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(or Doctor knows best...)

A number of myths have been created about the horn and its history. Very often these have been given credence by being published in books written by well meaning people, some of whom use the title Dr. in front of their name. Without intending to diminish the achievements of these illustrious researchers, here is a sample of these assertions followed by their contradiction...


"French Horn...The modern horn was developed in France (hence the name)" - Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, OUP 1980

The term "French Horn" has been around much longer than the modern horn and has been in use since at least 1681/2 when William Bull advertised himself as "one of His Majestie's Trumpeters-in-Ordinary and Trumpet-maker...where any gentlemen may be furnished with Trumpets, French Horns..." Surely Bull himself did not invent the term, but used it to describe what the public already knew before then. Maybe the first horns in England were brought over the channel from or via France, but it is interesting that the horn is only referred to as being French in the English language, other languages describing it by its association with the hunt, e.g., Corno da Caccia; Cor de Chasse; Jagdhorn; Waldhorn; or simply Corno; Cor or Horn. Any suggestion that the term derives from it being fitted with piston valves, which were the most popular valve type in France, is clearly a subsequent misnomer.


"Natural horns were played using hand-stopping technique after 1750."

This statement is both true and false. After Hampel's hand-stopping technique became publicly known around 1750 a number of successful horn players used the technique to great effect, perhaps most notably Punto and Leutgeb, but also a great number of horn players did not, for two main reasons: (1) because they had not yet heard of it and did not know about it (it took time for this kind of information to travel); or (2) because they did not like the sound of hand-stopped notes. Hand-stopping also existed prior to 1750 in a few isolated experiments and locations (in Dresden and possibly Leipzig), as is shown in Thomas Hiebert's excellent article in the 1992 Historical Brass Society Journal, Volume 4.

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"Horns had tuning slides after 1750"

The first horns with tuning slides were manufactured soon after the middle of the eighteenth century, but despite the obvious advantages to intonation, they cost more and demand was slow at first. In around 1780, horn maker Raoux improved the design of his hand horns, probably taking advice from horn player Carl Türrschmidt, and made the tubes that lead into the tuning slide cross over each other on the body of the horn. After this date many horns are built with this configuration.


"Valve Horns were played in all music for horn after 1830."

1827 & 1828 were important years in the evolution of the horn because that was when Levy and then Meifred separately gave the first concerts on the valve horn. Despite the existence of valves on brass instruments from as early as 1815, manufacturers continued to make natural horns regularly for the rest of the century. There was resistance to accepting the new invention in many parts of Europe, particularly in France during the second half of the nineteenth century. Many writers and musicians felt that something was lost in the absence of even partially stopped notes on the horn. Consequently, many horn players continued to play, or at least study the natural horn throughout the nineteenth century.

"Initially in France valves were used only to change key or crook, but in Germany they were used chromatically"

A quick look at Joseph-Rudolph Lewy's Douze Etudes pour le Cor chromatique et le Cor simple published by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1850 will show that Lewy, who was based in Vienna and Dresden for most of his career, used valves as crook changes as well as to help make a "bright and distinct emission of the sound" (from Lewy's instructions for these études). Wagner shows a similar style of writing in his scoring for the horns in Lohengrin. Clearly in some orchestras in Germany hand technique was used in conjunction with the valves. In military bands where loud dynamics may have been necessary outdoors, hand technique may have been superseded by valve use earlier in the century in Germany.

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"Historical mouthpieces are deeper and give smoother slurs"

Mouthpieces favoured by the professors who worked at the Paris Conservatoire such as Domnich, Dauprat and Gallay were deep and funnel shaped, as can be seen from the illustrations in their tutors. There are, however, many other shapes of horn mouthpieces that have been made over the last three centuries in different places, one example being in the picture of the Ehe model natural horn by Max & Heinrich Thein, which is an historically based cross between a horn-type funnel cup and a trumpet-style back bore. As for whether a deep funnel mouthpiece would give smoother slurs, it is probably fair to say that if it suits the player and horn then it will, but if the player or horn seem to require another shape, then it will not.


"French instruments were narrower bore than German/Bohemian ones"

Most of the Viennese valve horns come in a cylindrical internal diameter of c.11 mm (as in the picture of the Dehmal); the pictured Raoux has a cylindrical bore of c. 11.1 mm; the Lausmann model is 11.2 mm; while the Sandbach horn in the Edinburgh University Collection which was used at Covent Garden Opera house by Cornelius O'Brien from around 1815 has a 10.7 mm bore. Probably a more appropriate generalisation is that over the last 300 years the bore has gradually increased from around 11 mm to around 12mm, but exceptions can be found to this too.


"Stopped notes can be more easily concealed in the middle two octaves of a hand horn"

Presumably this means written g to g". Does this mean that below middle c the f and f# are harder than a? Most players have some difficulty hand stopping the a" (two octaves higher). There are not any more stopped notes above a" on a hand horn because all these notes are natural harmonics anyway. The stopped notes can sound slightly different on different horns, but they are usually just as easy to obtain on any instrument. Slight differences can be found due to the size of a player's hand.

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"Solo hand horn players played every piece on the same favourite crook"

Imagine that the player's favourite crook is the E crook. He or she is then asked to play Beethoven's Horn Sonata in F in a concert. Is the pianist required to transpose the piano part or does the horn player stop all the wrong notes? Would it be realistic to play any of Mozart's horn concerti on either an E or an F crook? As we know from Dauprat's method, an A crook can be successfully substituted for one in E in some passages, but it would be more trouble than it is worth to play most well composed works on the wrong crook.


"Cor alto players did not become soloists, had poorer tone and hand technique than the cor basse players and did not play melodies."

Could these assertions have been written by somebody who had a problem with high notes? It is fair to say that the high players may have had a brighter sound by specialising in these parts and possibly by using a smaller mouthpiece, but a poorer tone? The hand technique of a high player would have had to overlap considerably with the register of the low player, and would have needed to be particularly consistent in the region of the high f", f#" & a". In the high register it is more crucial to be in tune in order not to crack a note, so the hand is of paramount importance, especially after a crook change, when the tuning slide may not be quite in the right position. As far as melodies and solos are concerned it is very unlikely that the principal horn would not be the one to play the first horn part in the following tuneful examples: Haydn symphonies, almost any of them, in particular 48 & 51; Beethoven's Sextet, Fidelio, symphonies; Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, Idomeneo, Figaro, Symphony 40; Rossini's Barber of Seville, Semiramide; Mendellsohn's Midsummer Night's Dream & Italian Symphony. Of course there are melodies written especially for the second player in some works, including some of the above. Examples of principal horn players who distinguished themselves in solos include: Haudek (born 1721) first horn in Dresden; Steinmüller (c.1725-1790) first horn in Esterhazy; Leutgeb (1745-1811) first horn in Salzburg; Puzzi (1792-1876), first horn in several London orchestras, then as a soloist specialised in playing more in the low to middle register; Joseph-Rudolph Lewy (1804-1881), principal horn in Vienna, then Dresden and toured as a soloist. Examples of cor second or cor basse players who played solos include Punto (1748-1803) and to some extent Dauprat (1781-1868).

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"Leutgeb was a cor basse player"

As listed above, Leutgeb played first horn in Salzburg at least until 1777 when he moved to Vienna. All Mozart's concerti were written for him to play. Two of them (K 417 & 495), in addition to the quintet (K 407) show confidence in writing for the horn up to high c''' and none of the surviving four go down into the low register in the way that we see Mozart write in the Piano & Wind Quintet (K 452) or Cosi fan tutte, or in the Octets for Winds.


"Playing natural horn is bad for the breathing technique on the valve horn"

Most playing on the natural horn requires playing on longer tubing than on the modern instrument - usually a third as much again, but sometimes more, rarely less. With a longer length a greater volume of tubing requires filling with air. This requires greater air control and sensitivity to balancing the resistance of the crook. Surely with practice this is likely to improve breath control rather than diminish it. The truth is that whichever instrument we practise most is likely to be the one that we play best.

"The Fourth Horn part in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was written for the valve horn"

First performed in Vienna in 1824, this clearly predates the first valve horn concerts of Lewy and Meifred. Beethoven had been thoroughly deaf since 1819, when he had to communicate by writing conversations, but his hearing had been failing since 1798 – well before the invention of the valve. He could not have approved of it on aural grounds and may never have heard of the valve in his lifetime. The question was fully answered by W. F. H. Blandford in the Musical Times in January, February and March of 1925 but people persist in believing it is too hard for the natural horn. Why, in that case, do they not argue for the Haydn (attributed) Double Horn concerto to be written for the valved horn, since in the first eight bars of the slow movement of that work we see written all the notes of the same Ab major scale between the two horn parts. Or if it is the low notes that cause disbelief, what about the low notes in Beethoven’s Sextet Op.81b of 1794/5, or Haydn’s Symphony No. 51 of 1771-1773? Interestingly, it is now thought that it might not be a fourth horn solo, but a second horn solo, the two pairs of parts having been swapped over at some point. This would mean that the second pair would continue playing in the same key of Bb Basso throughout the work until the change over to D in the Finale, while the switch to Eb from D for the first pair is less of an adjustment.

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