My 19th-Century Rotary Valve Horn

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As I think back on it many summers I have had a “project” of some sort. This summer I plan to play quite a bit on my “convertible” natural horn with detachable valve section, which was made for me several years ago by Richard Seraphinoff in connection with my research into the valved horn in the 19th century. It is very accurate to mid to late 19th century practices and is in effect similar to a Vienna horn—except that it has rotary valves when the valve section is on the instrument. While I normally use it in F, it may be crooked in any key and I have two sets of valve slides for the instrument, one set for B-flat and another for F.

horns 010 cropVienna horns are a topic that I have to this point specifically written about. What makes a Vienna horn a Vienna horn? Well, number one it is an instrument closely rooted in the design of the natural horn, with a small bell and crooks, a small bore, and best played with a deep mouthpiece of the type used on natural horn. Number two it has double piston Vienna Valves.

The tone is unique and somewhat hard to describe. It is not the sound we expect from a modern horn, and there are definitely enthusiasts of this type of tone. In particular I had a link in my links page for years to the Scottish Vienna Horns, an enthusiast group. I have never had any direct contact with them but I just love the concept of a club devoted to the Vienna horn in Scotland! There is a great photo of a Vienna horn in their main page and more information on Vienna horns in their site. The illustration below is another possible design.Vienna horn illustration

Back to the tone, in the low range my convertible horn has a tone I would describe as being very rich. In the upper range the tone can get a bit wild but it is at the same time rather exciting to hear when played with gusto.  Finding the right mouthpiece is really important. And accuracy is, well, more of a challenge. You are playing on the F side only, the harmonics are tougher to hit and articulations are problematic. Which is why so few players use them today—primarily only the hornists of the Vienna Philharmonic itself. It takes a great ear and years of practice to master an instrument of this type, it is more difficult to play than modern horn.

While my horn is not a Vienna horn (and is much more German in design), it plays much better than any comparable modern single F horn and provides some impression of what a Vienna horn would play like. Modern production single F horns as sold in the United States are always “bottom of the line” and really do not give you a clear idea what a pro quality single F would play like.

If you have the chance down the line to give a Vienna horn a try be sure to take it, it is a very interesting experience.

UPDATE: For more thoughts on playing this horn and the F horn in the late 19th century see this article.

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