The horn is a coiled brass wind instrument whose ancestor was one of the earliest primitive instruments, being used for hunting and military purposes. The horn originated in Germany, hence the name ‘French Horn’. It was called the french horn when it was introduced to England because it more closely resembled the french hunting horn than it did its english counterpart.
The horn has existed in two forms. The first was the ‘natural’ horn. This is the horn for which the older classical composers wrote. it had no valves but could have its fundamental note altered with the use of ‘crooks’ (an extra bit of tubing applied to the mouth piece). One of the earliest uses of the instrument in the orchestra was for Lully’s comedy-ballet La Princesse d’Elide, from 1664. The second form of horn has a set of rotary valves. These were introduced to the horn around 1827 to allow the horn to play each of the notes of the chromatic scale without the need to attach crooks to the mouthpiece. Robert Schumann was the first to specify the use of the valve horn in an orchestral piece.
Certain notes of the horn can be slightly out of tune with the modern tempered scale. To adjust the intonation of these notes, the player will insert their hand inside the bell to subtly alter the length of the tube, and therefore the pitch. These notes are called ‘stopped notes’.
The horn is what is known as a transposing instrument, meaning that it plays at a different pitch to what is written in the notation. The difference between the sounding pitch and the written pitch depends on the original key of the instrument. Horns come in several keys but the most common are horns in F and B flat.
The horn’s place in the symphonic orchestra has grown since the 19h century with composers such as Mahler and Strauss specifying up to eight horns. Many concertos have been written for the horn and it is also used in chamber music. The horn is also used in military bands, but not in brass bands where the term is colloquially used to denote the tenor saxhorn.