Developments in Horn Mute Design in the 20th Century

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In working on the Hornmasters series article on Mutes (which may be read here) I was reminded of just how far we have come in terms of horn mutes in the twentieth century. There is a great online resource on the topic by Nicholas Smith, The History of the Horn Mute. He starts out in the Baroque period and covers a lot of ground (this lengthy article is based on his 1980 dissertation), but toward the end gets to some more recent history.

There are two main types of non-transposing mutes frequently seen today in the United States: Rittich style mutes (shaped like a tall cone) and also the standard “Stone-Lined” type seen so frequently among students, shaped like a smaller cone on a cylinder. These designs were both products of experimentation by fine hornists of the 20th century. Early in the 20th century, however, mutes were not commonly owned or used.

The late Wendell Hoss, one of America’s well-known hornists, mentioned to the writer that non-transposing mutes were little used and that players chiefly depended on hand-muting or the transposing type mute. Mr. Hoss mentioned that the first big innovation in non-transposing mutes was a design by Parduba in New York. A set of these mutes was made for Bruno Jaenicke and the Schultz brothers, who were all members of the New York Philharmonic horn section during the 1920’s.

As noted in the quotation, the first important mute design in the USA was the Parduba mute. Conical in shape and tunable, it was made of brass and weighed about four pounds! From the article,

With the adjustable inner shaft, these mutes were supposed to be able to produce a mellow, plaintive quality as well as a coarse, raspy sound. However, Mr. Hoss mentioned that they tended to be coarse, loud-sounding mutes. Despite their sound quality, they were a big innovation and seem to have affected the design of all succeeding mutes. Gunther Schuller mentioned to the writer that these mutes were still being used by horn players in the Metropolitan Opera as late as 1960.

I don’t have a photo of one of these to share but did find one online, check here to see one of these vintage mutes. This drawing is reproduced with permission from the Smith article.

Next up historically is the de Polis mute. Frank de Polis studied first in Italy and after coming to the United States studied with Anton Horner before WWI. His career included time performing with the Cleveland Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra. According to Smith,

He began making mutes after experiencing dissatisfaction with what was then available. He experimented with various designs until he got the results he wanted. His colleagues were impressed with the quality of his mutes and began requesting them for themselves. The mutes can generally be described as being a cone on top of a short cylinder with an inner shaft running from the open top to the bottom of the mute. They were all made of fiberboard with a thin wooden bottom….

The mutes became very popular with orchestras such as the Philadelphia Orchestra and the NBC Symphony which had their entire sections use them. At the time of his death in 1962, de Polis mutes were probably the most popular of any in use and the design has been widely copied.

Speaking of copies, this design is the inspiration for the familiar Stone-Lined mute. According to Smith,

Horn mutes by the Humes and Berg Company are some of the most popular mutes sold. Their availability and very reasonable cost have made the mutes one of the most widely used in America, especially by younger students. According to Milan Yancich, Carl Geyer designed this mute which was first manufactured in 1942. The Humes and Berg mute has the same basic design as the de Polis mute, although its upper cone part is made of molded fiberboard. Like the de Polis mute, it also has an inner shaft and a wooden bottom.

Skipping ahead a bit in the text, the most standard, professional mute, the one that is used by the most advanced players today in the United States are Rittich style mutes, one of which is seen at right in the photo, along with a brass stopping mute. What is the origin of this design?

In surveying today’s professional players as to what their mute preference is, the name Eugene Rittich of Toronto, Canada seems to be mentioned more than any other. Mr. Rittich has been for many years Co-Principal of the Toronto Symphony and his experimentation with mutes began as a result of his dissatisfaction with what was available.

He began working in 1962 to try and achieve better intonation and response from the then popular cone on cylinder mute shape. This failed to produce the results he wanted, so he experimented with a simple cone shape which achieved better results. Before long, he was receiving so many requests for copies of his design, that he decided to produce them for sale. Since that time (1967), he has worked to find the best combination of the many variables found in a mute’s dimensions. These include taper and length of the cone, top hole diameter, diameter of the inner cylinder, placement, width, and thickness of corks, and the materials from which the mute is made.

The Rittich mute has an adjustable length inner cylinder for fine tuning the mute to any horn. Although this feature isn’t new, it is probably the most successful application of a tunable mechanism on a mute to date. The success of his design is evident by the large number of copies being presently produced by other manufacturers.

Makers continue to experiment today, but it is very interesting to me that the leading design today is the result of experiments that began just 50 years ago!

To larger and smaller degrees all non-transposing mutes for horn today follow the designs outlined above. Thank you Dr. Smith for putting this online, and for much more on the horn mute see his full article and linked PDF files.

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