French Horn

Courtesy of Vincent Bach
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Pitch range

French horn pitch range, courtesy of Hannah Whale

The French horn is a difficult instrument to play. The most expert players can still fluff the occasional note. But its smooth, velvety sound is very different from the rest of the brass section.

It produces two main sounds:

  1. Soft, golden, velvety
  2. Loud, extrovert, rousing

Why is it called a ‘French’ horn? Because it was developed in France. But there’s nothing particularly French about it. It’s often called just ‘horn’ for short.

Inside the orchestra

Plan of the orchestra showing the horns, courtesy of Hannah Whale

Plan of the orchestra showing the horns

There are normally four horns in the orchestra, though there can be eight. Sometimes they play in pairs, with one doing the higher bits and one doing the lower bits.

The sound of the horns is typical of the Romantic era. This was in the 19th century, when composers like Schumann, Wagner, Mahler, Brahms and Bruckner wanted huge, rich sounds. Their music often depicts outdoor scenes. The horn has always been linked with hunting, so it was a perfect instrument for them to use.

Horns get big, beefy solos. They’re good at swelling the sound of the orchestra, as well as playing long, held notes in the background.

In their sound, horns are like a cross between the brass instruments and the woodwind. Although they are brass instruments, their sound can be very gentle. They blend much better with the woodwind than do the trumpet, trombone or tuba.

Hundreds of years ago, the horn’s place was in the hunt. Horsemen would carry it and use it to sound signals. That’s why it has a round, coiled shape – so that it could fit over the horseman’s shoulder when it wasn’t being played. He was free to take up the reins and gallop at full speed…

Outside the orchestra

Concertos: A few, from very early to the present day. Mozart wrote four famous ones; Richard Strauss two.

Mozart wrote his horn concertos for his friend Joseph Leutgeb. When he wrote the notes, he used different-coloured inks – which might have been to put Leutgeb off. And there were little insults and comments through the music – like ‘Bet you can’t play this!’

Chamber music: Many wind quintets (with flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon), as the horn blends well with the woodwind.

Solo pieces: A few for horn and piano.

Jazz: The horn is found only very occasionally in jazz and isn’t known for being jazzy.

Construction of the Horn

The horn’s funnel-shaped mouthpiece and rotary valves, courtesy of Yamaha & Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins

The horn’s funnel-shaped mouthpiece and rotary valves

The horn is made of brass. It’s curled round to form a neat circle and ends in a wide bell. Unlike the other brass instruments, it has a mouthpiece shaped like a funnel.

There are three rotary valves that the player uses for different notes.

For more about how valves work, go to the Brass Family section.

 

Double horn
Double horn, courtesy of Yamaha

Double horn

In about 1900, the double horn was invented. It’s like two-horns-in-one. The basic French horn is in F, but there’s a higher one in B flat. The double horn puts the two together. It took a long time to catch on, but most players now use it. On the double horn there’s a thumb trigger for switching between the F part and the B flat part. It makes sure the air is diverted into different bits of tubing.

In London’s Albert Hall in 1956, the famous horn player Dennis Brain performed Leopold Mozart’s Alpine Horn Concerto on a garden hose!

To play it

Horn player in playing position, courtesy of Tony Morrell

Horn player in playing position

Like other brass instruments, you put your lips to the mouthpiece and ‘blow a raspberry’.

The vibration of your lips sends vibrating waves of air whizzing through all those little bits of tube.

The valves can redirect the air so that different notes can be sounded.

But the horn is really difficult! Sometimes the notes can ‘split’: really, that’s just what it sounds like.

Horn players put one hand up the bell of their instrument when they play. They do it to make tiny adjustments to the sound. They can even make the pitch ‘bend’ – so it slides up and down a tiny bit. It’s called ‘portamento’. Britten used this effect in his Serenade for tenor, horn and strings.

 

Portamento on the French horn

Britten: Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. IV. Elegy (extract)

Michael Thompson, horn; Bournemouth Sinfonietta; David Lloyd-Jones. Naxos 8.553834

Special effects

Horn players can do all the effects described in the Brass Instruments section on the horn, even glissando and flutter-tonguing.

Other horns

Apart from the horns in F and B flat (sometimes combined into one) there’s an odd relation in the horn family:

Wagner tuba

This is called a ‘tuba’… it’s even shaped like a tuba… but it has a mouthpiece like that of a horn, so it’s usually horn players who have to play it.

Wagner tuba, courtesy of Hans Hoyer

Wagner tuba

It was invented by Wagner in the 1860s. Wagner liked to do things his own way. His cycle of four operas, called The Ring of the Nibelung, involves a fantastical, heavenly palace called Valhalla. Wagner decided that this place was so extraordinary it needed a whole new instrument to conjure up its atmosphere. So he invented the Wagner tuba.

Bruckner, Strauss and Stravinsky all wrote for it, but other than that it remains on the sidelines.

Serpent

Serpent

An ancestor of the horn was called a ‘serpent’. It looked like its name! When the composer Handel first heard one he cried ‘What the devil is that?’

Find out more about the development of the French Horn in .

A Little History of the French Horn

The horn is ancient. It’s even older than the trumpet. It all began when animal horns were used to make noises…

For years afterwards, the horn’s place was in the hunt. Horsemen would carry it and use it to sound signals.

Hunting horn

It was a big, brash instrument. Its round, coiled shape was invented so that it could fit over the horseman’s shoulder when it wasn’t being played. He could then take up the reins in both hands and gallop at full speed. But it was a larger, heavier instrument – with no valves.

Natural horn

Natural horn, courtesy of M. Jiráček & Sons

Natural horn

In about 1700 came the natural horn. It was a bit smaller and composers started to take an interest in it.

Like the early trumpet, though, this horn could only play some notes. Valves hadn’t yet been invented.

 

These days, you’d think people would be glad they’d got a horn with valves. But some people still perform older music on the really difficult ‘natural horn’ because they want to create exactly the same sound as would have been heard years ago.

Crooks

Like the trumpet, the horn was given ‘crooks’ over the next few years. These were extra bits of tubing that helped it to play more notes.

The crooks were quite useful, but can you imagine carrying round all those bits of metal as well as the heavy horn itself? It was like having a whole drainage system in your instrument case. And they weren’t easy to use, either. To push them on and yank them off in the middle of pieces was not ideal.

Hand horn

In about 1770, a German horn player called Hampel discovered that if he shoved his hand up the bell of a horn, it had two effects:

  1. Softened the sound.
  2. Changed the pitch.

So then there was the ‘hand horn’. You could change notes by varying how far your hand went into the bell. But there was a problem: the notes sounded very different when they were ‘stopped’ in this way.

Rotary valves of the horn, courtesy of Yamaha & Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins

Rotary valves of the horn

Valves

In the first half of the 19th century, valves came to the rescue. Like the trumpet, the horn was set free with its valves. It could play all the notes and there was no need for crooks, or hands up the bell.

But players still put their hands up the bell, even today. They do it to make tiny adjustments to the sound.

Double horn

In about 1900, the double horn was invented. It’s like two-horns-in-one. The basic French horn is in F, but there’s a higher one in B flat. The double horn puts the two together. It took a long time to catch on, but most players now use the double horn.

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 The sound of the horn section is associated with which musical era?

a. Baroque
b. Romantic
c. Renaissance

 The mouthpiece of the horn has what shape?

a. Funnel
b. Cup
c. Box

 The valves of a horn are called what?

a. Rotary
b. Piston
c. Magnetic

 The horn had an ancestor called a...

a. Snake
b. Serpent
c. Lizard

 The horn most often plays chamber music with instruments from which other family?

a. String
b. Woodwind
c. Percussion

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Selected Horn Extracts

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Horn Concerto No. 4 in E flat major, K. 495: III. Rondo: Allegro vivace (extract)

Here is the light-footed horn as soloist.

Performers: Michael Thompson, horn & director; Bournemouth Sinfonietta

Taken from Naxos 8.553592

George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Water Music: Suite No. 1 in F major, HWV 348: VII. Menuet (extract)

Handel gets the best from the horns in the 18th century.

Performers: Capella Istropolitana; Bohdan Warchal

Taken from Naxos 8.550109

Richard Wagner (1813–1883)
Tannhäuser: Overture (extract)

A noble group starts this grand overture to one of Wagner’s most famous operas.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.550136

Gustav Mahler (1860–1911)
Symphony No. 3: I. Kräftig entschieden (‘Strong and decisive’) (extract)

The power of eight horns together!

Performers: Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.550525-26

Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, Op. 31. IV. Elegy (extract)

The horn makes a bendy sound – ‘portamento’.

Performers: Adrian Thompson, tenor; Michael Thompson, horn; Bournemouth Sinfonietta; David Lloyd-Jones

Taken from Naxos 8.553834

Horn as Soloist

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Horn Concerto No. 4 in E flat major, K. 495

Mozart loved the horn. He wrote four concertos for it – in his spare time – for his horn-playing friend Joseph Leutgeb. For this fourth one, instead of just black ink on the page, he used four different colours: red, green, blue and black. We don’t really know why he did that! People used to think he did it as a joke – trying to trip up his friend when he went to play it. Mozart liked a good laugh. But nobody knows for sure, and he might have wanted the colours for a more serious reason. The most famous movement is the final one: it’s the one that makes you want to get up and dance! Listen to how light and agile the horn can be!

Performers: Michael Thompson, horn & director; Bournemouth Sinfonietta

Taken from Naxos 8.553592

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Horn Sonata in F major, Op. 17

Today, most players use the double horn: it is a kind of 2-for-1 instrument, combining the earlier horn in F (or, today, the ‘Vienna horn’ since it is played almost exclusively in Vienna) with a higher horn in B flat. However, the Vienna horn has a special sound of its own: soft, rounded, and full of colour. There is just one problem: it’s like trying to ride an untamed animal! It is a brave and skilled player who performs on it, and even then there can be dodgy moments when notes sound wrong. The horn player on this recording uses the Vienna horn – but you won’t hear any wrong notes! In fact Beethoven wrote his Horn Sonata for the ‘natural horn’ – the horn without valves. That was the only one available at the time (1800). So although his piece would have been a challenge to play, he would have been careful to use notes that suited the limits of the instrument. Beethoven was 30 years old then, and he played the piano for the sonata’s first performance. You can hear after the assertive beginning how the piano and horn start flowing out music together like perfect partners. Listen at 1.30 in track 1: the piano has lots of notes and is answered by the horn, which leaps like a horse jumping over fences; then they swap at 1.39.

Performers: Wolfgang Tomboeck, horn; Madoka Inui, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.557471

Franz Danzi (1763–1826)
Horn Sonata in E minor, Op. 44

A tuneful sonata by Franz Danzi, a German composer of the Classical era. He came from the city of Mannheim, which was well known as an exciting hub of excellent music in the mid-18th century. This sonata was written for the natural horn, so the first horn players to perform it would have played all the notes without using any valves. They would have been able to use crooks – extra bits of tubing that could be added onto the instrument to alter the selection of possible notes. Other than that, they would have changed the position of their hand in the bell to ‘stop’ notes, and have made their lips and diaphragm work hard! Here the sonata is played on a modern horn.

Performers: Michael Thompson, horn; Philip Fowke, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554694

Chamber Music

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Trio for violin, horn and piano in E flat major, Op. 40

Brahms wrote this romantic, meaty trio in the summer of 1865. You might think the brass horn would overpower a violin – but it doesn’t. Brahms was also a clever craftsman and he knew how to design his music so that everything shines. He allows each instrument to be in the spotlight. Sometimes they echo or answer each other, and sometimes they seem to take off and fly through the air together (e.g. 1.08 in track 1, or 1.32 in track 2).

Performers: Jenő Keveházi, horn; Ildikó Hegyi, violin; Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550441

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Horn Quintet in E flat major, K. 407

In 1782, Mozart was in Vienna: he had married a woman called Constanze Weber, and was living independently – without relying on his father or on a patron for money and employment. As with his four horn concertos, he wrote this quintet for his friend Joseph Leutgeb, a horn player. It is for a horn, two violins, viola and cello. It was not easy to impress people by playing the natural horn, but Leutgeb did impress people: apparently he was good at bringing out lovely melodies – making the horn sing. Mozart must have known this: listen to the slow movement (track 2) when, after the introduction from the strings, the horn comes in at 0.49 with a long and controlled tune.

Performers: Jenő Keveházi, horn; Kodály Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.550437

Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, Op. 31

This atmospheric masterpiece was written because Benjamin Britten knew a great horn player, Dennis Brain, and a great tenor, Peter Pears. In 1943 he brought them together, composing his Serenade using words from various well-known British poets (e.g. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, William Blake and John Keats). This combination – a tenor voice, a French horn, and string instruments – was completely new. The first movement is a kind of lonely fanfare for the horn on its own: it sounds quite strange sometimes, but just listen to the change from this ‘Prologue’ into the second movement – like something magical is being uncovered as the strings come in. The music is so delicate sometimes – at 1.35 in track 2, for example, where the strings pluck their notes, the horn is gentle, and the tenor sings ‘a very little, little flock’ with a soft, light tone. Britten was brilliant at setting words. The music sounds almost spooky and unearthly sometimes. Listen to track 3, the Nocturne, at 0.31: ‘Blow, bugle, blow’, the tenor sings – and the horn blows! ‘Answer, echoes, answer’ – the horn echoes! It happens again with the same words at 1.50 but it’s more distant… the horn echoes from further away… And at 2.45 there it is again, but all much louder until it fades to the end.

Performers: Adrian Thompson, tenor; Michael Thompson, horn; Bournemouth Sinfonietta; David Lloyd-Jones

Taken from Naxos 8.553834