Music Study – The Horn

There are therefore two kinds of Horns, the Cor d’harmonie, or French horn, and the valve horn, of more recent invention, which is tending more and more to supplant the old one in the orchestra.

It does not fall within the limits of this work to ex-amine how far this substitution is happy ; it has its partisans and its detractors. We must restrict ourselves here to explaining what is necessary for the study of each of these two instruments.

Let us first remark that under the existing state of things, in order to be complete, a horn-player should know how to play both of them ; for if, in the execution of modern works, the use of the valve-horn is indispensable, since they are written for it and cannot be played on the other, which settles the question, it is advantageous to return to the simple horn for the whole classic repertory, under pain of defeating the composer’s intentions, by depriving him of part of his desired effects.

To be well understood, this demands a few explanations as to the way these two instruments work, explanations which I will try to give as briefly as possible, avoiding, as far as possible, all technical terms which would be understood only by a few. It is quite understood that I express no preference.

The French horn is derived from exactly the same principle as the hunting-horn, it is a simple tube coiled around itself, and is not qualified to give out naturally, under the effort of the human breath, modified by the pressure of the lips, more than a very restricted number of tones,* which are therefore called natural tones, and which resound with brilliance. To obtain intercalary tones, the horn-player introduces his right hand into the bell of the instrument, obstructing the orifice to a greater or lesser degree, with infinite precautions ; by this artifice, he modifies, by obstructing them, the vibrations of the air contained in the tube, which results in some new tones which have received the name of stopped notes, and which have not at all the same timbre as the first. In the same proportion as the natural tones are vigor-oils and brilliant, the others are veiled, uncertain, timid, and, so to speak, far away. From this lack of homogeneity, which seems A priori a capital defect, the old composers (I speak here particularly of those belonging to that beautiful period between Beethoven and Mendelssohn) and their interpreters managed to obtain tones of exquisite charm. The transition of an open tone to a stopped tone or vice-versa, far from being incongruous notwithstanding its difficulty and the awkwardness that results from it, perhaps even on that very account, is simply strange, with an essentially sympathetic strangeness that gives to a phrase sung by the horn an emotional character that is entirely individual. But the stopped notes can be produced only under certain conditions, preceded or followed by open tones, and also without too much precipitation; and for this reason they demand as much art on the part of the composer who calls for them as skilfulness and dexterity from the executant.

Let us pass on to the valve horn. Thanks to a very ingenious mechanical system, analogous to that of the cornet, which lengthens or shortens at will the circuit of air in the tube, it can produce with equal facility all the tones of the chromatic scale (which is the reason it is also called the chromatic horn), and all in the same timbre, which is very nearly that of the open tones of the ordinary horn. Hence, the composer finds it easy to employ, in the most rapid modulations and use every note without having to take any precautions ; hence also the performer gains a security which was unknown in the case of the old instrument, besides the faculty of being able to undertake rapid passages of all kinds. But on the other hand, the mysterious and veiled tones of the stopped horn are sacrificed. We might indeed pro-duce stopped tones on the chromatic horn by the same artifice as in the simple horn, by inserting the hand into the bell, but as it is far easier to produce the same notes by means of the valves, this is scarcely ever done. Let us add that whenever it is done, the tones, owing to some reason connected with the construction of the instrument, do not possess the same poetical character and the same fascination as those produced on the simple horn.

Now that the two instruments are known with their qualities and defects, we can easily conceive that a clever horn-player should be able to play both alternately, according to circumstances.

Moreover, this double study does not entail any complication. A beginning must always be made with the simple horn, and a good embouchure on it acquired, as well as a frank and beautiful sonority, at once vigorous and unctuous, afterwards proceeding to the stopped tones.

Next we shall pass to the valve horn, which will seem relatively easy ; and finally, we shall be able to play first on one and then on the other, and possess equal command of each.

Work may be begun on this beautiful instrument at the age of fourteen or fifteen, if the chest is strong enough; but it may also be undertaken much later, it really does not matter much at what age, without very marked inconvenience.

The time of daily study should be divided into periods of half an hour at first, and an hour at most after having become sufficiently accustomed to it. Eight sittings of half an hour each make the best arrangement, always taking care to shorten or cut out a few when any symptoms of fatigue appear, as we have already established in a general way.