Long Before Farkas: Horn Mutes and Other Advice for Brass Players from 1813

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Way back in 1813 a comprehensive method book with sections on all the instruments was published, the Vollständige Theoretisch-pracktische Musikschule [Complete Theoretical-practical Music Method] of Joseph Fröhlich. The various instrument methods published inside this work are reasonably well known to scholars (they were also published separately from the full Musikschule), but as described in the 2009 issue of the Historic Brass Society Journal in an article by Howard Weiner, Fröhlich had a most interesting three page foreword to the section on the brass instruments which contains additional practical advice for brass players.

I got to reading this article finally last week, catching up reading while getting new tires before a road trip! The article in the HBSJ includes the full German text and an English translation with excellent commentary from Weiner. His article is titled “Trombone Slide Lubrication and other Practical Information for Brass Players in Joseph Fröhlich’s Musikschule (1813)” and not only does answer the question of what Fröhlich recommended for lubrication (information not included in the portion that is the trombone method) but other general and specific information of use to all brass players.

For the big picture of these materials be sure to check the full article by Weiner, who has excellent summaries of the contents. For horn players Fröhlich has some very specific advice on horns and mouthpieces in the section of “General remarks on cup [-mouthpiece] instruments,” suggesting that players have two mouthpieces with the same rim, one for high playing and the other for low playing, and offers a very specific description of a horn mute of that time period.

The mute for the horn comes in various forms and various materials. It usually consists of a hollow sphere of cardboard or another material, whose diameter measures approximately six inches, on which there is an open tube or cone that fits into the lower part of the horn near the bell. Through the insertion of this mute, the horn sounds as if it were heard at a great distance, and a piano can be reduced to the slightest whiff. So that the hornist does not lose the advantages of stopping when using this mute, however, there is fixed within it a wire with a leather-covered ball attached to it, by means of which the opening of the tube can be covered. This wire comes out of the bottom of the sphere and has a loop by which it can be grasped in order to carry out the stopping.

In other words, the type of horn mute described was for the natural horn and could be used to produce open and stopped notes. This would have been exactly the mute that Beethoven for example had in mind in his works.

The perhaps more entertaining information is found in the section of “General remarks on wind instruments on the whole, and reed instruments in particular.” For these it is hard to improve on this portion the summary by Weiner, quoted below, where Fröhlich relates a variety of items including several life threatening dangers for the brass player.

  • Protect the lungs; therefore avoid excitement, vigorous running and riding, and excessive consumption of fiery drinks; that is to say, lead a moderate life conductive to good health and playing. Neglecting this will weaken the lungs, making breathing difficult and depriving the player of the capability of playing entire phrases in one breath.
  • Do not practice too long; better more often than too much at one time. Conductors who put wind players through their paces in rehearsals of four to five hours without pause are ignorant of the instruments and are guilty of driving the players prematurely to their graves.
  • Do not play after eating or while digesting. The scheduling of rehearsals in the afternoon or even immediately after meals is extremely misguided.
  • Do not play when ill or suffering respiratory problems–the lungs will be harmed or even ruined for the rest of one’s life.
  • Do not drink immediately after playing when the lungs are still warm (the cause of many a premature death). If the mouth is dry, which is disadvantageous for the embouchure, it is best to rinse the mouth out with an alcoholic liquor, which provides invigoration and new strength to the lips.
  • It is easier to play if the instrument is good. Frugality is out of place when buying an instrument.

Some unusual advice to be sure, but that last point is one to live by. The whole article is a fascinating window into a time long before Farkas.

As mentioned a few weeks ago, the Historic Brass Society Journal is a journal that deserves to be known better and is certainly one that horn players should check out more, and clearly there is information for the horn player to be found even in an article on trombone slide lubrication.

Finally, for those wondering the to answer the question of what players used on their trombone slides in 1813, Fröhlich suggested high quality olive oil. It certainly did the job back in that day, but we do have better lubricants today.

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