Among the many brass instruments, my personal favorite is the French horn, for it is a powerful and warm musical instrument that can pronounce melodies well. The modern-day French horn originated from the hunting horns used in both Germany and France during the 16th century to communicate with their fellow hunters. For this reason, it retains the horn tag in its name.
Although it is not clear when the hunting horns got first converted into a musical instrument, somewhere along the historical road, someone innovated the hunting horn and transformed it into a musical instrument. It is this historical evolution of the French horn that we would like to unravel in this post.
When Did the Hunting Horns Transition into a French Horn?
The hunting horn’s transition into a French horn was not abrupt. It might have taken several centuries before the French horn achieved its present-day form. But somewhere along the way, there was indeed a person who catalyzed this transition. Let’s look back historically to this transition.
By the 16th century, operas had been using horns as musical instruments. These horns, of course, were crude instruments and a far cry from the present-day French horn. They were wrought in brass and made after the animal horn’s form.
These crude horns were challenging to tune, and adjusting their notes was a huge challenge. To solve this issue, they made different types of horns with varying lengths. Players had to switch from one horn to another during a performance to get to the right notes. Such a funny solution would indeed be a challenge to a horn player. Moreover, it was not the ideal solution for the abovementioned nagging issue.
The horn saw some modifications during the 17th century. One such modification was the bell end which became more extensive and flared. This alteration, of course, birthed the first French horn or cor de chasse.
The first horn was monotone. Somewhere in 1753, someone added the movable slides or crooks that altered the horn’s key. This innovator was Hampel, a German musician.
Detailed History of the Evolution of the French Horn
The actual origin of the French horn is further traceable back to when humans started to use real animal horns as instruments of communication. Then, humans began to make metal horns patterned after the animal horn. Shofar, for example, a ram’s horn, played an essential role in several Jewish rituals.
The early metal horns were not that complex, being made of brass tubes with slightly flared bells that wound a few times around. These horns were used in hunting while the hunters were mounted. These early metal horns produced a sound called recheat. These metal horns changed pitch by controlling your lips because they didn’t have valves. Horns only got their valves in the 19th century. Sans the valves, horns could only produce notes included in the harmonic series.
Somewhere along the way, the French horn evolved. Its design combines a long length and a narrow bore. This design can quickly reach the higher overtones, thus enabling it to play melodies sans the valves.
The early horns were pitched likewise in B♭ alto until the B♭ basso. They also didn’t have the capability of playing different keys. Hence, they added crooks to expand the ability of the horns. The crooks were sections of tubing with different lengths. This tubing, when inserted, changed the instrument’s length and consequently its pitch.
During the mid of the 18th century, horn players started to insert their right hand onto the bell to alter the instrument’s length and adjust its tuning between two adjacent harmonic distances, depending on how much of the opening they covered.
In the 19th century, some innovative inventors improved the design of the horn. In 1818, for example, Heinrich Stölzel together with Friedrich Blümel patented the very first valved horn. They evolved the rotary valves.
In 1839, Francois Perinet introduced the piston valves. He introduced these valves to solve the nagging issues associated with the crooks during a performance. However, musicians did not quickly adapt his design because they deemed the valves unreliable, and many players distrusted their usage. Players also claimed that the natural valveless horns were better.
However, the advantages of valves were soon too much for the naysayers, and soon their use became the norm. The use of valves allowed for great flexibility in key playing, and their introduction altered the horn’s use, making the horn appear and become an entirely different instrument with fully chromatic capability. Compositions then began to include chromatic passages in the later years of the 19th century.
The French innovated the horns further and created smaller horns equipped with piston valves. The Germans, however, made larger horns equipped with rotary valves.
Who Got the Credit for Inventing the French Horn?
I haven’t told you yet the person who got the credit for inventing the French horn. Although the evolution of the French horn can never be credited to one person, two inventors got the credit for developing the modern-day French horn. These two persons are Heinrich Stoelzel, who invented the valve in 1814, and Friedrich Blühmel, who played both horn and trumpet in a band.
Other names worth mentioning were Edmund Gumpert along Fritz Kruspe, considered to be the inventors of double French horns. Fritz Kruspe got credit for combining the horn’s pitches in F with the B-flat horn.
The present-day French horns come in four types: single horn and double horn, compensating double horn, and triple horn. So, if you are desirous of buying or learning how to play the French horn, you will find various horns to choose from. Knowing their different types will let you choose correctly according to your needs.
You will often see and hear the French horn in orchestra and concert bands. Moreover, many composers have already written works that became noted for their horn repertoire. You will also find many chamber music repertoires for the horn. So, you will indeed have your hands full once you learn the French horn.