Today’s horn, what is often known as the French horn, is a descendant of the natural horn, which in turn is a descendant of the hunting horn. Small and circular in shape, the hunting horn was easy to carry and convenient to play whilst sat atop a moving horse. Although the basic shape is still the same, the horn has undergone many developments which have made it a more versatile and manageable instrument. The natural horn is a complex instrument which although confined to the back seat of the stage, is one of the often unsung heroes of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.
One of the most important differences between the natural and the modern horns is the former’s absence of valves, or keys. When pressed by the player’s fingers on their left hand, keys create different pitches by altering the length of the instrument’s tubing. Without keys, notes are achieved on the natural horn by alterations of the player’s lip tension, or ‘embouchure’. The number of notes achievable on an instrument without keys is limited, which is why The Last Post, traditionally played on a key-less bugle is made up of so few pitches. To play in different keys, the length of the instrument needs to be altered to allow the player to achieve different notes in the harmonic series. To do this, the ‘crooks’ must be changed. Crooks are different lengths of tubing which slot into the instrument to increase and decrease the length of the tubing. The crooks normally hang on the player’s stand, awaiting a key change. Changing the crook is often a lengthy and sometimes noisy process and it can break the mood of a work, especially if it is comprised of many short movements. In a Mozart opera, for example, you need to be prepared for almost twenty crook changes!
Slight changes in pitch can be achieved without changing the crooks, but require a steady hand. By placing the right hand in the bell, the flared end of the horn, the player can adjust the length of the instrument and therefore can alter the pitch. This is a technique known as ‘hand-stopping’ and is thought to have been pioneered by horn player Anton Joseph Hampel. Hand-stopping was an important discovery as it allowed notes outside of the harmonic series to be produced on the natural horn. The disadvantage to this technique is that by placing your hand in the bell, you unavoidably mute the instrument. Although only slight, the effect on the instrument’s tone is noticeable.
One of the most important pieces in the natural horn’s repertoire is the Concertino for Horn and Orchestra by Carl Maria Von Weber. Fast semi quaver triplets, long runs of semi-demi quavers, large leaps between high and low notes, and a cadenza all contribute to the virtuosity of the work. But nothing is quite as advanced or difficult as the seven bar solo passage of multiphonics. ‘What are multiphonics?’ I hear you ask?! Well, by utilising a special technique (blowing and singing into the instrument simultaneously) you can unleash more than one note at a time. It’s all very scientific, but in short, this is because when two notes are played (one note by singing, the other by blowing) their combined frequencies produce other tones. Multiphonics are commonly used in modern compositions, but it is the pioneering efforts of Weber in his Concertino, where he gives seven solo bars to the horn, that show off this unusual technique in all its glory.
Roger Montgomery on the the Horn in Mahler’s Symphony No.2