French Horn History – Facts and Evolution

The French Horn is a musical wind instrument that belongs to the brass family. The term “French Horn”, is in fact, only used in English-speaking countries, mainly in the United States, as in the vast majority of other countries, is just referred to as “horn” or other names not depicting a nationality for the instrument.

It is one of the band instruments that has had more changes throughout history, as well as with the most rapid developments.

The history of the horn goes back to prehistory, where the horns of animals were used to produce sounds like a form of communication. Also, there is evidence pointing to the use of conch shells by the Hebrews, Romans, Greeks.

In the Middle Ages, its predecessors played a prominent role in the invention of the hunting horn.

In the baroque period, the natural horn appeared without the aid of the right hand and in the classical period only the right hand was used, which allowed playing all the notes of a certain tone.

In the 19th century, the system of pistons and valves appeared, which allowed the instrument to play all musical notes.


From Its Origin to Our Days

The horn has undergone various modifications through the ages, even in its name: Hunting Horn, Natural Horn, Chromatic or Piston Horn, Harmony Horn, French Horn…

Some of Its Most Related Predecessors

The horn had its origin as an instrument in the Olifante and Chofar Hebreu, instruments still in use in ceremonies linked to the Jewish New Year and the Feast of Atonement.

Besides the Egyptians and Hebrews, the Greeks also used the Chofar and the Kegos (horn) to announce to the people their religious and profane meetings.

The construction of the metal horn dates from the year 1400, approximately, and was an instrument widely used in France until the reign of Louis XV, having found in this country its great expansion. That is pointed to as one of the reasons why the English called it French Horn.

Hunting Horn

It was used in the great venatory feasts that were once held in the European courts. It is a cylindrical and conical tube instrument.

Natural Horn

It is a copy of the Hunting Horn, but to which one could adapt some threaded tubes, which increased its length.

Horn of Harmony

Hampel imagined this system of tubes or threads that, of several sizes, on which it was possible to execute a series of harmonics of fifteen sounds. It starts here to be called Horn of Harmony, because, based on the respective harmonics, all kind of melodies could already be executed. The halftones were produced with the help of the right hand on the bell, thus making possible a greater amplitude of the instrument’s potentialities.

When the horn player introduces his hand into the hood, the sounds become lower and the timbre more velvety. As the hand advances and the inner hole of the tube becomes narrower, these effects are felt. In this way, the performer can lower all the degrees of the harmonic scale, from the most imperceptible fraction to the interval of a tone.

One of the ways to apply this process is to adapt the discordant harmonics to our current scale: the sound 11 (very low F#) becomes natural F#; the sound 13 (very low F#) becomes natural F#; the sounds 7 and 14 (very low F#) become natural F#. These four sounds, produced by a lowering of less than half a tone, have an extraordinary sonority and can be considered the best among the closed sounds.


A Breakthrough that Led to the French Horn as We Know Today

It was at the beginning of the 19th century that the instrument underwent its greatest evolution, when Blumhel and Stolzel invented, respectively, the cylinders and pistons. With this innovation, the Chromatic Horn was created, thus enabling the development that we know today.

Henry Stolzel was the major contributor to make this instrument well known. Stolzel’s new horn had only pistons, so it did not have the full chromatic scale, but only in the two highest octaves.

The possibilities of the horn with this new invention were immensely superior to those used until then, and in terms of sonority, it was much better.


The French Horn Nowadays

Currently, the horn is a circular brass instrument, about 35 cm. in diameter, with the mouthpiece and levers at the top and a very flared end or bell at the bottom. The central part is occupied by three or four generally rotating valves (cylinders), which are operated with the left hand.

The instrument is usually made of brass and is sometimes silver-plated or nickel-plated. There are also horns made of German silver and copper.

The most common horns are double F/B-flat instruments, incorporating an F horn of about 3.92 m. in length with a B-flat alto horn of about 2.92 m. The longer or shorter instrument is made of brass and sometimes silvered or nickel plated. The longer or shorter instrument is selected by a valve operated by the thumb of the left hand. Three valves or double cylinders in the left hand give both horns the usual additional tube lengths. Single horns in F or B flat are also available.

Nowadays, you have plenty of French horn brands, but the following ones are considered to have with highest overall quality among their different horn models.


History as an Orchestra Instrument

Its first orchestra appearances took place in the second half of the XVII century, but it is not possible to cite an exact date or performance from which the horn was first used in the orchestra. That’s because at first, it was only used for scenic purposes to evoke hunts. However, at the beginning of the XVIII century horns began to be used more frequently. For example, in the opera “Octavia” (1705) by R. Keiser horns already perform.

The most important baroque composers, Haendel, Bach, Vivaldi and Telemann also used the horns in many of their compositions.

  • Bach used the horns in some of his masses, cantatas and in the famous “Brandenburg Concerto No. 1“, where the two horns play the role of soloists.
  • Haendel wrote for the horns in most of his scores, among which his “Music for the Royal Fireworks” (1749), and his “Water Music” (1717) are worth mentioning. But, of all his production for horn, the aria “Va Tacito” from his opera “Julius Caesar” (1724) should be specially named.

Already in the classical period, the instrument got even more relevant and started to be a regular presence in orchestras, with special contributions by J. Haydn, and W. A. Mozart. With these two composers, a new era for the horn began; the clarinet register disappeared due to J. Hampel’s discovery of the “hand technique” with which melodic passages could finally be played in the middle register.

Among the role that classical composer gave to the horn, Beethoven definitely stands out. In the first and second symphonies, he uses two horns, with some movements being really difficult to perform (more exactly for the first horn in the second movement of the second symphony).

Composers that Explored the Versatility of the French Horn

Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Bruckner and Richard Strauss are the composers who exploited the great timbre and sound qualities of this instrument. For example, Mahler, wrote in some of his symphonies for up to ten horns and the orchestral passages are sometimes really difficult.

With a vast repertoire (sonatas and concerts), from the Baroque to the Contemporary style, the horn found in Richard Strauss, a composer of excellence, who knew how to explore in a brilliant way, in full Romanticism, all the virtuosities of the instrument.

Curiosity: In one of the rehearsals conducted by the composer Richard Strauss at the premiere of the “Symphonie Domestique, the horn players reproached him, telling him that it was impossible to play a passage of his work. Strauss, undeterred, said: “Don’t worry, if you can’t play it, your successors will do it for you!”

French Horn Appearances in Famous Classical Musical Pieces

  • Strauss: The Hero’s Life, Till Eulespiegel, Alpine Symphony, Domestic Symphony, Don Juan.
  • Wagner: Siegfried
  • Handel: Julius Caesar
  • Bach: Mass in B minor
  • Mahler: All of his symphonies.
  • Ravel: Pavane for a deceased infanta, Concerto for piano in G
  • Tchaikowsky: 2nd, and 5th Symphonies
  • Bruckner: 4th, 7th and 9th Symphonies
  • Brahms: 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 3rd Symphonies
  • Beethoven: 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 9th Symphonies
  • Schumann: 3rd Symphony
  • Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 (from the New World), Cello Concerto

Other Musical Genres Where the French Horn Can Be Found

The horn, due to its sound characteristics, can be found in several types of genres, despite that it’s still mainly used in classical music, both symphonic and chamber music. Its timbre and sound virtues make the horn the ideal companion for any chamber ensemble, whether wind, string or piano.

Currently, and within chamber music, its formation par excellence is the brass quintet where the intense and romantic sound makes the horn the fundamental instrument to maintain the sound base of the group.

Since 1940 it has been slowly becoming also a presence in jazz, and in more recent decades, it has definitely become more popular. And not only in jazz but also with other popular musical genres, being sometimes given some epic movies soundtracks parts (check the bottom fo the article for some famous movies with french horn parts). Saying that it should be noted the importance of the horn as a solo instrument and not only as a classical musical type of instrument.


Why is it Called French Horn in the United States?

The use of the term French Horn in the United States is widely pointed as to the fact that British horn players almost only used French-made horns, mainly in the 19th and 20th centuries, as they wanted to be differentiated from other European horn players, that normally played German-made horns.

Currently, it is still being widely used, mostly due to the fact that it’s being teach with that name since the elementary school to high school. Only later, on college years are the students used to recognize it just as horn.

Curiosity: In France, the French horn is actually called cor d’harmonie, or just cor. In other countries, none uses the “French” term to describe it
Italian: corno
Spanish: trompa
German: Ventilhorn, Waldhorn

What Name is a French Horn Player Called?

A French horn player is normally just called a “horn player”. Less frequently, and similar to what happens with other band instruments like the trumpet (“trumpeters”) or the tuba (“tubists”), they can also be called “hornists”.

Who Invented the French Horn?

Two inventors are named as the first to invent the French horn, Heinrich Stoelzel, and Friedrich Blühmel. However, it is difficult to point specific creators to an instrument that has had several similar predecessors. Heinrich Stoelzel was a member of the band of the Prince of Pless, and developed a valve that he related to the horn by July 1814 (the most similar to the French horn by that time). Friedrich Blühmel, who is also connected with the innovation of the valve, was a german miner and instrument manufacturer.

Famous French Horn Players

A list of the top performers of an instrument of all time is always difficult to define. That’s because players live in different eras, have different techniques and have different experiences and background. For the horn it isn’t difficult as there are or were many great players of this instrument.

But we’ve tried to identify and condensate a list with the ones that are pointed as the best french horn players (in no particular order):

  • Dennis Brain
  • Barry Tuckwell
  • Sarah Willis
  • Radovan Vlatković
  • Philip Farkas
  • Alan Civil
  • Frank Lloyd
  • Stefan Dohr
  • Dale Clevenger
  • Fergus McWilliam
  • Abel Pereira
  • Jeff Nelson
  • David Cooper
  • Phillip Myers
  • Radek Baborak
  • Gayle Williams
  • William VerMaulen
  • Hermann Baumann

In an effort to choose some of the best or at least, well-known horn players of all time, we’ve gathered them in a “Past” Vs. “Modern” teams, imagining a basketball line-up.

Two line-ups, made-up with famous French horn players

Past Horn Players Team (in blue) Vs. Modern Horn Players Team (in yellow).

Which of the teams do you think would win? And in your opinion is there any horn player which is missing in those starting line-ups? Let us know in the comments.

Famous Movies with French Horn Parts

ComposersFamous Movies with Horn Parts
John WilliamsStar Wars, E.T., Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom
Jerry GoldsmithStar Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek: First Contact
James HornerWillow, The Rocketeer, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Bruce BroughtonSilverado, Tombstone
Bruce ContiRocky III
Michael KamenRobin Hood: Prince of Thieves
Leonard BernsteinOn the Waterfront
A list of some famous movies with horn music parts

Why is it Called French Horn in the United States?

The use of the term French Horn in the United States, is widely pointed as to the fact that British horn players almost only used French-made horns, mainly in the 19th and 20th centuries, as they wanted to be differentiated from other European horn players, that normally played German-made horns.

What Name is a French Horn Player Called?

A French horn player is normally just called a “horn player”. Less frequently, and similar to what happens with other band instruments like the trumpet (“trumpeters”) or the tuba (“tubists”), they can also be called “hornists”.