Comments on Valved and Natural Horns from Turn of the Century England

by John Q. Ericson

John Q. Ericson

I have long been fascinated by older sources of information because they often give a clear view into the past as seen from the perspective of people who were actually experiencing that place and time. In looking into the transition from the natural horn to the valved horn I came across several fascinating commentaries on the horn from late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century England. In short, more than a few musicians in this period "trashed" the valved horn, strongly favoring the then little-used natural horn. Many of these opinions appear in journal articles, orchestration books, and, especially in England, transcripts of various forums and association meetings. I have included several here that give us a series of "snapshots" of opinions in circulation at this time, covering 1879-1922. While the comments which follow sometimes seem quite humorous from today's perspective, they do reveal much about horn playing around the turn of the century and, reaching deeper, they say something about music perception and acculturation and at the same time raise interesting reasons as to both why some composers continued to write for the natural horn in this period and why natural horn performance is still important today.

Music perception is a relatively new area of study in music, generally relating to how we hear or perceive music and sounds. For purposes of this article, acculturation will be understood as that aspect of music perception which is conditioned by individual experiences. An example that is easily grasped by horn players of what music perception and acculturation can involve may be found in the use of fingerings on the double horn today. Some hornists can distinguish the sound of a hornist playing into the lower and middle registers on the B-flat side of the double horn very easily. American horn player and teacher James Chambers (1920-1989, principal hornist of the New York Philharmonic from 1946-1969) commented in a 1982 interview that "I am constantly surprising students by telling them, without looking, that they are playing on the B-flat horn and that it really would be better if they would consider playing it on the F horn. ... the F horn sound is preferable." As Chambers implied, other hornists seem unable to perceive the differences in tonal color between fingerings, which Chambers found so obvious, while still other hornists who can perceive the difference find the tone of the B-flat horn superior to that of the F horn. Curiously, non-horn players, and especially non-musicians, are often hard pressed to note any significant difference at all in tonal color between any fingerings on the double horn.

If perceptions (and resulting choices) in this example can be so varied, is it not predictable that similar issues and arguments would appear during the period of transition from the natural horn to the valved horn? The typical valved horn of this period was nearly identical in terms of internal dimensions to the natural horns used previously-- only valves had been added to it. The following comments give us some insights into various perceptions of the relative tonal colors of valved and natural horns at the time.

Our first group of comments come from the discussion following a January 6, 1879 presentation to The (Royal) Musical Association. Musical scholar and editor Ebenezer Prout (1835-1909) presented a paper titled "On the Growth of the Modern Orchestra During the Past Century." The subject of the developments in horn design and technique actually received no specific commentary in Prout's paper, but the topic was obviously on the minds of those present, as this topic was debated at great length after his presentation.

The discussion was recorded by the recording secretary at the meeting, and we begin with the comments from the chairman, composer George A. Macfarren (1813-1887). Macfarren, who had been blind since 1860, is described in The New Grove Dictionary as being "hopelessly reactionary" toward the end of his life, further noting that he "deplored almost every musical innovation of his time;" the following comments confirm this. In his extended commentary in answer to a question of Mr. Chas. Stephens, Macfarren expresses a very negative opinion of the "new" valved instruments, initially due to their inferior tonal quality, but then primarily for compositional reasons.

     Mr. Chas. Stephens asked if the Chairman [i. e., Macfarren] would say a word on the use of valve-trumpets in the orchestra.

The Chairman said no doubt this was an important subject. In the first place, he believed the valve itself deteriorated the tone of the natural instrument, for he had heard the same player play successively on a hand-horn and a valve-horn, and it appeared to him that the tone of the latter was far inferior. That, however, was of secondary importance; the significant thing was, that by the use of these valves you obtained the entire chromatic scale .... In the scores of Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, and Spohr, it would be found that when trumpets, drums, and horns were used they gave a characteristic mark to the chords and keys in which they appeared, and when the music modulated from those keys you either lost those sounds altogether or else the instruments were employed on peculiar notes of peculiar chords, and thus gave a totally different character to the extraneous keys to that of the normal keys in which the pieces were set .... [as] was the case with the horns and trumpets in the slow movement of the C minor Symphony [of Beethoven, i. e., Symphony No. 5, Op. 67 (1808)]. The movement being in A-flat, when they came in C, it was a totally new sound, and produced an effect which might be compared with that of the present gathering sitting in that room in the gaslight, and the roof being suddenly thrown open and the sun streaming in. On the other hand, when these instruments were employed which gave the chromatic scale, the composers who used them were tempted to apply them to any loud chord that was wanted; when they were not used in the degraded sense in which waltz writers used them to play the principal melodies, in order to force out, by manifold duplication of notes through the foggy mass of multitudinous instrumentation, a rampant vulgar tone upon the otherwise imperceptive organs of the hearers. ... the orchestra with the scarce notes of the incomplete wind instruments was a far richer power in the composer's hands than when there was the terrible temptation of writing for cornets like violins, or for horns like violoncellos.

Mr. Stephens then replied, generally agreeing with Macfarren, stating again a respect for the compositional usage of natural instruments over valved instruments. He also noted, however, that natural instruments sometimes failed in achieving their intended effects.

Mr. Stephens was very glad to hear these remarks on the question of valve instruments. It was one deserving of consideration, and on which, no doubt, difference of opinion prevailed, for he thought instruments without valves, even in the simplest passages, sometimes caused failures in the effects intended. There were but three continuous notes of the scale on those instruments which could be used, and when you came to F on the fifth line and B-flat they were out of tune, and required modification to make them bearable. Nevertheless, the chairman's remarks were most valuable, because the great effects of those instruments [without valves] were produced by the simple use of them with their original power. He might allude to two very familiar instances-- the slow movement in Beethoven's Symphony in D [i. e., No. 2, Op. 36, of 1802], in which the horns in E were used with such grand effect, and the barcarole of Sir Sterndale Bennett in his Pianoforte Concerto in F minor. In both these works, the horns were used in the true way, and did not fail of their effect. The scores of Schumann, on the contrary, showed an abuse of these valve instruments, because he made use of them until at last they became ordinary instruments, and the colouring which they might impart-- as in the works of Beethoven and Mozart--was lost.

Another in attendance, acoustician D. J. Blaikley (1846-1936), then responded in defense of the valve as an instrument maker and designer. Blaikley was works manager for Boosey & Co, and had only one year previously (1878) introduced a compensating system for valved brass instruments, which is today regarded as the best of its type. He felt that if an instrument was well-made the valves were of little difference to the resulting tone.

First, with regard to comparing a valve instrument with one which had no valves. It was not sufficient to take a valve instrument nominally of the same kind, say a French horn or a slide-trombone, and compare it with a valve-trombone; you must be perfectly certain that the calibre of the instruments in every portion, from the mouthpiece to the bell, was exactly the same, for, unless that were so, there was no guarantee that the difference which might be noticed was due to the addition of the valves. ... A man [testing instruments] was apt to base his opinion on the instrument he had played on all his life; he would take up another a little different, and at once find some difference, perhaps to the disadvantage of the new one.

Ebenezer Prout, however, had the final word, standing firmly on middle ground:

Mr. Prout, in reply, said .... With regard to valve instruments, on the whole, he should be most inclined to agree with the chairman; and if it came to a question whether they should use valve instruments as they were used nowadays or go back to the old ones, he should say take away the valves altogether, but happily they were not in that predicament. They had valves which were very useful in certain cases, for instance the [written] B-flat and F, and he should rather say keep the valves, but be careful not to abuse them. Mr. Blaikley had said that there was no difference in the best instruments, whether with valves or without, and he could partly corroborate that opinion, not from his own knowledge, because he did not play a brass instrument, but he was tolerably intimate with one of the horn-players at the Crystal Palace, to whom he had spoken on this subject more than once, and he told him that he did not believe any one could distinguish the slightest difference between the open note played on a good valve-horn and on a natural horn.

While this first group of quotations are, on the surface, rather humorous from our perspective today (and show much of the skill of the recording secretary!), in reality they are almost a case study in the vagaries of music perception. The "hopelessly reactionary," G. A. Macfarren, was of an older generation and was dead serious in his comments. Furthermore, he would have grown up hearing primarily natural horn and would thus be in a position to recognize its special tonal qualities and character that the natural instruments brought to music. On the opposite side, Blaikley was of a younger generation. He knew from his experience as an instrument maker that valves did not necessarily alter the tone. Prout's concluding commentary probably reflects reality in the eyes of the general public, especially when he quotes the hornist who did not believe any one could tell the difference.

A presentation which Charles MacLean gave to The (Royal) Musical Association on March 12, 1895, titled "On Some Causes of the Changes of Tone-Colour Proceeding in the Most Modern Orchestra," had even more to say with respect to the valved horn and tonal colors. He suggests that part of the "problems" in tone color are related to the tuning of the valves to various crooks:

As a matter of fact lengthening valves as made at present only contemplate the application of three or at most four medium crooks, and according to the best practice of valve-making these crooks will only be G, F, E, and E-flat, of which F and E are preferable.... The consequence of this is that modern horn players who always have the valve attachment have acquired a habit, since the beginning of the transition period, of transposing all such parts on to the crooks which suit their valves, and chiefly on to the F crook. This, though probably the best compromise under the circumstances, is not satisfactory. The tone of a horn crooked into a low key, say C, is more full, more trombone-like, than the tone of a horn crooked into F ....

Whether quite correctly written for and used or not, the fact remains that the valve-horn has for modern music supplanted the mere natural-horn; and as this new instrument still retains its character of natural horn if the pistons are not put down (for the mere presence of the attachment itself does not appreciably disturb the tone), the result is a clear gain and a gain of an inestimable nature.

In the discussion that followed, the chairman, Sir John Stainer, agreed, lending a wider perspective:

... I must say I do not altogether sympathize with those who are afraid of valved instruments, for the improvement in the making of this class has been enormous the last few years. As far back as 1878 I was on a jury in Paris with Mr. Gevaert. We put valved instruments to the most severe tests, we listened to them from behind screens, making the players sound the harmonic series with each valve separately and in combinations, but I thought their tone very pure, and their intonation just.

At about the same time, conductor and composer Frederick Corder (1852-1932) shows how far attitudes in other quarters have changed against the hand horn in his book on orchestration, The Orchestra and How to Write for It, and cited the playing of two German-born hornists in England as examples of what could be done on the valved horn.

The writer of a work on Instrumentation finds here his most difficult task. Shall he overwhelm the student with a mass of perplexing details regarding the Hand-horn, that all-but-obsolete instrument?

... science comes to the aid of the musician [with the modern valved horn] ....Legato phrases can be played really legato, and even shakes and appoggiaturas (all but impossible before) are quite easy on the Valve-horn. But do you think musicians were grateful for these benefits conferred? Not a bit! They vehemently protested against the innovation; first vowing that the faulty "stopped" notes written by the old masters when they couldn't help it, were pearls beyond price; then, when it was demonstrated that with the valve-horn you could play the entire scale stopped if you liked, they declared that it was faulty of intonation and of far inferior tone to the old Hand-horn. One needs only to listen to a solo played by such men as Paersch and Borsdorf, to recognize the fact that tone and intonation on a brass instrument are matters entirely dependent upon the player. I recommend the student, then, to dismiss all the confusing particulars of the old horn from his mind...


The complete version of this article may be found in The Horn Call, Vol. XXIX, No. 1 (November, 1998).

John Ericson currently teaches the horn studio at Arizona State University. He performed third horn in the Nashville Symphony from 1991-98 and holds degrees from Indiana University, The Eastman School of Music, and Emporia State University.

Selections of his recent historical writings on the horn may be found in his Horn Articles Online site on the Internet.