University of Horn Matters: The Horn Before 1750

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With this article we begin a regular feature on Horn Matters, a series under the heading University of Horn Matters. This series will present new resources on horn history and pedagogy topics and links to further reading. To begin this series our topic is the horn before 1750.

In its simplest form a horn is a conical tube which when blown makes noise via an air column vibrated by the lips. Human beings figured out pretty quickly that there were many things that when blown on made noise, so the earliest horn-like instruments date from long before recorded history. These include items such as hollowed out animal horns, conch shells from ocean, and hollowed out wooden tubes. As time and technology advanced, metal instruments were developed in several different cultures from the Bronze Age onward.

Around 1400 trumpet makers began to bend metal tubing, which was a major breakthrough in the development of all brass instruments. It is during the Renaissance that we first see horns that we would recognize as horns. One important development was the trompe, a slender, one note hunting horn constructed in a crescent shape with a single coil in the tubing, which was illustrated in the treatise La vénere (ca. 1561) of Jacques du Fouilloux.

Another important early design was the cor à plusieurs tours, which was longer and more tightly coiled than the trompe. Both instruments were developed for use as signaling instruments for use during the hunt and in both cases this specific use and the coiled tubing is what primarily differentiates these instruments as horns when compared to trumpets of the period.

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Between the years 1600 and 1700 the horn continued to develop as an instrument used primarily as a signaling instrument in hunting, the “sport of Kings,” providing a musical commentary on the activities of the hunt. It was in this period that trompes de chasse, fully circular hunting horns, were first constructed and used in France. Instruments of this type were likely used in a production of La Princesse d’Elide by Lully in Versailles in 1664, the score of which makes specific reference to cors du chasse. A hunting horn is illustrated here. The images in this article are all linked, with permission, from the website of natural horn maker Richard Seraphinoff.

As the tube length got longer the hunting horn also received a wider bell which helped the instrument to produce a richer, darker tonal color than that of the trumpet. Single-coiled horns pitched in C alto are generally thought to have been produced by 1680 and horns at lower pitch levels would soon follow.

Credit for introducing this type of hunting horn to the German-speaking lands has been given to Bohemian Count Franz Anton Sporck (1662-1738), who first heard type of horn in Paris during his grand tour of 1680-82. Fascinated by the instrument, he sent two of his retainers to be trained to play the instrument and to introduce it to Bohemia. Thus, he has been credited with introducing the horn to Germany, although certainly many others had much to do with the spread of the hunting horn and its use in art music in Germany and the world. In fact, sources point to the fact that the “French horn” (i.e., cor de chasse or hunting horn) was known in England at this time as well; this terminology was very correct at the time, as it accurately differentiated the new French instruments from those horns used up to that time in England.

If you are unfamiliar with how a natural horn works, please take a second and read this introductory article to the topic in Horn Articles Online.

The new instrument was a popular one. The earliest known use of the horn as a member of the orchestra occurred in Vienna in 1700, in Carlo Agostino Badia’s (1672-1738) opera Diana rappacificata [for reference see the excellent article by Thomas Hiebert in Trever Herbert and John Wallace, eds, The Cambridge Companion to Brass Insturments (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)], and by 1720 the horn was very well established as a concert instrument. Horns with crooks, pieces of tubing that were inserted between the mouthpiece and the body of the horn and allowed the instrument to be pitched into several different keys, were first constructed no later than 1703, implying that more was required of the horn player by this time than simple hunting fanfares. While hunting fanfares and the inevitable “horn fifths” that are almost automatically generated by a pair of natural horns were a part of the musical language of the horn player at the time, high, florid clarino parts similar to those seen for the trumpet literature were also very common, as displayed in works of Bach, Handel, Telemann, and other contemporaries. The instrument illustrated here is a Baroque horn after J.W. Haas (early 18th century) by Richard Seraphinoff.

When looking at Baroque horn literature a place I like to start is Telemann, with this brief article giving an overview of his works for horn. One sense I get of it all was horn was almost a fad! Telemann wrote a lot of works for the horn in a fairly short timeframe, a surprising number of which are in print and available today. Quite a few works survive by other composers as well, with this article having notes on two more solo works I highly recommend. As to orchestral works, among the most frequently performed is the B-minor mass of Bach, but it would be easy to come up with a fairly long list of works involving the horn in the Baroque period.

This exciting, developmental phase of horn playing sees two other major technical advancements. First, in this period we begin to see the lower range specifically cultivated; a distinct division quickly developed between high and low horn players. Secondly, players discovered that by inserting the hand into the bell of the horn they could alter the pitch of the instrument for improved intonation and additional pitches, and that they could also make the tonal color darker and mellower. By gradually closing the hand in the bell one can lower any sounding pitch one half step with moderate stopping, and any pitch may be lowered to a half step above the next open pitch by combining full stopping and “lipping” the note down. This topic will be explored further in the next article in this series.

To close for today however we turn back to the hunting horn. As heard performed today hunting horn has a raw power that speaks at least in part to the idea that we really don’t know how horn players in the Baroque approached the instrument. This article by Bruce Hembd has a link to a powerful video, and this recent article by Bruce Richards has a more elegant video of the Greenfields, a Dutch hunting horn group, performing in a large venue.

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