Why is the French Horn ‘French’?

Wind Instruments Music Alexander Horn French Horn
(CC) via max pixel.net

Few musical instruments receive such universal adoration or are blessed with such arresting repertoire as the French Horn. Any why wouldn’t you love the horn? With its unique timbre which somehow manages to be at once heroic and achingly romantic, it is no surprise that the horn has found its niche providing the accompaniment to superheroes, adventurers and far off worlds on both the silver screen and concert hall.

The horn family is one of the oldest in the world. It is likely that animal horns have been used as musical instruments in the earliest human societies. Horns are naturally hollow, providing a perfect chamber to resonate and create a rich round sound. Animal horn is also a very malleable material, which can be shaped after immersing it in boiling water. Cutting off the pointed end of the animal horn and vibrating your lips against the resulting hole creates a very loud, but not massively tuneful sound.IMG_1213

Over time, metal mouthpieces were added to the end of animal horns to allow for a cleaner sound and ease in changing pitch. Horns eventually started to be made of metal, allowing for a greater range of dynamics (how loud or quiet an instrument is) and timbre. The oldest of these metal horns is the Scandinavian lur, which was found in a Danish bog.
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A Bronze-Age Lur (CC) Angoria
 
But none of this answers the key question of why we call the orchestral horn the “French horn” in English. Although there are several reasons, I – and many other horn players – consider the term to be a misnomer.
 
The modern orchestral horn is descended from the cor de chase (“hunting horn”) in around 1650. This was a circular hunting horn, designed to be played on horseback, which could play a harmonic series of notes by adjusting the tension in the embouchure (lip position) and pressure of the air passed through the instrument. However, the notes which could be played on each horn depended on the length of the tubing.
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Cor de Chasse (CC) Wikimedia Commons
 
At this point (the late seventeenth century) France dominated the manufacturing of hunting horns, so they became known in England as “French horns”.
 
It should be noted that the word “trompe de chasse” refers to the same instrument, since the distinction
 
The primary flaw with the cor de chasse is that it restricts the number of notes which can be played to those within the harmonic series. Notes a semitone higher than a note in the harmonic series can be played by ramming your hand into the bell (flared end) – known as “hand-stopping” – which not only raises the pitch of a note but changes its timbre (tone colour). This restricted the potential for the instrument’s use in orchestras
 
Towards the end of the seventeenth century, German smiths began to develop crooks to allow the horn to play in different keys (and thus play different notes) by changing the length of the pipe. This broadened the potential of the instrument in orchestras, as the composer was less restricted in the number of notes the horn could play.
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A selection of crooks for a natural horn (CC) Wikimedia Commons
 
This German adaption of the cor de chasse is now referred to as the “natural horn” in order to distinguish it from the modern horn with valves. Even though German horns quickly replaced the rigid French horn in orchestras, the English nomenclature did not change as a result.
 
Despite the new versatility of the instrument, horn repertoire was still restricted by the harmonic series of the instrument. Horns usually played an accompanying role in orchestras, mostly used as part of the overall musical texture with occasional horn call. The few pieces which showcased the horn (most famously Mozart’s 4th horn concerto) showed that the instrument was capable of playing a melody.
 
It was not until the development of valves for German horns in the nineteenth century that the true potential of the horn was unlocked. The newly improved horn took the form of a German horn with the F crook inserted as a framework since it was easy to reach both the low an high extremes of the instrument’s range with many harmonics in-between. Pressing down a leaver turns a valve and lengthens the amount of pipe that air will travel through, reducing the pitch of the resulting note.
 
Laters, another set of slides were added to the instrument – the equivalent of gluing a horn in B flat to the horn in F. Many of the harmonic intervals in the horn in B flat are further apart than the horn in F, so many players feel more secure playing a horn in Bb. Since the length of a horn in Bb is shorter than a horn in F, higher notes are easier to reach, whereas the horn in F can more easily reach the lowest notes in the range. Many horn players switch between both sets of tubing while playing according to personal preference, making which is a notoriously temperamental instrument a little more tame.
 
And thus the modern orchestral horn was born.
French Horn Instrument Music Outdoors Horn Musical
(CC) Maxpixel.net
 
Since 1971, the International Horn Society has recommended that the instrument be known simply as the “horn”. This has not caught on among non-hornists (many of whom may still refer to their instrument as “French” out of force of habit).
 
Although through the work of pedants such as myself awareness of the correct nomenclature has begun to spread, it will take a long time to break this habit. The fact that horns on orchestral scores may be referred to as “F Horn” certainly does not help, since it is easy to assume that the “F” referred to the instrument’s mistaken nationality.
 
English is unique in its attribution of nationality to the horn. In French the instrument is referred to as “le cor d’harmonie” (the harmony horn) – which is very apt considering how heavenly a troupe of horns sound when playing together. Yes, the name “French horn” does have some basis in the evolution of the instrument – there is no denial of that. But most European languages allude to the horn’s evolution from a hunting horn: whether it be “corno da caccia” in Italian or “der Waldhorn” in German (it should be noted that the Russian word валторн is pronounced the same as the German.)
 
I may sound like a pedant here, but if everyone was to refer to my musical instrument correctly, imagine how much time it would save. I won’t pretend that I don’t enjoy correcting people once in a while, but the general level of ignorance on this matter and the way it is reinforced by society irritates me: no matter how loudly I shout at the commentator at the BBC Proms from my sofa, they won’t hear me.
 
For the sake of my blood pressure, please use the correct terminology.
 
Now if you excuse me, I had better go and do some music practice.

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Author: Charlie Hancock

I am an aspiring journalist and writer from the UK who has ambitions of pursing this as a career. My particular interests include the relationship between humanity, science and the environment. Byline in The Guardian

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