The horn [a.k.a. the French horn] can be something of a beast to master, but it is undeniably the most beautiful instrument in the orchestra. Look at every symphony orchestra poster that’s every been printed, posted, or published and what do you see? A picture of a bassoon? A snare drum? A viola? No-nein-nyet-non-uh uh: there is always a picture of the horn, this shiny, circular, complex concatenation of mysterious bended brass, glistening and glowing like a gilded Hollywooded curve of cortex, Schumann’s seductive soul of the orchestra, who will enslave you, delight you, and break your heart (sometimes within moments), take you on a life-long roller coaster ride with all the giddy heights and dizzying depths and molar-grinding twists and turns of a summer thriller movie trailer.
Got carried away there for a moment. But that’s the horn for you.
I want to focus here on the looks of the beast. The elemental circular form of the horn wrap plus the curvature of the bell is simply beautiful. It must have stirred the esthetic sensibilities of our species since metal workers figured out how to bend brass tubing without crimping it, probably some time in the early 17th century. The earliest horns were made to terrorize elk and enemies, but that’s another story.
Although today nearly everyone is conditioned to think of the horn in the form of a double horn with either a Geyer or Kruspe wrap, the horn has gone through many changes and has taken on very different forms over time as technology advanced (e.g. the invention of valves) and different makers tried out different solutions. I’m pleased to see a bit more variety these days, and in general greater tolerance by orchestras as far as what horns are “allowed” in the section (see Who Plays What at the UI Horn Studio web site). I think it’s interested for students to take a tour of what the horn used to look like, so they can see that there is no “true” horn form, just a general theme with myriad variations.
For a gander at some of these, you would do well to visit Dick Martz’s site. Dick is one the world’s premiere private horn collectors, and he was good enough to bring a good bit of his collection to the Denver IHS workshop in ’08 and to Kendall Betts Horn Camp several summers running. At both places his boundless faith in humanity also allowed us all to try some test tones on the various wonders of his collection. Go to his web site and refresh your memory of what a horn with Stoeltzl valves looks like, or a Breveté Cor d’Harmonie, or a horn with Berliner pumpen valves. Here’s a photo from Denver of a small part of his terrific display:
This photo was lifted from his web site – please go there and see it and the many other photos of his wonderful collection. Marveling at the beauty and variations of all these horns is a great way to get in touch with our horn heritage and glory in the manifold shapes our instrument has taken over the years.
There are other places on the web to find pictures of horns to ogle. The aptly named Horniman Museum of London has some very interesting specimens; you can do a search of the site for horn pix here.
A Google search for “French horn” will turn up many, if mostly conventional images of the horn.
An exhaustive (and perhaps exhausting) compendium of horn photos ( “all available horns, past & present“) can be found on the Yahoo horn list – 132 web pages (20 thumbnail photos per page) in all! Click on the thumbnail to see a larger version of the photo.
Thomas “Thü” Hürlimann has come up with a Horn Beauty Contest, where, as a professional graphic designer, he discusses the factors that make a horn most esthetically pleasing and then picks the winners of this contest.
The Vienna horn is not one that you run across in this country very often, which may be a good thing, since to know it is to love it – play one once and you will be stricken with severe Vienna horn envy, and there is no cure.
In short, horns are a lot like people. There are a lot of different kinds, and this variety is a good thing. Every kind has its own beauty.