• Alkis Karmpaliotis

Why the Horn is the Best Instrument in the Orchestra

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

Imagine what music would be like were it not for the piano. Imagine what music would be like were it not for the violin. Well, without the piano, composers would never have been able to orchestrate large ensembles; and without the violin, the largest section in an orchestra, the basic sound of classical music would be infinitely different. There is another instrument, though, not as popular, that is equally crucial to music history: the french horn.

The horn, along with the trumpet, tuba, trombone, and euphonium, is a member of the brass family. It has been composed for by every major composer, from Haydn to Stravinsky. Though not very well-known by the general populace, the horn is widely considered amongst music enthusiasts and scholars to be one of the best, if not the best, instrument in the orchestra. The reasons for which this is true are numerous, too many to name-- But I will do my best.

First, it is undoubtedly the most versatile member of the brass family, and arguably the most versatile instrument in the orchestra. The horn can play loud triumphant, fanfares in one measure, and calm, quiet, lush melodies in the next. Richard Wagner, known for his elaborate use of the brass section in his operas, once said, “I wish I could score everything for horns!”

Second, it is undeniably extremely difficult to play, often frustratingly so. The regular horn has only three valves, which means that a hornist must change his embouchure -- the way in which a brass or woodwind player applies his/her mouth to the mouthpiece of the instrument -- in order to play different notes in the harmonic series. Because of the instrument’s technical difficulty, there are few hornists in the world, making hornists some of the most sought-after musicians.

Third, the horn, or horn section, has some of the most beautiful passages in all forms of music, from 17th-century church music to 20th-century film scores, such as Siegfried’s Horn Call, from Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. The horn also has some of the most technically challenging passages, such as those in the third movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. Fascinatingly, the horn is so prominent in the third movement of Gustav Mahler’s 5th Symphony, that in some performances, the principal hornist plays standing by the conductor, like a soloist, for the entire movement.

Penultimately, the horn has a remarkable history. For instance, whereas the modern horn has three, and sometimes four valves, the original horn was valveless! Its lack of valves meant that the horn could only play notes in the harmonic series, limiting the horn’s use in orchestras. As the decades passed, though, changes were made to the horn’s structure, and valves were added, making the horn even more common in orchestras. The horn’s evolution as an instrument is crucial to note, for were it not for these changes, pieces of music like those mentioned in paragraph five would have been composed, due to the different sound, entirely differently.

Finally, the horn can be paired with basically any instrument section. It is often paired with string quartets, like in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Horn Quintet, or with other brass instruments, like in many jazz ensembles. It is also paired very often with the piano, like in Beethoven’s Horn Sonata.

It is for all of these reasons that the horn, like the piano, has stood the test of time, being used from the Baroque era, all the way to the age of Jazz and on.

You’ve imagined what music would be like without the piano, imagined what music would be like without the violin. Now, imagine what music would be like without the french horn.

Some of the most well-known horn concertos are Mozart's 4th, and R. Strauss' 1st. Some of the most famous horn players are Dennis Brain and Barry Tuckwell.

Fun Fact: If you 'uncoil' the instrument, it is 12 to 13 feet long! This is why the hornist needs to blow very hard in order to produce the right sound!

Here is a nice video about the french horn:

Alkis Karmpaliotis

May 31 2020

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