Article for “Early Music Now” magazine: Getting Started
I’m very grateful to the magazine, “Early Music Now” for allowing me to publish a copy of this article here.
You can read the transcript (below) or download the .pdf from AT THIS LINK
As a player of the modern horn I was a late convert to the delights of the classical hand horn. It took a friend and colleague of mine many attempts at persuasion using a variety of tactics. (Thank you Raul!) The one which finally got me was when he said, “It will put you in touch with your roots as a horn player”. This really made me consider it and I was compelled to borrow an instrument and get to work on it. I’m so glad I did, because I absolutely love playing classical natural horn and would recommend that EVERY horn player also get in touch with his or her roots.
THE NATURAL HORN
The word “natural” here refers to the way this instrument emulates the kinds of horns found in nature. These can be animal horns, large seashells or even hollow wooden branches. Although the concept of the natural horn was originally inspired by nature, the combination of metalworking skills in the classical period and the malleability and durability of the metal alloy known as brass allowed the creation of much longer instruments than nature ever provided. The natural horn is a long, conical brass tube narrow at the end into which one blows, and which gets progressively wider along its entire length until it terminates in an extravagant flare, or “bell”, from which the sound emerges. For convenience, the tubing is looped, sometimes several times, into a neat circle.
THE HARMONIC SERIES
It resonates beautifully but only at a few very specific frequencies. In other words the instrument will only allow a small number of notes to be played – roughly speaking between eight and sixteen depending on the length or key of the instrument. Mozart liked to write for natural horn in E flat, for example, which is about fourteen feet long and has about 16 notes. In practical terms a longer horn allows a greater number of tones to be played. The pitches of these are dictated by the highly complex mathematics of acoustical physics which govern the frequency at which air contained within a horn can resonate or, in other words, can “quiver” in a fast and precisely regular way to produce stable tones. The resulting attractive sequence of playable notes, or harmonics, is known as the “harmonic series” and is a natural phenomenon which I like to think of as a kind of audible rainbow, in which the lowest two notes (red and orange in the case of a rainbow) are spaced a whole octave apart from each other and the higher notes are progressively closer together. By the time you arrive at the sixteen and seventeen harmonics they are as close together as one semitone, rather high and hard to play.
It is a great pity that this instrument with its heart-stopping sound, both gripping and gorgeous, has, to our modern ears, a whole load of notes “missing”. Arpeggio? No problem – although, sadly, only one. Scales? One or two but nothing very convincing. Chromatic scale? Not a chance – certainly not with only a handful of widely spaced notes! These are, however, so ravishingly lovely that, well… we work with what there is.
An explanation of how players of the natural horn can, by force of will and of lip and with sleight of hand (manipulations of the right hand within the instrument’s bell), twist and bend the “given” notes of the natural horn to produce rather more usable notes, will need another article in this magazine, possibly entitled “Wrestling with Nature”.
During the 1800s, as clever inventors and designers sought and found new ways to combine natural horns together into what might be called compound horns, the original single-length natural horn was pretty much abandoned. During a process much akin to evolution and natural selection; trial (of new designs) and error (scrapping the less successful ones) – the modern horn was rather gradually born.
THE MODERN HORN
If you want a horn to be capable of playing anything and everything the trick is to combine twelve differently lengthed natural horns together so that they share the same narrow blowing end and the same flared, sounding end. You then add ingenious metal valves for switching instantly between each of those twelve horns. After this it is a matter of waiting while generation after generation of brilliant horn designers and makers battle it out to achieve the most efficient, economical, elegant and ergonomic design. As a result of that long process we can rejoice in the miracle of the modern horn; the multi-horn, or the compound horn, or even the “dodecahorn” …but please let’s stop calling it French!
In theory it would be perfectly possible for a beginner to start out with the natural horn and maybe learn to play it with great expertise. However, in my opinion that would result in quite a sad life for a musician of today. During the 1800s and beyond composers were reacting to the gradual development of the modern horn by writing music which immediately exploited its exciting new possibilities and from then on those new horn parts were not playable on the natural horn. A player of the modern instrument, though, has the keys (and I mean this both figuratively and literally) to almost two hundred years of music written since the hand horn was superseded. It can truly be said that with a modern horn one can play anything at all (with practice, of course…) and this includes music from the classical period or before.
As in many instances of progress and modernisation some particular qualities can get left behind and forgotten. The old natural horns had certain characteristics and subtleties of nuance that were all lost when the modern instrument swept it aside. Without the addition of the modern horn’s valves and plumbing the simple, single-length ancestral horn feels very light in weight and vibrant in the hands. Its harmonics seem more true and somehow less compromised and its tone feels purer and more wholesome and, well, I hate to use the word “organic” in the case of a metal object but…
One might think there is no going back, but that is apparently not the case. These days there are many makers of new natural horns, most of them thriving and continuing the work of their predecessors in still seeking the perfect tapers, proportions and construction etc. There are orchestras springing up everywhere which need horn players who play instruments as close as possible to those known by composers from the distant past. There are new audiences hungry to hear as much authenticity and integrity as is possible in performances of the greatest compositions from the classical period.
The natural horn today is at least as alive as it was when its brilliant child, the modern horn, branched off into new territory.