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The French horn is a musical instrument used in the orchestra. It consists of what seems like four miles of brass tubing wound into a circular shape with an enormous flared 'bell' on one end. The horn player sticks a hand in one end and blows into the other, producing wondrous music with a beautiful rounded mellow tone.
What's in a Name?
Firstly, what is a horn? The normal meaning of the word is a musical instrument based on an animal horn; that is, a long tube which is narrow at one end and gets wider as it goes along. This is known as 'conical bore'. It is different from the trumpet, where the tube is basically the same diameter all the way along except for the ends (cylindrical bore).
'French horn' is the name for the orchestral instrument, but the players themselves prefer the term 'horn' without the 'French'. Originally it was called French to distinguish it from a type of hunting horn popular in England at the time it was invented.
The word horn is also used for two other instruments: the cor anglais, a large oboe, is known in America as the English horn; the basset horn is a type of large clarinet. In addition, in casual usage 'horn' can mean any instrument you blow, such as a trombone or a clarinet in a jazz band.
A person who plays the horn is normally called a horn player, rather than a hornist.
How Does it Work?
The length of the tube in a horn is actually somewhat short of the four miles mentioned above, but it is still very long, at 5m. The tube starts out at the mouthpiece only 5mm wide and gradually widens along the length, eventually flaring out at the bell.
The mouthpiece that the player blows into is funnel-shaped. This is different from all other brass instruments. It is one of the things that gives the instrument its distinctive sound.
As in all brass instruments, the buzzing together of the player's lips in the mouthpiece makes the sound. This noise sets the air in the tube resonating. It can resonate at a number of pitches called harmonics. The player chooses between these different harmonic ranges by tightening and loosening the lips. Whereas trumpet and trombone players get by with only six harmonics, horn players need to be able to produce a large number of different harmonics.
There are normally three valves which are operated by the fingers of the left hand. These divert the air into extra lengths of tubing, making the tube longer and lowering the pitch. The three valves lower the pitch by one, two or three semitones. They can be used in combination to lower the pitch by four, five or six semitones. Between the valves and the harmonics, the horn can play a fully chromatic scale covering about 3 and a half octaves.
The player's right hand is placed in the bell of the instrument. By changing the position of the hand, the pitch and tone of the instrument can be altered.
In addition to the three valves, there is also a trigger which is like a valve that can be left permanently in one position or the other. This raises the pitch by a fourth, so the whole horn goes up in pitch and plays like a smaller instrument.
The horn started out as a hunting horn, for giving signals over long distances. Whereas England favoured a small high-pitched bugle, the French used a large round horn. This had no valves, so the tunes that could be played on it were limited to the natural harmonics. This instrument was introduced into the orchestras in France in the 18th Century and gradually spread to the rest of Europe. The instrument could be tuned to different keys by adding short lengths of tubing called crooks. This is the instrument for which Mozart wrote his concertos.
In the 19th Century, the valve was invented and applied to all brass instruments. The new valve horn was much easier to play and more popular, becoming the mainstay of the brass section of the orchestra. Because of its rounded tone, it blends well with the other instruments.
There is a huge range of music written for horn. Here is a selection:
Mozart Horn Concertos - Mozart wrote 4 of these and they are essential parts of the horn repertoire.
Mozart Sinfonia Concertante for Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon and Horn.
Richard Strauss - Strauss' father was a very important horn player in Germany. Strauss had a good grounding in horn playing as a result and wrote many beautiful pieces for it. The most important are his two Horn Concertos and the short but beautiful September from his 'Four Last Songs'.
Horns are often used for harmony in a rhythmic passage, playing the off beats. If you think 'Oompah oompah oompah', then say the 'oom' silently, you get the effect of off-beat playing. A good example of this is in the finale to the William Tell Overture by Rossini.
Peter and the Wolf - in this musical tale for children by Prokofiev, the part of the Wolf is played by three horns.
JS Bach's B Minor Mass contains a part for 'Corno di Caccia'. Music pedants have argued over exactly what this term means, but it appears to be similar to a modern horn but with a cup-shaped mouthpiece, giving it a sharper, more brassy sound.
Mahler's 3rd Symphony - the symphony starts with a glorious march played on eight horns.
Also in Mahler's 3rd Symphony, there is an extensive solo for 'posthorn'. This is a small valveless horn similar to the original hunting horns. This part could be played on a modern horn, but for the real authentic touch it should probably be played on an original posthorn.
Richard Wagner used the horn in many of his works. In Tannhauser, he uses 12 horns on stage and another 4 off stage. In his Ring Cycle, Siegried's Funeral March has an important theme for horn. Wagner's best horn lines were written to be played by Franz Strauss, the aforementioned father of Richard Strauss. Franz hated Wagner and his music, but played so well that Wagner kept on writing more for him.
Special Playing Techniques
The horn player places his or her right hand in the bell of the instrument. This can be used for two purposes. Firstly, with the hand inserted slightly, the pitch can be altered to bring into tune some of the more out-of-tune harmonics. Secondly, pushing the hand in further will raise the pitch by a semitone and will change the tone. This slightly muffled, more brassy tone is known as 'stopped' playing and is often demanded by composers.
Horn chords can be produced by singing into the instrument while playing in the normal way at the same time. This produces two notes. Due to a strange acoustical phenomenon in the human ear, the listener hears two additional notes. One is the sum of the two frequencies, the other is the difference. By careful choice of the original two notes, four notes can be produced simultaneously which are in tune with each other, making a pleasant chord.
Lifting the bell into the air is occasionally used to get extra volume. It is quite an impressive sight to see in a Bruckner symphony: five horns lifted high into the air to blast out the main theme.