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History and background of the horn (s)

Inner Voices

There are two traditions of valved horns: those of the brass bands and those of the orchestras. Brass players in the brass bands believe that horns are usually made with three piston valves, configured as "upright" instruments that look something like a baby baritone horn, fingered with the right hand and usually pitched in Eb. Brass players in orchestras and bands with mixed winds usually believe that horns are made with four rotaryaction valves, configured in a circular pattern looking like no other brass instrument, fingered with the left hand and usually pitched in F and Bb.

The horn

In the United States most of the literature seems to be about the horn typically used in an orchestra. That instrument is known in some languages as cor or waldhorn. Most Americans refer to it as a French horn. That term raises objections from members of the International Horn Society. In each issue of the Horn Call, it says right on the masthead: The International Horn Society recommends that Horn be recognized as the correct name for our instrument in the English language. Not too many months ago the members subscribing to the horn list on the Internet almost came to electronic blows over one person's insistence on using the term French Horn for a list title to avoid confusion.
For horn players in brass bands there is friction about the name, too. The instrument was conceived in Brussels and brought to fruition in Paris by the Belgian inventor, Adolphe Sax. Contemporary advertisements for his instruments have captions showing the instrument as either a saxotromba or a saxhorn: alto (sometimes tenor) in Eb (Mi B). Germans may call it altkorno and in the Netherlands it is an althorn. In the United States it is an alto horn. In England it is a tenor horn. Among the rules for subscribers to the Brass Band List on the Internet is found this exhortation:...please keep to the following names for the instruments:... Tenor Horn... not Alto Horn... The list is maintained in England. (For further information on the list, including information on how to subscribe and how to receive the list in digest format, send a mail to: "" containing the word HELP in the body.)
The word alto is requently used as an adjective for instruments pitched a fourth or a fifth below the "soprano" instrument of the same family. Thus we know of the alto clarinet, alto saxophone, alto oboe (cor anglais or English horn!), alto flute, alto trombone, etc. This is probably the tradition Sax was following when he called his instrument the alto Saxhorn. It is also possible that he might have referred to it as a tenor saxhorn when he was considering the three-foot long Eb instrument as the soprano. In that event he seems to have called the fifty-one inch long Bb instrument a "contralto" with the seventy-nine inch long Eb instrument as the tenor. (These are approximate lengths of the instruments.) The E-flat saxhorn retained that name in British brass bands until about the time of the First World War; after that it was known as, "tenor horn" and nowadays is designated generally merely as "E-flat horn". In almost every other country it is regarded as an alto instrument which is more appropriate with regard to its tone and pitch. (Wally Horwood, Adolphe Sax, Egon Publishers, 1983, 1992, p. 153.) The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music follows the entry in the full-length Grove's by Anthony Baines in defining the tenor horn as "A valved brass instrument of alto (!) pitch.... Historically it is the modern form of the Eb alto saxhorn, also termed 'tenor.'... " In Baines own book (Brass Instruments (Faber & Faber, 1976, 1978, 1980) his discussion of the upright Saxhorns lists the"E flat alto, at first also called tenor... " While doing the research for this article I could not help but observe that the usual American usage was alto horn or just horn. British correspondents were most insistent that, if an adjective be used it must be tenor horn. However, almost all the English speaking brass band members seem to be comfortable in referring to the instrument as the horn (with no adjective), as do players in other countries. The difficulty is that other instrumentalists like the word also. Not just those who play on the circular-patterned and rotary-valved instruments but also those who play trombones, saxophones, trumpets, guitars and stringed instruments with bass voices. Especially jazz players. It might be interesting to have the inner voices in orchestras and bands played by Fender basses (.i.e. "horns"), but it is probably not what the composers and arrangers intend.
There is no solution to satisfy everyone. I did agree to write this article about the horn. Herein I will refer to the roundish thing with rotary valves played by lefties as a waldhorn (from the German, thereby avoiding the French horn controversy prevalent in the U.S.). The upright thing with piston valves played by righties I will refer to as an althorn (from the Dutch, thereby avoiding the English "tenor horn" requirement). They are both lip-vibrated aerophones. Frequently, each of these horns provides the inner voicing for the various ensembles and, on occasion, emerges as a leading and even solo voice. From the 1830's until about 1900, the most common voice in both the brass bands and the ensembles of mixed winds were the althorns; after the turn of the century the althorn continued to be the instrument of choice for brass bands but the mixed wind ensembles began to depend more and more upon the waldhorn. The orchestras had tended to continue their reliance on valveless waldhorns despite the development of fairly reliable valve systems which had been developed to replace the old and awkward system of crooking the horns in the tonality of each piece of music. There are many stories about composers like Brahms who wrote for the natural horn because they favored that sound. Thus many orchestral players clung to their natural waldhorns. The very influential bandmasters, Patrick Gilmore (1829-1892) and John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) felt that the band of mixed brasses and woodwinds sounded better than the typical brass band. The mixed instrumentation of their groups seemed to demand the timbre of a waldhorn to bridge the gap between the brasses and the woodwinds. Sousa's long association with symphony orchestras (he was a violinist) made him a strong proponent for "symphonic" bands. Especially since the enormous popularity of Sousa's bands from the 1890's to the 1920's, the valved waldhorn has been the alto voice of choice for American concert bands.
In the United States the typical pattern in the twentieth century has been to train school-aged musicians to play the waldhorn rather than the althorn so they can participate in both the mixed wind ensembles and the orchestras. Sometimes these young players are required to switch to an althorn (or, more often, a poorly made "mellophone", "marching French horn", or "frumpet") when the bands must perform on the march. Never having played an althorn of particularly good quality, this experience tends to produce waldhorn players who sincerely hope that they will never again have to play an althorn of any kind.

Dreaded Mellophones

Before the successful addition of valves to the waldhorn in the early nineteenth century by Heinrich Stoelzel, the valveless instrument was able to play chromatically by skillful manipulation of the hand in the bell. The instruments were made in a wide variety of keys and often had crooks to permit key changes. One of the frequently used tonalities was Eb. For instance, many of Mozart's works for hand horn are written in Eb. It wasn't until the era of valves was well under way (long after the death of Mozart) that the waldhorn players began to prefer the tonality of F and, for higher parts, Bb. At the end of the century Ed Kruspe in Erfurt began the successful experimentation that combined two horns (usually F and Bb) into one. The fully functional Waldhorn in B mit F-maschine was exhibited in Markneu-kirchen in 1897. Once the F horn became the primary instrument for waldhorn players, the parts written for Eb horn were simply transposed and easily negotiated on a regular basis.
The althorn, however, has been pitched in Eb at least since Sax began producing his horns in the 1840's. One of the major differences between the althorns and the waldhorns is that the althorn in Eb sounds the fundamental a seventh higher than the waldhorn in F and a fourth higher than the waldhorn in Bb. This is because the F waldhorn is about twelve feet (369 cm) long and the Eb althorn is about six and a half feet (200 cm) long. Parts for the althorn are traditionally written in Eb. Combined with the printing conventions designating these as "horn" parts, it is no wonder that band directors and waldhorn players have often thought that the parts were intended for the waldhorn. It is a simple matter to compare the range of the old parts written for Eb waldhorns (again, see the Mozart concertos) and the range of the band parts written for althorns to determine that different instruments are intended. The timbre of the althorns and waldhorns is quite different. Although they share an overall conical tube shape, the taper is not the same (although this certainly depends on the manufacturer and date of construction). Furthermore, the previously mentioned difference in length puts the lower partials of the althorn almost an octave higher than those of the waldhorn. The often acute difficulty in centering tones on a waldhorn is directly related to the extreme closeness of the partials being negotiated through its most frequently used range. The mouthpieces of both instruments tend more toward a funnel shape than toward the cup shape of the trumpets and trombones. The althorn has a much wider and deeper mouthpiece than the waldhorn. This, too, is subject to a great deal of variation. Sometimes waldhorn players who are asked to substitute on althorns find that they are able to make the transition most easily by using a shank adapter to use their smaller waldhorn mouthpieces. Althorn players usually feel that this modification tends to change the timbre of the horn too much.
The most important variable is the player and the kind of sound quality the player attempts. It is probably in this very essential element where althorn players in the United States are at the greatest disadvantage. The distinctive sound of the althorn, while varying from player to player, has been valued and developed in England and in other countries where the brass band tradition of the nineteenth century has remained vigorous for more than one hundred and fifty years. In the United States the ensembles of mixed winds using waldhorns have become the pattern while the brass band tradition has been dormant until recent years. The exception lies in the bands of the Salvation Army. Yet in the United States the Salvation Army bands have frequently depended on a public music education system to supplement their own training of young players. Unfortunately, most music educators have been mainly ignorant of the existence and value of the althorn. Many althorn players in the United States are often players whose chief instrument was not originally the althorn. These players confess that their greatest difficulty is often in finding a distinctive voice. They feel that the ideal timbre was more apparent for their other instruments.
According to contemporary skilled althorn players, one of the unique advantages of their instrument lies in the flexibility of the quality of timbre. As required, they can blend easily with cornets, flugelhorns, trombones, baritones, euphoniums, tubas and, yes, even waldhorns. Yet in the hands of an artist, the althorn has a unique quality all its own that would be difficult for any of the other brasses to match. A few years ago in the Horn Call, Jim Decker advocated acquiring and learning to play both the althorn (he was writing specifically about a "contralto" horn which seems to be an althorn manufactured in the oval shape preferred in German brass bands) and its close cousin, the Wagner tuba. His observations were made from the point of view of the frequent use of these instruments in the recording studio and the potential use with marching bands.

Wagner Tuba

Recently, a highly skilled althorn performer being enrolled in a DMA program was informed that the instrument would not be acceptable. A different instrument needed to be used for fulfilling the performance requirements. If our traditions of acoustic music making survive into the next century, it will be interesting to see if the growing numbers of brass bands in the United States will have any effect on the lack of esteem presently accorded the althorn in our secondary schools and universities. Details About the Althorn In the process of doing the research for this article, I ranged all over the world and back again via letters, telephone and especially by that new tool, the internet. One of the fascinating things about the internet is the infinite variety of responses available. They range from the sublime to the truly ridiculous. I was especially amazed by the passion of some players when it came to making qualitative distinctions between these instruments.

Recordings and soloists

How are these horns supposed to sound? No althorn player that I've talked to wants the instrument to sound like a waldhorn. In general, they tend to have some disdain for the sound of the waldhorn. Thomas Mack, a composer of band music for the Salvation Army, says if he ever needs a waldhorn kind of sound from a brass band, he can get it by combining the althorns with the trombones. (It's true. I heard the sound very distinctly in a rehearsal of the NY Staff Band). Most of the players listen to Sandy Smith for a great alto sound. ("Gareth Wood" on the CD: "Concerto," Chandos 4523. "Variations On A Welsh Theme," from "Double Champions" Polyphonic CD # QPRL 065D.) Gordon Higginbottom is often mentioned. ("Sonata," Kirklees CD # KRCD 1016 - he does some remarkable ALPhorn playing here, too.) I have also enjoyed hearing less prominent players like Lauren Garell with the NY Staff Band of the Salvation Army. Wim Naujoks ("All Your Anxiety" on "Treasures From Heaven" CD # RM 9507 available from Simply Brass in Canada (905) 335-6811) and John Thomas ("Goodbye to Love" from "Australian Brass," BG Music Productions - no number). Arranger Mark Freeh as well as many other correspondents mentions a young British player named Sheona White as being an absolutely superb althorn soloist. As yet she has no solo recordings, but she plays with the well known Yorkshire Building Society Band. Mark also mentions Billy Rushworth for his astounding technique. Another writer gives special mention to David Altman and Claire Allen. The Mason Jones recording of the Hindemith "Sonata for Alto Horn in Eb and Piano" with Glenn Gould on the Sony collection of the Hindemith sonatas for brass and piano (Sony, SM2K 52671) should be mentioned. These two are certainly great musicians. There is an apocryphal story that says Mason Jones was handed an althorn the day he was to make the recording - apparently he assumed that he would be playing his waldhorn! The tonal quality on the recording makes me think that he is probably using his regular mouthpiece with an adapter bit. Paul Anderer wrote that his associate, Michelle Reed Baker, in the NY Met Orchestra has recently recorded the Hindemith on an althorn and that the disc should be released before too long. I have had the chance to listen to a tape of a live performance of Michelle playing the Sonata, and it is quite lovely. However, as with the Mason Jones recording, I believe the althornists are correct in saying that the use of an adapter for a waldhorn mouthpiece does tend to "thin out" the true sound capacity of the althorn. My sources for the CDs I have mentioned have been the above-noted Simply Brass and also Bernel Music (Cullowhee, NC USA (704) 293-9312). Another very helpful source is always TAP Music Sales (Newton, IA USA (515) 792-1316).

The music and the writers

One of the things that moved me toward learning more about the althorn was an awareness of the Hindemith Sonata. After all, in doing his cycle of sonatas for brass, he considered the althorn important enough as a solo voice to be included. Few other composers "outside" the brass band tradition have done this, at least in the 20th century. In the Sonata (as in the Concerto for Horn) Hindemith includes a poem intended to be recited prior to the last movement. It is a dialogue for the pianist and hornist. It seems to me that the poetry in both of these works is intended to present an image of the sound of horns as the sound of horns of long ago, in an autumnal forest. For me, at least, this conjures up neither the sound of the waldhorn nor the althorn - rather it makes me hear sounds of the natural horn. This possibility was reinforced for me by correspondence with John Chapin who was playing the Sonata and trying to work it out. Willie Ruff also wrote about the poetry in an article for the Horn Call. He pointed out that Hindemith had sanctioned its performance on waldhorn and alto sax as well. In that regard, one of the premier composers for band (brass and mixed winds), Steve Bulla wrote to say: "You mention the Hindemith Sonata. This is not a great example of the (alt)horn style I have referred to. Hindemith, one of my favorite orchestral composers wrote this for the horn as a solo instrument. The piece also works well for Alto Saxophone, if you get my point." For great althorn writing, Steve cites Eric Leidzen (as do many other composers and players) as being especially good in his scoring for the instrument. (An oft-mentioned solo work is Leidzen's: "The Old Rustic Bridge." Unfortunately I have been unable to find a recording of the work. It would be great if Sheona White would record it with the YBS.) Steve writes: "You ask how I write for the instrument. Yes, I do hear the distinct sound in my mind as I score. I've been listening to brass band recordings all of my life. As I studied the scores of Leidzen in particular I learned how to score for the brights (cornets and trombones) and mellows (everything else) as separate choirs for maximum color effect. Leidzen would even take the brights into a "sharp" key while muted (an extremely thin sounding texture) and then change into a dark "flat" key with the entrance of all the mellow instruments. Check out his piece entitled "The Children's Friend." Horns featured prominently along with Baritones in rich, mellow textures." Eric Ball is another frequently cited composer who made effective use of althorns. In a biography of Ball ("Eric Ball, The Man and His Music") Peter Cooke quotes Ball as follows: "There they are - just three of them, surrounded on all sides by cornets, euphoniums, basses and the rest, and hidden from public view by the conductor and his rostrum and music stand. Nor is their placing on the platform their only sign of humility. Given a full-band fortissimo, can they be heard amidst the din? They add their quota, it is true, but the cornet-tone shrieks, the trombone-tone hardens, the tuba-tone spreads - and the horns are almost lost in the sound and fury. Of course, in the best bands the conductor sees that the horns are given a fair chance. Their harmony, so valuable in piano or mezzo-forte, is allowed to colour and refine the whole ensemble. At these levels the general tone of the band is pleasing, balanced; and as the wise conductor builds up to a fortissimo he keeps it that way... The fact is, horn players have to work to hard in the brass band. There ought to be six of them, not three; two on each of the three parts, giving scope for a little relaxation now and again in quiet work, and for a satisfying bank of sound in forte or fortissimo. Most horn parts keep a-goin' with little rest, and the wonder is that the players do not become less sensitive than they do. Those who retain virtuoso standards in spite of the physical demands made upon them are greatly to be admired.

Six horns then!

There may be some waldhorn players who would like to increase their numbers in the orchestras and mixed bands for similar reasons! Mark Freeh writes that he has arranged about 350 pieces for various brass ensembles including parts for waldhorns and althorns. He insists that it makes great sense to call the althorn the "Eb horn" because both alto and tenor are "misnomers." He goes on: "The Eb Horn... is a beautifully lyrical instrument that blends well with all of the other brass band instruments. I can't say the same for French Horns i(n) the brass band. Horns also have a good range and technical ability (depending on the player). Withou t the Eb horn you could not have a brass band. They link the top of the band with the bottom.... Unfortunately, the Eb Horn as a solo voice has been sadly neglected...." An anonymous correspondent writes: "I have played a good bit of traditional German Band music. Our 'book' is made up ... from (a) stay in Germany... It's a fairly large collection of music and the arrangements seem consistent in their use of the... (alt)Horn. The part is marked... Tenorhorn 1 and 2.... The... parts are high; they hang around the (written) upper half of the treble clef staff. Typical voicings have the tenorhorn playing arpeggiated counterlines (a LOT of this!), and other melodic counterlines, or doubling the trumpet melodies an octave down. When two... parts are written, they are usually harmonized in thirds, with a lot of unison passages. Occasionally, horns team up with trombones, euphonia, and tubas for big low brass tutti sections."


It seems as though a majority of the althorn players in the British and Salvation Army Brass bands play Besson instruments with many of them preferring the "Sovereign" model. I ran into the Boosey and Hawkes (manufacturer of the Besson) representative at Steve Dillon's shop (Woodbridge, NJ USA) and had a chance to look at their new horns. Wim Naujoks, principal solohorn with the Amsterdam Staff band really likes his Boosey and says it has the "warmest sound plus(!)... it's own identity." In contrast to this, Fred Harvey in the Imperial Brass Band (NJ USA) wrote: "I play a B&H sovereign, a lousy instrument. It has a hard upper register and the valves are terrible.... My cousin has a Yamaha... and I played that horn for a while. What a horn! It's about fifteen years old, but I have never played on an instrument that spoke as well as that one.... I think the thing that made the difference is the fact that Yamaha is about 8" longer which gives an 'open wrapped' situation compared to the B&H which is more compact and 'tighter wrapped.'" Paul Alvarez who plays althorn in the Canadian Staff Band would like to play a Yamaha "Maestro." I've heard that Yamaha has a representative in the western US who is an althorn virtuoso, but I have been unsuccessful in locating him. Bob Baier of Orpheus Music (San Antonio, Texas USA) wrote: "The traditional German (alto) horn is oval shaped, like a Wagner tuben. It is conical in bore and pitched in... Eb (often with a slide to F)." Bob's company imports horns manufactured in Germany by VMI. Richard Dundas, author of the book: Twentieth Century Brass Musical Instruments writes: "The oval contralto horn on the covers of my book was a modern Bohland & Fuchs that I enjoyed for its unusual appearance and beautiful tone.... I replaced it with an antique V.F. Cerveny (Czech tuba makers) that plays ok... The... Miraphone catalog... shows their selection of oval rotary horns. Unfortunately, Miraphone is almost out of business and not represented in the US currently." On a visit to Richard's place a few years back, he let me try that old B&F and I can attest to its superb sound. Jim Decker wrote to say that the Miraphone contraltos that were being used by the University of Southern California are now for sale. Other than second hand horns it seems as though the Boosey, Yamaha, and VMI horns are the ones most readily available in the US if one is interested in a high-quality upright model. There are any number of so-called "marching" horns in a variety of configurations available from Holton, Blessing, Getzen, Dynasty, Amati, DEG and others. These tend to have the tone quality and intonation difficulties associated with the inexpensive mellophones of an earlier generation. One of the oft-mentioned practices in schools, according to my correspondents, is that of using trumpet or trumpet-like cornet mouthpieces or waldhorn mouthpieces with adapter shanks for the "substitute" or "marching" horns (mellophones, etc.). Since those instruments are often inferior versions of the althorn, using the wrong mouthpiece, especially a cup-shaped mouthpiece, is a guarantee that any potential althorn tone quality will be lost. If the players then try to imitate the sound of their "real" instrument (i.e. trumpet, cornet, or waldhorn) then there is never any possibility for achieving a good tone quality. At a meeting with the horn section from the New York Staff Band, I learned that they all use Denis Wick mouthpieces. The solohorn player uses a #2 and the others use a #4 and a #5. These are all very funnel shaped with a slight recurve where it meets the backbore. The #2 seems similar in depth to the #5 Denis Wick (waldhorn mouthpiece) which I use when playing a single Bb waldhorn.


In the two years it has taken me to collect this information, I have become especially indebted to a few people for their help and their encouragement. Among the many are: Ron Holz, composer, conductor, trumpet player, clinician, teacher and Chairman of the Division of Fine Arts at Asbury College in Wilmore Kentucky. Ron is also the former editor of the Brass Band Bridge (newsletter of the North American Brass Band Association) and now president of the association. Steef Klepke: solo cornet player with the Amsterdam Staff Band and the Vlaardingen Band in the Netherlands. Ron Waiksnorris, the bandmaster of the New York Staff Band got me together in a session with Lauren Garell, Herb Rader, Donna Green, Thomas Mack, and Jim Knaggs of that band along with Fred Pearson from the Montclair NJ Staff Band. Steve Dillon of Dillon music who put the whole subject in a reasonable perspective with a simple, offhand remark that there had been a tension between groups of mixed instrumentation and brass bands in the 19th century and that in the United States, the mixed groups WON. In Europe there is still an uneasy coexistence. Other entrepreneurs who were very helpful even though there was little in the way of commercial gain included: Paul Alvarez of Simply Brass; Bert Wiley of Bernel Music; and Charlie Clements of TAP music. Joseph Anderer of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra was very helpful and so was Wim Naujoks of the Amsterdam Staff Band.


Anthony Baines, Brass Instruments Their History and Development , London: Faber & Faber, 1980. Paul E. Bierley, John Philip Sousa, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1973. Carolyn Bryant, And The Band Played On, Washington: Superintendent of Documents, 1976. Richard J. Dundas, Brass Musical Instruments, Cincinnati: Queen City Brass Publications/Richard J. Dundas, 1986. Robert Eliason, Early American Brass Makers, Nashville: The Brass Press, 1979. Frederick Fennell, Time and the Winds, Kenosha: Leblanc, 1954. Robert Garofalo and Mark Elrod, A Pictorial History of Civil War Era Musical Instruments & Military Bands, Charleston, WVA: Pictorial Histories, 1985. Richard Franko Goldman, The Wind Band, Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1962. Margaret Hindle Hazen and Robert M. Hazen, The Music Men, Washington: Smithsonian, 1987. Wally Horwood, Adolphe Sax 1814-1894, Herts: Egon, 1983, 1992. Kurt Janetzky and Bernard Bruechle, The Horn, Portland: Amadeus, 1988. Kenneth Kreitner, Discoursing Sweet Music: Town Bands and Community Life in Turn-of-the Century Pennsylvania, Illinois: University of Illinois, 1990. Kenneth E. Olson, Music and Musket, Westport: Greenwood Press, 1981. Ray Steadman-Allen, Colour and Texture in the Brass Band Score, London: Salvation Army, 1980. Thomas C. Railsback and John P. Langellier, The Drums Would Roll, New York: Sterling, 1987. William H. Rehrig, The Heritage Encyclopedia of Band Music (edited by Paul E. Bierley), Westerville: Integrity Press, 1991. H.W. Schwartz, Bands of America, New York: Doubleday, 1957. Barry Tuckwell, Horn, New York: Schirmer, 1983. Scott Whitener, A Complete Guide to Brass Instruments and Pedagogy, New York: Schirmer, 1990.

If you are aware of the author of this text, please email me, as I would like to give appropriate credit.