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Music and Youth Magazine, Vol.3, No.4, January 1928

The Horn of Many Colors

A Talk On the French Horn by Aubrey Brain

Aubrey Brain (Music and Youth Magazine, January 1928)

The origin of the horn is lost in antiquity.  It is one of the oldest of wind instruments, and all manner of queer forms of it are still encountered in odd corners of the world.  But we can only consider at present the French Horn of the orchestra, and its immediate predecessor, the horn without valves.

   The valveless horn is the outcome of the hunting horn, which had tended to become longer and longer until it became necessary to bend the tube to keep the instrument of manageable size.


Early Unpopularity – and An Interesting Sequel


   As early as the beginning of the 18th century the horn had found its way into the orchestra.  It is curious that it was cordially disliked at first, and took some years to win general acceptance, for no instrument can claim in its subsequent history to have exercised so great a fascination over so many great composers.

   This early objection to its “coarseness” had one very interesting result: an attempt was made to make the tone less strident by introducing a mute, or damper, into the bell, whereby it was discovered that this “muting” had the effect of lowering the pitch by a semitone.  Hitherto only the harmonic series of open notes had been playable, but here was indicated a method of bridging these intervals.  This course was, in fact, adopted as part of the technique of horn-playing, the hand being used for muting purposes.  Naturally the tone-quality of these “hand-notes” was different from that of the open notes produced in the ordinary way, and composers had to make allowance for this so long as the valveless horn was in general use.


Coming of the Valve Horn


   The valveless horn had a fairly long reign.  This was the instrument of Mozart’s day, for instance, and it may be mentioned in passing that, no matter what economies were imposed upon the orchestras for which he wrote, he hardly ever dispensed with the two horns, for which he wrote with very great skill.  With Beethoven we witness a change.  Most of his orchestral works have horn parts which make it clear that the valve horn had not yet arrived, but some of his later works are obviously written for the instrument we know today – this is, the horn with valves.

   So we may pass to the more familiar instrument of the modern orchestra.  That most commonly in use is in the key of F.  Incidentally, the tube is nearly twelve feet long.  It has ten crooks (or bent tubes) as well as the F, each one of which is of the size to receive the mouthpiece at one end.  They enable the player to make certain variations in the key of the instrument, and the crooks are, of course, of different lengths.  Only three of these crooks are in ordinary use.


The Hand in the Bell


   There are three valves, or pistons, which make it possible for all notes to be produced as open notes, i.e., without using the hand in the bell, to make notes.  Yet the horn-player plays with one hand in the bell, and this unseen hand is in a state of constant activity.  Partly it serves as a mute, but an even more important purpose is the correction on intonation.  There has never been built a horn which is perfectly in tune throughout its range, and probably no two horns have ever been alike.  The F. Horn may be said to be full of bad notes, and the player must know his instrument’s peculiarities intimately, and correct its faults instinctively.

A Fascinating Instrument


   Does this sound rather terrifying? Actually it is all part of the fascination of the instrument.  The horn is so much like a child, a living creature.  It is true that, because of these difficulties, players of even thirty years ago used to think they had done quite well if they had played properly two notes out of every three.  That, however, is all changed; the horn-player of today is expected to be absolute master of his instrument.  I, for one, claim that it is a most fascinating – almost lovable – instrument, and not least attractive because of its almost human imperfections.  And think of the compensations!  Think of the lovely sounds of the horn, its unrivalled effectiveness (when properly used by composers)!  If one were to name the great composers who have shown a supreme love of the horn, one would produce a catalogue of almost all the great names.  Let it suffice to mention Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, Rossini, Wagner, Brahms, Strauss, Puccini.  What a chorus of admiration!


Composers Who Betray Themselves


   In an aside it may be said that the treatment of the horn is one of the surest indications of the skill in orchestration of a composer.  The man who really knows his orchestra invariably writes for the horn somewhat sparingly, saving it for his great effects, and so surely as you find a composer writing without restraint for the horn, you may guess that his orchestral technique is inadequate.  How many modern composers give themselves away in this fashion!


Exaggerated Difficulties


   But I must return to my praise of the horn.  There are not enough horn-players, and not enough people taking up the horn today.  They are frightened away, perhaps, by its difficulties, and I want to dispel this bogey by saying that the difficulties are exaggerated.  You can get a great deal of pleasure out of horn-playing in the quite early stages.  Progress even then is not slow, and one can advance to a useful stage quite quickly.  By a useful stage I mean command over two octaves (E to E).  This is a range which enables a player to take his part in many a great work.  Moreover, it is the “safest” range, and I urge all beginners who may be out of reach of expert guidance to limit attention to that range.


Hints – and Good Luck


   One or two other hints occur to me.  Here they are:

(1) Begin and end your notes cleanly.  Attack and release are vital points.

(2) Avoid the common fault of finishing a note with a jerk.  The release must be clean, but not explosive.

(3) Do not force.  If you are not playing easily you are playing wrongly.

(4) Get good advice in buying a horn.  It is not an expensive instrument, but a sound opinion on the merits of any particular instrument is worth-while.


For the rest, I hope I have won the interest of some of you for this most delightful of instruments.  If so, I know you will be grateful to me.  Good luck!

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