|French horn back (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
It is quite intriguing actually, to look at the historical underpinnings of French horns. Looking back at their birth and development brings to light how they acquired their sound and unique features. It also explains why even today they are not the most popular musical instrument in any type of music group.
The most primitive form of french horns were megaphones. They were made from a hollow branch or cane and the player sang, spoke, or made vocal noises into them to produce a harsh sound to frighten away evil spirits. Megaphones evolved into the early trumpets which could produce only one or two notes and made a terrifying sound. These trumpets were used at circumcisions, funerals, and sunset rites.
It was not until the Renaissance period, about 1550, that a music instrument was developed which bears the most resemblance to the present day French horns. This was the close-coiled helical horn, established in Central Europe. About one hundred years later, the parent of French horns was constructed in the form of a thin conical tube with two or more circular coils.
There is no evidence that French horns were used for purely musical purposes with other music instruments prior to the eighteenth century, only for hunting in France, Germany, and Italy. Their introduction in Germany by Graf Franz Anton von Sporck in 1681 and their inclusion in a German orchestra score in 1705 helped them to gain a position in the music world. In England, however, they were used mainly in the form of an entertaining duet in the gardens or along the river versus attaining the prestigious right to be in an orchestra. France continued to restrict their use to the chase for hunting until 1735.
To play French horns during the early 1700's, musicians would point the widely flared bell upwards like a bugle horn. The length of the tubing varied according to the pitch needed, so separate horns were needed for every key change. This problem was solved by the crook system, developed in 1715, which consisted of various lengths of tube rings fitting into the end of the mouthpiece socket. It allowed the player to use any key.
An important technique came to fruition when Anton Joseph Hampel of Germany was testing out various mutes in 1750. He discovered that he could progressively lower the pitch by pushing a cotton pad or his hand into the bell further and further, called "stopping". This hand-horn technique required that the horn is held horizontally and is still used today. Hampel then redesigned it with the crooks in the center of the hoop versus near the mouthpiece. However, just like the unpleasant sound of the original horns, there was still a disparity between tone and power of the open and stopped notes.
The best innovation for french horns came when two German musicians invented the valve in 1815. Voila! Crooks no longer needed to be changed as the descending spring valves lowered the pitch. The last notable invention for french horns was in 1899 when double F/Bb French horns were first sold.
Over one hundred years later, no significant alterations or additions have been necessary. Materials may have changed somewhat, but spring valves are still used as well as the hand-horn technique to attain a perfect mellow timbre and keep the natural roughness of tone in check. French horns have continued to maintain their musical status all over the world.