Recently I have had the opportunity to try this great example of an althorn. This particular one is in F and was made by Miraphone in the 1970s. It is in excellent shape.
Speaking of “shape,” that is pretty much the first thing a horn player today will notice, the shape. It looks like a small Wagner tuba but it is not. This is an oval pattern althorn, which is the type of instrument Hindemith wrote his Althorn sonata for as also noted in this post.
I have really enjoyed trying out this instrument. It has several big positives compared to other alto horns I have tried, among the biggest being it is in F. It has an E-flat slide with it, but it clearly was designed to be played in F. Other big positives include the upper range intonation is pretty solid, it has a fourth valve so it can cover a very full range (which I understand to be very uncommon on instruments of this type), and it has a really lovely tone somewhere between a Flugelhorn and a tenor Wagner tuba. No wonder Hindemith wrote for it.
On the negative side, I can’t play it much over about 20 minutes at a time as it is ergonomically challenged, I can’t get either hand in a really comfortable position (may get better with time), and also the low range intonation has problems, mainly the range from G on the second line down to e-flat on the bottom line written, that harmonic being quite flat.
That all said, I really like this instrument. I would love to work out the Hindemith Althorn sonata on it or a twin and also something like Schubert song transcriptions sounds great on this instrument. The tone is unique in a good way and the legato is great as well. For those interested, I used a Dennis Wick 5 mouthpiece in my tests.
This type of instrument was used a bit in marching bands in the United States but was really geared to be used in a German brass or military band and as a type was normally constructed in E-flat. Hoping to track down a video of some in action I was given the lead to check out Ernst Mosch. There are a lot of videos of Ernst Mosch (1925-99) and his band on YouTube; obviously he had a very popular group in its day. The below is a good example.
While he does not use althorns he does use oval pattern tenor horns, easy to hear and see in the above, which look like Wagner tubas but they are not as they are built to use a trombone/euphonium size mouthpiece and are in B-flat. Do check out the video, it is a window into a type of playing I have never experienced in the United States. I should also mention that the trombones have figured out how to play some really tight off-beats and also his conducting style is unique, do check that aspect out as well.