Throughout history, humans have always tried to imitate nature’s beauty and many techniques and instruments have come from this fascination. Horns began as simple tubes with a bell at the end to imitate the sounds of the animals so as to create fear in their enemies. For centuries, the French horn has symbolized the beauty and fragility of nature and has developed according to nature’s influence.
The French horn can be seen as a modification of the hunting horn that early hunters used to signal to their companions certain messages across great distances. The horn became a monotone instrument with a flared bell in a more vertical form. Composers before its more modern form would pair up horns to have different pitches in the key of the piece.
In 1753 a German musician called Hampel designed slides on for the horn so that it could change keys. This changed the way composers included the beautiful sound of horns into their pieces; the horns were now more versatile and a group of similar horns could now create a harmony within their own section. In 1760, it was discovered that hand placement within the bell could lower the tone of the notes played.
In the 19th century, the valve system replaced the slides previously used to help with faster changes in pitch and key. The modern French horn was born. Debates have accumulated over the years as to if one could actually trace the origins of the French horn to a single inventor. Two inventors seem to claim the title of the inventor of the valved French horn: German named Heinrich Stoelzel— a member of the Prince of Pless band, who is said to have invented the valved French horn in July of 1814—and a miner who played in a band in Waldenburg named Friedrich Bluhmel, who also staked the claim of inventor.
This creates the question you’re probably thinking of right now, with all these German inventors, is “why is it called the French horn?” The origins of the name come from the key that it is pitched in: F (The double horn was later created by the inventors Fritz Kruspe and Edmund Gumpert in the late 1800’s. This process made the horn able to play in both F key and the Bb key with a simple press of a thumb valve). Since the key is in F, it was commonly referred to in England as the French horn instead of the German horn (like the French were calling it) or the hunting horn (which is how the Germans referred to it). This common mistake over time stuck with them and passed over to the Americas where to this day it is still commonly known as the French horn. Musicians at a 1970’s international convention have been protesting since then that it be called F Horn or just Horn, especially since the French had relatively nothing to do with its creation.
While undoubtedly a beautiful instrument, the French Horn symbolizes much more than just attractive melodies; it represents nature’s splendor and the human capacity for replication of such sounds. As can be heard in these audio clips, the Horn represents our environment in the form of music and its advances perfect our imitation to the point of today’s truly amazing instrument that can represent nature in its wondrous variety.
by Duncan Lewis