University of Horn Matters: The Valved Horn in the Later 19th Century


As noted in the previous article in the University of Horn Matters, in the 19th century some people loved valved horns and some hated them. The friction between these various factions for and against the use of valved horns would develop and continue over the course of the nineteenth century. While composers like Brahms continued to support the use of the natural horn, others were much more progressive. While many nineteenth-century composers recognized that valved brass instruments were rapidly being adopted, others, to be certain that their compositions could be satisfactorily performed, continued to follow the standard practices of earlier composers. Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakoff (1844-1908) gave a very poignant example of this situation in My Musical Life in reference to his works of 1866-67. He recalled,

Of the fact that chromatic-scale brass instruments had already been introduced everywhere, Balakireff’s circle had no inkling then, but, with the benediction of its chief and conductor, it followed the instructions of Berlioz’s Traité d’Instrumentation regarding the use of the natural-scale trumpets and French horns. We selected French horns in all possible keys in order to avoid the imaginary stopped notes; calculated, contrived, and grew unimaginably confused. And yet all that would have been necessary was a talk and consultation with some practical musician. However, that was too humiliating for us. We followed Berlioz rather than some talentless orchestra leader.

[Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakoff, My Musical Life, 2nd. ed. (New York: Tudor, 1936), trans. by Judah A. Joffe, 66.]

While the horn writing in some works probably reflects nothing more than an element of caution and what composers thought horn players were doing, certainly many works must reflect the preferences of the performers associated with those composers. In either case, each work written in this period reveals, in its treatment of the horn, a definite attitude about the new valve technology.

Hornists themselves sought an artistic compromise between the various factions. Controversy came to be centered around the use of crooks on the valved horn. A significant group of hornists is represented by Swiss hornist, composer, and author Henri Kling (1842-1918) in his Horn-Schule of 1865. Kling, along with many composers and great teachers of the natural horn, was very concerned with the tonal colors of the crooks. The notion of wanting to produce different tonal colors on the horn due to the use of varied crooks seems to have been fading at this time. Kling reacted to this situation, and in the following passage stated very definitely that he favored using the requested crooks in keys higher than F.

The assertion, which has been absurdly made in recent times, that the use of the crooks in connection with the ventil horn should be discontinued, as being absolutely useless, since everything could be transposed on the F-horn, is not worth serious consideration.

Hornists who follow such mischievous advice by attempting to transpose all passages on the F horn will find themselves frequently coming to grief and exposing themselves to the ridicule of the audience.

I advise the employment of the G, A, and high B flat crooks whenever these are indicated by the composer. By their aid, the passages will be rendered with greater ease, more clearly and with truer tone than when they are transposed on the F horn.

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Kling was concerned both with tonal colors and with technique in his use of crooks on the valved horn. One gets the sense that underlying this technical approach is the idea that if one were not using a natural horn crooked at the original pitch level, at least one still used a valved horn crooked at the original level; this maintained the basic tonal color of the natural horn in that key and undoubtedly satisfied some critics.

For more information on the valved horn in this period the required reading for today would be:

Perhaps the most important German valved horn performer and teacher of the late nineteenth century was Friedrich Gumpert (1841-1906–and yes, it is Gumpert with a “p” and not Gumbert with a “b”), professor at the Leipzig Conservatory and principal hornist of the Gewandhaus Orchestra from 1864 until 1898. His equally famous student, German-American hornist Anton Horner (1877-1971, for many years principal hornist of the Philadelphia orchestra), recalled in 1956 that during his student years in Leipzig (1890-94) Gumpert still used crooks on the valved horn. Horner stated the following, giving background on the musical climate of the period.

[Gumpert] had no use for the Bb horn which was coming into use in Germany at that time; but he did advocate changing crooks or slides to G, A, and Bb horn for some compositions. For instance, he played the Siegfried solo on the Bb horn, and the slow movement of the Second Beethoven Symphony on the A crook; also played the Mendelssohn Nocturne on an E crook. The old German conductors like Reinecke in Leipzig, Bühlow [sic] in Berlin, and others would not tolerate the thin, harsh quality of the B horn, unless the composers called for that quality in their compositions, when they wrote for the G, Ab, A, and Bb horn. Of course, we, of today, think these restrictions are splitting hairs, but that was the opinion that prevailed in those days. I know that in many orchestras, when there were auditions for vacant positions, B horn players were not even considered. But eventually, B horn specialists were considered, when such excellent players as Preusse in Frankfurt proved and demostrated its advantages.

[Anton Horner, “A Letter From Anton Horner,” reprinted in The Horn Call 23, no. 2 (April, 1986), 91-93.]

Controversy over the use of crooks, especially the use of the F or Bb crooks, would not be completely resolved until the early twentieth century. The solution, which in the words of Reginald Morley-Pegge “revolutionized horn playing technique almost as much as did the invention of the valve,” was the double horn. The first prototypes of this design, which combined F and Bb horns into one instrument, were produced by the Erfurt horn maker Kruspe in 1897. With these instruments the modern era of horn playing was introduced. For more information please read:

The double horn, in terms of design, pulled the valved horn even further away from its natural horn roots, but it allowed horn players to better meet the demands placed on them by modern composers. “Higher, louder, faster” seems to be the motto of many twentieth century composers, and the double horn is well suited to performing at these extremes of technique.

Finally, while the double horn did in general solve the problem of the choice between the single F and Bb horns and also eliminated the general issue of the use of crooks, it did not solve the other problems of horn players. German-American hornist Bruno Jaenicke (1887-1946, for many years principal hornist of the New York Philharmonic) gave the following example in his 1927 article, “The Horn.”

The success of this invention was complete, although not quite as easy as a conductor, whom I know, thinks. Let me tell you about him. One nice day I played for him in order to get a position as first horn in his orchestra. I played the F horn then. He accepted me, advising me to use the double horn of which he had heard, “because,” he said, “it is so easy. When you want a high note you just press a button and there it is.” The good man did not know that we have to set our lips in the same position when we play the high C on the F or B-flat horn. . . . Conductors love horn players who can play high notes. A maestro once told me of a hornist who could play very high notes, and they sound like flute tone. I asked him if his flutist could play like a horn. For some reason or other he did not like my remark.

[Bruno Jaenicke, “The Horn,” The Ensemble News 2, no. 2 (1927), 11-13. Reprinted in The Horn Call 2, no. 1 (November, 1971), 60.]

During the nineteenth century the design and technique of the valved horn gradually moved away from that of the natural horn, a reflection of the complete acceptance of the valved horn by the end of the century. The present study, through an examination of available works by performers, works associated with major performers, and contemporary commentaries, has attempted to reconstruct the techniques recommended and used by early valved horn players in Germany and to shed light on the broader picture of the development of the valved horn and its technique during the nineteenth century. It is to be hoped that future research will shed even more light on the important topic of the development of early valved horn technique in Germany.

For those following the series to this point, please review the notes found in this article to make sure you have the most important horn history myths sorted out and clear in relation to the facts.

In the most recent articles of this series I have not focused much on horn solo works of the 19th century, but there are many standards from this period well worth closer study. Please reference this document for a list of the standard works of this time:

To conclude this final segment for now, for those curious the texts of these first six articles in the University of Horn Matters series are primarily based on writings I put together for several different, unpublished writing projects, with the final two articles drawing on the conclusions of my dissertation. While meant in a sense for my own students in the horn rep. class, it is hoped that this series will be of interest to a broader audience. This series will continue; keep checking for more from the University of Horn Matters.

University of Horn Matters