn", if schools offered studies only in "horn", and if casual conversations were restricted in order to prevent reference to the instrument as "French"... but probably not in our lifetimes.

A Brief History of Horn Evolution

Scandanavian Lur

1. Origins      

Instruments made from animal horns have existed since ancient times - they were primarily used as signaling devices. The horn as a musical instrument has only existed for several hundred years.

One of the earliest "horn-like" instruments, the lur, dates back to sixth century B.C. Made of bronze, these horns were used on the battlefields by Scandinavian clans.  It makes a loud, obnoxious sound, just perfect for striking terror into the enemy camp.

Hunting Horn

In Europe, horns gained popularity in the trendy sport of hunting. As this aristocratic sport spread, horn-makers experimented with different shapes and sizes to increase the range of notes possible.  In 1636, French musical scholar Marin Mersenne wrote of four different kinds of horns in his Harmonie Universelle: Le grand cor (the big horn), the cor à plusiers tours, (the horn of several turns), le cor qui n'a qu'un seul tour (the horn which has only one turn), and le huchet (the horn with which one calls from afar). Horns such as the cor de chasse and trompe de chasse (pictured left) fall into this latter category.

Shortly thereafter, the horn began to appear in the concert halls and theaters.   Too raucous for inclusion with the fine oboes and violins in the orchestra pit though, at first the hunting horns were used only onstage in scenes depicting, naturally, the hunt. The horn at this point was not yet ready for serious artistic endeavors - only as "special effects," to give flashy theatrics to stage productions.

Meanwhile in Bohemia, Austria and Germany a more refined school of horn playing was developing under the auspices of Count Franz Anton von Sporck.  The gentleman Count was, for all of his life, a hunting aficionado. He even founded The Order of St. Hubert (the patron saint of the hunt).  Then while visiting France in the 1680's, Count von Sporck heard some cors de chasse at a hunt. Immediately after hearing the French hunting horns, von Sporck instructed that two men of his consort be taught to play the instrument. These two men, Wenzel Sweda and Peter Röllig became the source from which horn playing in all of Bohemia and Germany grew.

2. Crooks and Hand Horns

Beginning with the cor de chasse (French for hunting horn), the horn began its evolution into a refined concert hall instrument. From early beginnings in stage settings depicting the hunt, Baroque composers began writing more complex and artistic music for this horn. Yet, the corno da caccia (Italian for hunting horn), was still a single, fixed length of tubing and its musical potential was limited to the natural harmonic series.

The crook was simply a section of coiled tubing that, when inserted into the horn would change the overall length of the instrument. Changing the length would also change the pitch (the longer the tube, the lower the pitch), allowing the same entire harmonic series, but now, in a different key. Instead of carrying many instruments in different keys, horn players would only have to carry one horn with a set of crooks of varying lengths.  They could change the key of the instrument simply by inserting a new crook.

Hand horn technique -

It wasn't just the instrument that was evolving though.  The players were getting more clever as well. By 1760 a new technique in playing had firmly caught on that was taking the horn to the next step in its evolution.  The Bohemian virtuoso hornist in the court of Dresden, Anton Hampel (1711-1771) is generally credited with developing and teaching the technique that had been known by some hornists as early as the 1720s.   Quite simple really: by manipulating the right hand inside the bell of the horn, he could play tones other than the natural harmonics, thus filling in the gaps between the notes of the harmonic series.

Coupled with the use of crooks, this new "hand horn" technique opened up exciting new possibilities for musical expression, and composers of the Classical Period eagerly embraced it.

The Cor Solo and the Waldhorn were among the first instruments designed for hand horn technique. The Cor Solo was still somewhat limited in its range of keys though, as in the case of the cor solo pictured right - it has attachments for only G, F, E, Eb and D transpositions. The Waldhorn had a similar system - a master crook producing the highest key needed, and optional successive crooks, each adding more tubing, to produce harmonics for lower keys.

3. The Valve

omnitonic horn
By 1815 several different Omnitonic horn designs were being manufactured.  The horns pictured here and on the previous page show only two of the many different types available then. The basic idea was that via a mechanism of some type, a player could quickly choose from a built-in collection of crooks, while still utilizing hand horn technique to play in any given key.

Intended as a solution to the problem of quick crook changes, the Omnitonic horn proved to be both cumbersome and heavy.  It was also short-lived.   The Omnitonic horn was adopted mostly by conservative players who were not confident with the budding new technology that would soon eliminate the need for hand horn technique altogether - the valve.

In 1815, in the Leipzig periodical Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, Gottlob Benedict Bierey wrote:

     "Heinrich Stölzel, the chamber musician from Pless in Upper Silesia, in order to perfect the Waldhorn, has succeeded in attaching a simple mechanism to the instrument, thanks to which he has obtained all the notes of the chromatic scale in a range of almost three octaves, with a good, strong and pure tone. All the artificial notes - which, as is well known, were previously produced by stopping the bell with the right hand - are identical in sound to the natural notes and thus preserve the character of the Waldhorn. Any Waldhorn player will, with practice, be able to play on it. So that his invention may become more widely known and used, Herr Stölzel has laid his invention at the feet of His Majesty the King of Prussia and now awaits a favorable outcome."
Stolzel horn
In 1816, Heinrich Stölzel and a wind playing colleague, Friedrich Blümel, were granted a Prussian patent for the valve mechanism.  A later valve design of Stölzel's, a long stroke piston (known as the Stölzel valve), inspired other instrument makers. François Perinet developed a piston valve from Stölzel's model in 1839 that is the direct predecessor to the modern day piston valve.

Stölzel's early piston valve horns also evolved into the horn that is still used by players in the Vienna Philharmonic today.
Pumpen-valve horn
The piston valve, which moves up and down, soon inspired another development in horn technology.  About 1832, the rotary valve, which turns in a circle, was invented by Joseph Riedl in Vienna.

By the mid-1800s the valveless Waldhorn with a set of crooks was being far surpassed by a single F horn with three valves and no extra crooks.  The valve could instantly change the length (and therefore the pitch) of the instrument by simply pushing down the key and activating the valve mechanism.  At first, piston valves were more common, but by the end of the 19th century, the rotary valve had gained popularity over the piston.  Playing with hand horn technique was rapidly fading away.
Late in the 19th century, a German horn maker, Fritz Kruspe, was one of the first to manufacture both "single" and "double horns" with rotary valves. With the double horn, he crafted an instrument having a fourth valve that routed the air through shorter tubing that changed the entire pitch of the horn from F to Bb.  Today, the double horn is the most commonly used horn worldwide.


4. Doubles, Descants and Triples

compensating horn
The Compensating Double --

Double horns were developed by Edmund Gumpert and Fritz Kruspe in the late 1800s.  The first double horns were based on a system of adding  tubing which compensated for the different lengths between the F and the B-Flat horns.  Today we call them "compensating" double horns to distinguish them from full double horns, which came about a short time later. The full double is by far more popular today, but compensating horns are still used by some hornists.  Compensating horns are more difficult for some players to play in tune, but others prefer them because of their lighter weight - a result of the fact that there is much less tubing in the compensating horn than in a full double.

In most compensating horns, when the thumb valve is pressed, it directs the air through a length of tubing that produces the B-flat harmonic series, i.e. it is a B-flat horn.  Each of the three valves, when pressed, then direct the air through additional tubing to lower the pitch by the correct amount, e.g. the first valve lowers it one step, second lowers it one-half step, and third lowers it one and a half steps.  The three valve slides are exactly the correct length to lower the B-flat horn the proper interval.

When playing on the F horn side of a compensating horn, the air still goes through the B-flat horn tubing as before, but now it also goes through an additional length of tubing that makes it the correct length to produce the F harmonic series, i.e. now it is an F horn.  Because the length of an F horn is longer than a B-flat horn, there is another set of three short slides (one on each valve) to "compensate" for the different length of the F horn.  When using the three valves, the air travels through the existing B-flat horn valve slides and the additional short, "compensating" slides.

The Full Double --

A full double horn is two complete horns built into one instrument, both horns sharing the same leadpipe and the same bell.  After the leadpipe, the instrument contains a short length of tubing for the B-flat horn, and a completely separate, and longer, length of tubing for the F horn.  The thumb valve again determines if the air goes through the B-flat horn or the F horn, but unlike the compensating horn, it does not go through both sets of tubing at the same time. (note: On most doubles, the thumb valve up will be F horn, the thumb valve down will be B-flat horn.  There are some players though, who have their instruments set up so that this is reversed - thumb up is B-flat, thumb down is F.)

On the full double there are also two complete sets of slides for the three valves - one set for the B-flat horn, and another set for the F horn.  When the thumb valve sends air into the B-flat horn, the three valves will send air only into the slides that are the correct length for the B-flat horn.  When the thumb valve sends air into the F horn, the three valves will send air only into the slides for the F horn.  So instead of adding a little bit of extra tubing to the existing B-flat horn slides, the F slides are completely separate from, longer than, and never used at the same time as the B-flat horn slides.

Descants --

Around 1900, smaller single horns pitched one octave above the standard F horn began to appear in Germany.  These small-belled horns with small bores were pitched in High F (also called F alto) to help hornists tackle the high-register demands of Baroque repertoire.  Known as "descant" (meaning "soprano") horns, these instruments will not provide a hornist with an automatic high range.  If a player does not have the ability to play in the upper register, a descant horn will not suddenly endow the player with that ability.

A descant does however mean that the high notes are lower in the natural harmonic series of that instrument.

For example, a written high C for horn in F, when played on the regular F horn, is the 16th note in the harmonic series, with the next harmonics only a half step away.  On an F alto horn, that same note is the 8th harmonic, with the next harmonics a whole step away.  The extra half step can make a big difference in the accuracy and ease of playing the high notes.  Imagine being in a shooting gallery aiming at small targets that are very far away, yet huddled closely together with other small targets.  Playing clarino parts, high and brilliant - like the Bach Brandenburg Concerto - on a descant horn is like suddenly moving your targets twice as close as playing on a regular double horn.

Though it is the same sounding pitch, on the descant horn, because the neighboring harmonics are farther apart, it makes it easier to hit the correct high notes more accurately.  There is less likelihood of accidentally hitting one of the other harmonics (in horn jargon: a "clam").

In the late 1950's Richard Merewether and Robert Paxman began making double descants - a dual-bore full double horn pitched in F and F alto. Soon a B-flat/F alto double horn was also created, which allowed the player to use the B-flat side for most of the range and the F alto side for the extreme high notes.
triple horn

Merewether also developed a triple horn that is constructed of three full sections of tubing - pitched in F, B-flat and F alto. Using hollow valve rotors, he was able to keep the weight of the instrument down somewhat, but triple horns are still among the heaviest instruments around.  Many principal horn-players in symphony orchestras today use descant and/or triple horns for added security in the upper register.

5. A Branch of the Family Tree


The German word for Wagner Tubas is "Tuben," which in the German language is plural.  However, some English speaking musicians use the word "Tuben" when referring to only one Wagner Tuba, adding an "s" ("tubens") to speak of more than one.  Notwithstanding improper grammatical usage, they are speaking of one of the branches of the horn's family tree.

This brass instrument and relative of the horn was invented in the late 1800's to meet the specifications of the German opera composer Richard Wagner. He wanted an instrument that would add depth to the brass section and provide a tonal color that would bridge the colors of the horn and the trombone.
Wagner tuba

It is usually played with a French horn mouthpiece by a horn player, though the instrument is otherwise quite different from the French horn. It is in an oval shape, held in the lap of the player, with the bell pointing up. The outer bell diameter is smaller than that of a horn. But the throat of the bell is much wider.  It is almost wide enough for the player to stick his or her whole arm inside the instrument, though unlike the horn, the player does not even place the hand in the bell.

The resultant tone is open, pure and very direct almost to the point of being brash, unlike the relatively veiled and distant quality of the horn with its backward pointing bell covered always by a player's hand. And due to the very wide throat of the bell, the sound is bigger and darker than the trombone. It is the perfect sound for depicting the bad guys in Wagner operas, or the spiritual majesty of a Bruckner Symphony.

Originally built either in B flat or F (tenor tuba or bass tuba), several companies in the Twentieth Century also started making a double Wagner Tuba, combining both B flat and F, on the same principal as a double horn.

A single Wagner Tuba has four, in-line, rotary valves manipulated by the left hand. The valves work in the same manner as on most French horns: first valve lowers the pitch by a whole step, 2nd valve by a half step, 3rd valve by one and a half steps. The 4th valve (very rare on the horn, but common on the Wagner Tuba) lowers the pitch by two and a half steps (a perfect fourth). On the double, there are three in-line valves, and a thumb valve which changes the key of the instrument from F to B flat.

Wagner used them in all four operas in "The Ring." Bruckner used them in his Symphonies 7, 8 and 9, and Stravinsky used two in "The Rite of Spring." Other composers like Richard Strauss, Edgard Varese, Arnold Schoenberg, and even the contemporary composer Christopher Rouse have all used Wagner Tubas in their orchestral works. Hollywood has also discovered the Wagner Tuba, it was first used in the 1968 film "Ice Station Zebra."
Wagner tuba

Some horn players dislike playing the Wagner Tuba because it is inherently out of tune and requires lots of fussing and a very good sense of intonation to play it well. Others love that challenge, especially because on most engagements where they are asked to play on both horn and Wagner Tuba, the contract specifies that the player be paid "doubling" fees - an extra percentage (up to 50%) higher than the basic rate paid for the engagement if playing on just one instrument.