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Chamber Works for Horn

Beethoven Schubert Schumann Brahms

A Short History of the Horn

When for the first time a primitive man beat with a stone ona tree-trunk to communicate with people at a distance, a musical instrument wascreated. Next came the horn, and as its name suggests, it was a long way awayfrom the modern copper and brass alloy. A bull's horn (as Wagner prescribes inThe Twilight of the Gods), a bone, a reed or a shell, put to the lips, givesout a note. That was the origin of all wind instruments. The strength of thestream of air and the varied placing and tension of the lips produced differentnotes. That is how the horn still works.

The oldest surviving horns are spiral horns from Assyria,like those still in use today in Papua-New Guinea. The old Jewish shofar (fromthe horn of a ram) brought down the walls of Jericho. The Etruscans in BC 450made signal-horns from terra cotta that have the semicircular form of those nowin use. Since the bronze age men have made horns from metal, following themodel of mammoths' tusks. The oliphant (after the tusks of the elephant) cameto Europe from Byzantium and was a sign of nobility.

Medieval cities found a use for the horn for nightwatchmen,huntsmen and postilions. When hunting-horns started to be adapted as signalhorns, the horn came into existence as a musical instrument. The parforcehunting-horn, invented by the court composer of Louis XIV, was still used byRossini.

An important step towards the modern horn, the firstso-called natural horn, without valves and originally only playing the notes ofthe harmonic series, but further developed in structure, appeared in Germanyabout 1700. The tube was widened, the end strongly conical, the bell enlarged.Through change of the so-called crook immediately under the mouthpiece  it could play different keys. Towardsthe end of the eighteenth century it became an indispensable orchestralinstrument that provided a background of sound. The Dresden orchestral playerAnton Hampel made the discovery of hand-stopping. By introducing the hand intothe bell of the instrument notes other than those of the harmonic series couldbe played. Mozart and Beethoven wrote for natural horns.

On 12th April 1818 the Royal Prussian Patent Officeconfirmed the submission of the unknown provincial horn-players HeinrichStolzel and Friedrich Bl??hmel. They had invented valves and this opened tohorn-players all keys and the whole range of chromatic notes. In Beethoven'sNinth Symphony natural and valve horns are prescribed; both of the first arenatural horns, the fourth is a valve horn, and so the solo in the slowmovement, a G flat - D major scale that was not possible with the natural horn,is conventionally allotted to the fourth horn. I presume that Beethoven, whowas progressive in his attitude, wanted in this way to promote the valve hornand teach the traditionalists in the orchestra something. The F horn or Viennahorn, of which later there will be much to say, is a valve horn. As its nameimplies, today it is almost only played in Vienna. In the meantime, however,the so-called double horn has prevailed throughout the rest of the world. Thisbrings together two horns, the Vienna F horn and for higher notes the B flathorn, in one instrument. One can be switched to the other by the thumb. Yet, asin the case of Asterix, there is a village that resists musical globalisation,and that village is a metropolis called Vienna.


The Vienna Horn

To describe the Vienna horn as an instrument is a grossunderstatement. It is much more a beloved enemy, a charismatic brute that afterlifelong intimate knowledge offers dangerous and untameable opposition to itsmaster. The Vienna horn, an evolutionary step towards the double horn, mustperform alone what in the double horn two specialists achieve. On the doublehorn mistakes can with luck be corrected. On the Vienna horn there is nocheating. What one can just get on the double horn, on the Vienna horn goesmercilessly wrong. A mistake in fast tempo produces a completely different notefrom the one intended. The listener believes that the wrong note has beenplayed. The reason is a physical one. On the Vienna horn the natural notes lieactually more close together than on the double horn. For example in theintroduction to Anton Bruckner's Fourth Symphony an F on the Vienna horn canslip into an F sharp or an E with exactly the same hold. Just a little failurein breathing produces it. On the double horn, however, the next note is a minorthird away. It would take a major mistake to produce this note.

Then there are the dreaded split notes. Since the Viennahorn is actually longer than the double horn it demands more strength andprecision of embouchure. The column of air must travel through 3.7 metres. Withthe double horn one can at any time switch over to 2.7 metres.

Why, in spite of this, do we persist in using the Viennahorn? Quite simple: it sounds like a horn, soft, rounded and unlimited in itswealth of tone colours, without covering the violins. It thus suits Brahms,Bruckner and Wagner, who wrote specifically for the instrument.

Here a secret can be revealed. For every risky passage theVienna Philharmonic also has a double horn to hand. In crucial passages theinstruments are exchanged for some bars. The days in which colleagues took thehighest risks for brilliant success or catastrophic failure cannot return intimes of electronically retrievable perfection, though the great conductorNikolaus Harnoncourt assures us that he would not live without the minor andmajor breakdowns of the Vienna horn.

How does a horn work? 

The production of a note is technically actually moredifficult than with woodwind instruments. The lips are placed on thefunnel-shaped mouthpiece. Through the column of air the lips are set vibrating.The sound is produced through the rapid withdrawal of the tongue (as ifspitting a tiny seed from the tongue). The lips vibrate backwards and forwards.The horn has three valves. Its range is from bottom E to B flat''' (the Viennahorn). The long circular crook is detachable and can be exchanged. With the doublehorn it is integrated with the valve section and the bell. The modern horn ismade of copper and brass. A Vienna horn weighs about 1.7 kilogrammes (doubleand triple horns have more metal and are correspondingly heavier). The hornbecomes lighter in the course of time. Because of sweat from the hand thevalves oxidize, which produces verdigris, to be removed.

Which horns are in use today?

1            Thenatural horn (without valves). Thanks to pioneers like Harnoncourt, retrievedfrom the museum it forms part of authentic instrument ensembles. In normalorchestral performance it is only exceptionally used. Since higher notes areproduced by hand-stopping, each note has a practically different tone-colour.

2            Viennahorn or F horn. There is a modest revival of the Vienna horn throughout theworld. Yamaha produces this instrument and in Japan, France and Switzerlandthere are first horn players who prefer the Vienna horn. The DresdenStaatskapelle has acquired a set of Vienna horns for a particular repertoire, aboveall for Brahms and Bruckner. I advise no-one who is not trained on theinstrument to try it.

Disc: 1
Trio in E flat major for Piano, Violin and Horn, O
1 I. Allegro moderato
2 II. Poco adagio, quasi andante
3 III. Rondo: Allegro moderato
4 Auf dem Strom, D. 943 (Op. post. 119)
5 Adagio
6 Allegro
7 I. Andante
8 II. Scherzo: Allegro
9 III. Adagio mesto
10 IV. Finale: Allegro con brio
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