Natural horns of Distinction

Why Natural Horns?


Greetings and hearty welcome to this page of the Greer Horns site, where you can learn about the use and function of instruments available from Greer Horns. As the old traditions of hand work with metals were slowly garnered from some very august and knowledgeable craftspeople in the past, a bit of philosophy also began to surround the activities of working with brass, ideas that proscribe a direction those efforts would follow. I shall attempt to share these ideas with you here.

A. The Raisons d'Etre for involvement in music, especially on the natural horn

1) Why involve onesself in music?

The experiences of performer and listener are united in a fleeting moment during a concert. It is a relatively short period of social/aesthetic contract, and is a time in which the listeners leave behind their temporal lives, a realm filled with inequity and injustice, strife and discord, anxiety and terrorism. During that period of music making/listening, they enter a different universe of sound, a new world where one phrase balances equitably with another, where dissonance resolves to consonance, and where the sounds are orchestrated to induce great serenity. This results in great inspiration, as the constraints of the walls of life in the real world are torn down. It is a glimpse into heaven, if you will (Indeed, Biblical texts such as the Psalms do indicate that the greatest composers, players, and singers are the angels, who use music for their unending praise before the throne of God), and our very souls are restored. As such, music is an artistic gift of great mystery, whose powers hold rare sway over us mortals and can provide the purest of refreshment and inspiration.

2) Why the horn?

Humans listen to all sound, of course, with the ear, not that vibration can't be discerned in other ways, seeing the movements of vibrating glass, or feeling vibration through tactile senses, for example. But at least one significant thing can be understood by considering the structure of the human ear. The ear is designed to focus and intensify sound, through its structure, in several ways. One of these is the cochlea, which is a coiled, conical tube through which the vibrations are transferred to the auditory nerve. The particular shape of this construction, therefore, grants special intensity to those sounds which are produced by an acoustic form which reflects the same, or similar, conical nature; the sympathetic resonance of the inner (conical) ear lends a special charism to those sounds produced by the conical instruments. Put in terms of results, a horn player can often, and with fewer notes, obtain more profound communication with the listener, than other instruments, even the most virtuoso fiddler, the most powerful pianist, the most coloratura soprano. While one might be tempted to argue with this position, players of other instruments have clearly had to develop greater fluency and rapidity in technique before finding their niche in the favor of the public; one needs only consider the horn solo opening to Oberon Overature - three (magical) notes, during which most listeners will ,unintentionally, hold their breath.

3)Why the natural horn?

As developed above, conicity is a sonic attribute to be sought by the horn player in his/her instrument. Since valved horns must, of necessity, have significant lengths of cylindrical tubing for the valve mechanism, they will not be as conical in formation as natural horns, some of which are totally conical. And as a result, great valved horns and marvelous tone qualities notwithstanding, our best shot at enabling that supernatural and mysterious "foresthorn" tone quality will reside within the sonic realm of the natural horn. Now the open note/stopped note differences can be alarming at first, but it is worth recalling that each fingering on the valved horn has a slightly different length, slightly different color, and slightly different response from its neighbor, so even the finest valve horn playing will exhibit some qualities of sonic generality and variance of attack, which preclude the qualities of perfect uniformity of tone and response, but most remarkably, with the loss of a sense of crook (key) character we hear in good natural horn playing. During valved horn performance, this relative blandness in character is offset by a sense of copious sonority, yet this largeness of sound may be heard as vacuous and raw, after hearing the same music played on old horns by fine players. In this sense, the natural horn can speak the language of its music without any foreign valved accent.

Additionally, most players who study the natural horn report great technical advances, as well as the development of fine musical and tonal concepts, certainly a great plus for valveless horn study, as well as reason for including it in any didactic program.

B. On Replicas and Antiques

1) There are a limited number of fine antique horn available. The best instruments always seem to receive the heaviest use, and the hand horn era is no exception to this rule. While some instruments were retired before being used to ruin, most were retrofitted with valves and merrily played to death during the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, the earliest horns, those from 1700 on, were built from a brass alloy made from Calamine, the raw zinc ore, until pure zinc was refined from calamine ore (or zinc was found to be available from meteorites!). Calamine ore contains traces of both sulphur and lead, making that brass alloy prone to ruination resulting from the sulphuric acid created from the condensed water from the player's breath combining with the trace sulphur, making Sulphuic acid which ate the brass up. Not until the 1800s do we find old horns whose brass was stable enough to endure into the 20th century and beyond. This is especially critical with the baroque horns, since it was the Baroque "boom" of the 1960s that brought about the current passion for music on '"original instruments".

The primary considerations on any antique horn, from the hand horn replicator's perspective, remain twofold, condition and acoustical shape. In other words, is the brass healthy, and what bore and profile does the horn have? If the metal is no longer healthy, replication is the viable purpose of the horn, rather than playing, and then only if the profile and bore represent archtypical horns of the era in question. (One can find a variety of rare, experimental, and patently unsuccessful instruments in collections, preserved through disuse, and whose modern use should remain decorative rather than musical.)

Some great historic examples have been "played to death", usually with a plethora of damages to tired pipes so severe that measuring is compromised. The models that appear as if "new from the workbench" are, often, just as useless, as experience has born out that their lack of use was brought about by their less-than-desirable playability (the expression "tin can" comes to mind; the instrumental form of the automotive 'lemon'.) Since we, as players approaching the high altar of the most difficult literature, for performance before the most well educated public in history (They all own CDs of the music, right?), the procurement of instruments which are authentic, playable, and, oh yes, affordable, is the only reasonable goal.

There is a catagory of horn which I lovingly term "valvectomy", in witness to an earlier incarnation as a valved horn. These are, then natural horns, modified through the removal of the (worn-out) valve assembly. Indeed, owners of former valved horns modified by this methode generally comment, that it is the best playability they have seen that horn exhibit, an endorsement that makes implicit the deterioration in performance which worn valves generally give an otherwise fine horn. Valvectomies always seem to play more wonderfully than they deserve to play, considering their humble origins, and in view of their low cost. They are the best choice for an entry level natural horn, for players on a tight budget, and for those players whose need for a natural horn ends with a studio wall hanger horn, something to be taken down for the Prologue to the Britten Serenade or a school concert overtone demonstration. Granted the value of the donor valved horn should be carefully weighed, as to its potential for restoration as a valved instrument, quality, market value, rarity, etc, before the "surgery begins; there are always sufficient numbers of tired-out veteran school quality horns available, that fine orchestral instruments need not be threatened.

Of the numerous modern natural horns available, buyers should be aware of what I call "new valvectomies". These are modern horn parts nicely built to closely resemble the old natural horns, but due to their modern tapers and dimensions, offer no advantage over a single F "valvectomy" conversion, inspite of elevated costs. Instruments which are to be used, at least at some point in time, for actual historic concerts, should have the bore and taper of actual antique horns, lest the horn's sonic output be out of balance with the other more delicately voiced instruments; the proverbial "bull-in-the-china-shop". My best advice is to eschew the beautifully constructed and highly polished natural horns of makers whose instruments (and crooks!) have dimensions which can not be associated with historic examples, but are, instead built from modern-sized tubes, and to save your money for a more accurate and sophisticated replica of a known and outstanding 18th or 19th century maker. With a single F horn valvectomy, where no claim is made for authenticity, you at least know what you are getting, are not paying your child's college education away, and, per our policy, you may apply the investment you made in that instrument against any future purchase from us, provided that the condition is the same as when purchased.

We do find, frequently, horns whose conversion history has been a reverse of that outlined in the paragraphs above. These were once natural horns, but whose history of use was extended by their adaptation as valved instruments. These are typically horns from the mid to late 19th century, with mechanical adaptations, usually by another maker or a parent company. A typical example were the Raoux-Millereau horn played by Dennis Brain during his early career, but many other firms adapted many brands of horns to valves.

Often we find the firms of Couesnon and Thibouville-Lamy involved, as both firms "absorbed" other fine French firms, giving those firms more stability during an era when the battle between keyed and valved instruments for acceptance had caused those firms some fiscal reverses. Here, the conservative hand horn had finally given way to valved instruments, either being played chromatically, or as an "omnitonic" natural horn whore crook changes were made by quick changes of the valves. Put bluntly, one can never really know if horns bearing these tradenames were built by those firms or by their sometimes very worthy subsidiaries. These same firms, the largest in late 19th century France, offered, openly in their catalogues, instruments bearing a very light scratch brand name engraving, as well as without any brand name engraving at all; the goal being to afford those music stores having no master builder, who, nonetheless wished to offer a complete line of musical instruments, the opportunity to do so by procuring instruments and having them re-engraved with their own brand name. This creates many difficulties, as Langwell points out in his book, for both collectors and historians.

The most drastic example of the results of this practice occured following a fire at the Couesnon plant in the early 20th century, an event which threatened to keep Couesnon from filling a large contract with the Army for Cors d'Harmonie. We have come to learn from correspondence between the late Harold Meek and Paul Schonk (a descendant of workers at the firm of PPGJ Dupre) that Couesnon only succeeded in filling this contract, by raiding the unsold and fallow stockpile of Dupre natural horns, removing the Dupre brand name, equipping the horns with piston sets, and re-engraving them as Couesnon instruments; this was all legally done, but disappointing both to the Dupre workers and today's natural horn players! Not all Couesnon piston horns are made from hand horns by Dupre, however, so this does not offer us a reliable source for suitable instruments for conversion back to natural status, although Meek did procure the seven modified horns owned by Schonk which had been restored to natural horn status.

It has always been my position that all brand names on a horn should be retained, keeping the history of the instrument, as far as possible, in clear documentation, but things have not always been so in the past, with the rebranding and even retro-branding of horns. Many German and French horns were imported during the 19th century by the Bruno Compnay in New York; this same firm bought the rights to the name of the firm Henri Pourcelle, and this French sounding name decorates many horns sold in the US. The Italian firm of Rampone & Cazzanni (succeeded by Kalison) has also exported horns to the US in the brandless state, to be sold as Getzen, Sanders, Caravelle, Carl Fischer, or York instruments. The same horns, by the way, have been sold by Paxman as Studenti horns. The biggest smoke screen to date, seems to have been created by the Chinese music industry, with numerous auctioned horns at bargain prices, advertised as "by German engineering", showing a clear and fraudulent intention to associate the output of a new and traditionless industry with an Old World charism, thereby giving the false image of a great and longstanding tradition.

It seems that we still get what we pay for!

C) Choosing a replica horn

The simplest, most reliable, and ultimately most economical way of obtaining a reliable natural horn is to get a good replica. By "good replica", one must include both the style of construction details, down to the style of braces, as well as the dimensions of the horn, commencing with the mouthpipe entry until the bell rim. While one can, after sufficient searching, find horns with one or two dimensions that equal those on modern instruments (possibly through repairs or modifications), but we can state with certainty, that there were no antique horns in use which display all our modern dimensions, which were, after all, developments to adapt to the demands of Wagner and Mahler.

Expressed somewhat differently, with the natural horn we are concerned with making the right hand control the air column sufficiently, that the stopped notes may be expressed sweetly and evenly and with acceptible intonation, as the open notes are. Now, no one can grow a bigger right hand to achieve this result, but one can use a narrower horn! It is in this spirit that I point you toward the historic models. If your modern mouthpiece shank fits into the crook, there is already a compromise in the horn that will not assist you in playing it, no matter how much you are attached to your comfortable old mouthpiece. The perennial problem of the separation anxiety from one's usual mouthpiece has been resolved by the development of screw rim models by Moosewood Hornists Requisites. They make and market the LGC (Courtois) and LGR (Raoux) models with your favorite rim for about $100 in silver plate. The cups are historic and enable proper voicing and blend of open and stopped tones. The shanks are narrower than modern, allowing the mouthpiece to enter the proper distance into the horn (no more double venturi!). The rim is your own choice; your favorite, and fitted with standard screw rim threads. You will never need to fight your modern mouthpiece on the natural horn again!