The French horn – or horn, as it is now more commonly referred to – is a brass instrument consisting of around twelve feet of tubing wound into a coil expanding into a flared bell.
It is a descendant of the natural horn, on which notes were produced solely by means of variations in lip tension and air pressure. Crooks, or extra lengths of tubing, could be inserted to alter the harmonic series (the notes obtainable naturally from the instrument) and pitch was manipulated by means of ‘hand-stopping’, or inserting the hand into the bell.
Modern horns have three or four valves which render the instrument fully chromatic. As the 19th century progressed, the demands placed on symphony orchestras from increasingly harmonically complex music by composers such as Wagner led to the widespread adoption of the valve horn.
The use of four horns is standard in today’s orchestral line-up, with horns 1 and 3 playing the higher parts and horns 2 and 4 the lower parts. This interlocked scoring reflects the historical deployment of two pairs of high and low horns, each pair in a different key.
Double and triple tonguing are possible on the horn, however flutter tonguing can be tricky. Other techniques or special effects include cuivré, which calls for a loud, brassy timbre produced by a more forceful attack, and ‘bells up’, which instructs the player to lift the bell of the horn into the air.
The horn’s haunting origins and heroic qualities have long been exploited by composers, and in addition to famous concertos by Mozart and Richard Strauss, favourite works and orchestral solos include Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro and Koncertstück for four horns and orchestra, Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks and Weber’s Der Freischütz. The British horn virtuoso Dennis Brain (1921-1957) was the inspiration behind works by several composers, including Hindemith, Britten and Malcolm Arnold.
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