In 1990 a wonderful brass resource was published, Brass Bibliography: Sources on the History, Literature, Pedagogy, Performance, and Acoustics of Brass Instruments by Mark J. Fasman. It is a very comprehensive resource that lists virtually every article and book of any interest for brass published between 1820 and 1988.
Horn Matters is not all horn all the time, and periodically we touch on the other middle brass instruments including the E-flat alto or tenor horn. Among the over 6,000 entries in the Fasman book there is exactly ONE article published before 1988 in English on the alto horn and no articles in English on the tenor horn (and just one in German, and that most likely on the Bb tenor horn). In contrast there were more than thirty articles published in English on the alphorn.
Why would that be? Don’t many more people regularly play alto/tenor horn in brass band rehearsals and concerts every week than play alphorn?
That one lone article on the alto horn actually gives many insights into the topic of why the alto/tenor horn has come into the place it resides as something of a brass family outcast in the United States. Titled “The French Horn and the Alto Horn,” the article was published in the December, 1968 issue of The Instrumentalist, a publication for music educators. The one page article (page 28) was written by Mr. Walter Hoover, who is described in with the article as being “a former instrumental teacher and band director in the Pennsylvania public schools.” He begins,
Most young teachers, and some not so young, know only one side of the story, the real differences between both instruments and where each should be used.
Ah! There is a place for both but it sounds like not many are making use of both. He continues,
Suppose we start by saying that the French horn is the most beautiful of brass instruments. We should also say that it is the most difficult of all brass instruments. The French horn is too difficult in tone control and other technical problems for the average youngster to handle, especially when on the march. The alto horn, on the contrary, is very easy in tone control, while its technical capabilities almost equal those of the cornet.
After noting that the alto horn has been used traditionally in military and brass bands, Mr. Hoover notes a problem with the instrument:
The alto horn is one of the easiest band instruments to learn, and perhaps it is for this reason that good alto players are scarce. After the alto player can play with some degree of surety, he hangs his “peck horn” on a hook and stops practicing. Instead of advancing, therefore, he remains at the same place. Alto players in general do not fully realize the potential of the instrument, or the part it plays in the ensemble of the band.
HMMM. Too easy to play, this is the problem? In any event, he continues noting that while there is “no satisfactory substitute” for the horn in an orchestra, altos are better than French horn s at playing afterbeats in a band. Expanding on these points he notes that
Many bands use French horns exclusively, even when they are poorly played. This is a serious mistake, as it creates a weakness in the middle of the band which is very noticeable to any trained observer. I have heard very few school bands which have a well balanced horn section; even a good horn section doesn’t fill the gap between the cornets and baritones.
It isn’t possible for a young horn player to deliver enough volume of tone for consistent brass balance; and, even if he could, the quality of the tone would not blend with the rest of the brass section. Horns cannot satisfactorily play staccato afterbeats which come through properly and, therefore, the pep and punch of a march or allegro movement is lost.
How many times when you attend a high school band concert do you hear a good performance by the horn section? Every time the horns have a solo or an important part, they have you on the edge of the chair before they finally do or don’t.
Ouch! Mr. Hoover does not like chipped notes. Who does? Not me. And he does have a valid point, that it is harder to chip notes on an alto horn, the harmonics are further apart. This is a big reason why mellophones are used in marching band today.
As he closes the article Mr. Hoover reveals that he has a bit of a problem with the horn (but claims to love it) and also shows that he is in fact a dinosaur, far out of the mainstream of his time.
If you are fortunate enough to have a first-class horn section, you would do well to augment it with alto horns. We have hundreds of school bands which would do much better if they used alto horns. Why weaken your band, when the part could be played satisfactorily on the alto horn by an average performer? Many present-day band directors have never seen or heard the value of the alto horn.
I know of cities of 100,000 where all the schools use horns; yet the professional bands cannot, for love nor money, find suitable French horn players.
What are your net results? Horn or no horn, the efficient way is to start the future horn players on alto horn or cornet, letting them mature and prove themselves musically before making the switch to the more difficult instrument. I love the French horn, but the band is no better than its weakest section. Our ultimate aim should be results.
We do learn several things in his comments that deserve further exploration. One is that the alto horn was also known as a peck horn, even among advocates, and more importantly that it had more widespread use before the 1960s.
As already noted, the alto/tenor horn is to this day a standard instrument in a British brass band. For more on the tenor horn I highly recommend Al’s Tenor Horn Page, from which the image in this article was linked.