On the single F horn, part I: 19th century low horn playing (and solos)

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A major long term interest of mine is the valved horn in the 19th century. It was a time frame dominated by single horns built to take crooks — instruments that are very different than those generally used today.

Richard Strauss noted in 1905 (in his annotations to Berlioz’s Instrumentationslehre) that “horn players now use almost exclusively the horns in E, F, high A and high B-flat…,” continuing that

Generally, the players of the first and third horns use the horn in high B-flat for almost all pieces in flat keys and the horn in high A for all pieces in sharp keys. The players of the second and fourth horns use horns in E and F.

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The full quote and citations may be found in this article (scroll down). The central point to grasp is, in the era before the double horn (invented in 1897!), many high horn players by the late 19th century had adopted the single Bb horn and low horn players were still using the single F. In some places it clearly became basic to the division between high and low horn playing, as they played different types of horns.

In the USA today reality is the division between professional high and professional low horn players is minimal, especially in terms of players preparing for auditions. The general expectation is that any really good horn player can play anything. Every professional needs to be a master of every part of the range.

That clearly was not the case in the 19th century. An interesting passage in Fergus McWilliam, Blow Your Own Horn!, 2nd edition, sheds light on the situation back then (and today, still, in some places).

There is a long tradition, most notably but not exclusively in Germany, of teachers classifying their students as either high or low hornists and streaming them accordingly….

This writer has even heard it argued that low hornists should “know their place” and not aspire to things beyond their reach. I knew one section leader who quite openly forbade the low hornists from warming up above g2, claiming that such ambition would not only endanger their low range capabilities but also upset the hierarchy of the section….

Particularly in Germany, too many young players seem to accept their classification quite willingly and are required to abide by it for the rest of their professional lives.

Which brings us back to Strauss and the two types of horns at that time. One of my goals over many years has been to make a recording on a 19th century style horn. I had one made for me by Richard Seraphinoff way back in 1997 (more on that horn here), and periodically return to it and think about rep and finally making that solo CD.

It is a challenging instrument to play. In short the low range is great but the upper range is kind of like playing natural horn but worse! The articulations are by a degree even harder to control, especially toward the top of the staff. It takes great attention to detail to produce good tonguing in that range – tonguing is much easier in the upper range of the Bb horn. Careful mouthpiece choice is also part of the puzzle of higher range F horn articulations.

Recently I saw a link to a source of PDF music from the Eastman Sibley Library. If you follow the link (here), they really have some interesting music and I noted in particular a group of solos by Müller (or Mueller, better known today for his horn etudes), and also a (low horn) sonata by Fritz Spindler. [These are also on IMSLP.]

The bottom line is these pieces work very well on my instrument in F and provide some musical evidence of the high/low horn split in that time frame. I think we generally tend to look at solos of this type (if we look at them at all) as solos for “younger” players with weak high ranges, at least from our USA perspective, as again we think a good player can play anything. But actually these works are quite idiomatic for a low horn player on a single F horn, as they hardly go to the top of the staff and tend also to not have a lot of articulations right at the top of the staff. Plus, when they do have articulations in that range they tend to be lighter, thus less likely to be obvious double/split sounding articulations of the type the instrument is prone to produce. It is a very different writing style when compared to some of the better known works of the period (like Strauss 1), which are much more idiomatic for a high horn player on a single Bb.

I am enjoying getting even better in touch with the “vibe” of the 19th century valved horn in F and the “low horn” solos of that time frame that suit the instrument. Be watching for updates: this may be the year I finally make that period instrument CD.

Continue to Part II