Orchestral hand horn


Associated with hunting since immemorial time, the horn has undergone a long evolution and found its place in instrumental music. Originally a simple animal horn, it was later made of metal. Its typical circular shape can be seen as early as the 16th century.

In general terms, the horn is characterised by a long tube and a relatively narrow bore leading to a flared bell. Only a limited number of so-called natural notes can be played, imposed by the laws of physics. However, in the high register of the instrument, the proximity between the natural notes allows for melodic playing.

At the end of the 17th century, an English instrument maker named the horn "French", for a reason that remains unclear but which indicates that he knew of its use in French hunting circles. In Shakespeare's language, the name "French horn" remains attached to the horn to the present day.

In the first decades of the 18th century, two major advances were made. The first was the addition of terminal crooks: extra, rounded sections of tube placed between the mouthpiece and the horn itself, a trick developed by Michael Leichamschneider (1676-1748). By changing the crook, the horn player could play in all keys, provided he had the time to perform the manipulation.

The second innovation was the technique of hand-stopping, which consisted of inserting the right hand into the bell to modify the pitch of the natural notes. Anton Joseph Hampel (1710-1771) is considered to be the pioneer of this technique, which, before the invention of valves, made it possible to make playing more melodic, more chromatic and to vary the tone colours.

Another innovation - due to Johann Gottfried Haltenhof (c. 1701-1783) - appeared in the last quarter of the century, with a tuning slide placed towards the middle of the air column. On the so-called invention horn, the spare tones could also be placed there rather than near the mouthpiece.

The Belgian horn presented here, which has just been added to the mim's permanent history tour, was made between 1813 and 1850. During this period, the first valve horns appeared, another musical revolution in the field of wind instruments of the brass family. But natural horns and valve horns coexisted for many years, until the beginning of the 20th century, both in orchestras and in many teaching institutions. This horn came out of the workshops of Frans Joseph Van Engelen (1785-1853), founder of a dynasty of musical instrument makers. The various crooks can be used in the orchestra or in chamber music, together with the hand stopping technique, and a movable slide allows the delicate tuning of the instrument. A wooden case is used to carry the horn, its ten or so crooks stored in custom-made compartments and its mouthpieces.

Lier, in the province of Antwerp, was one of the main centres of brass making in Belgium. It should not be forgotten that Belgian horn players in the nineteenth century enjoyed a solid reputation, mainly in Ghent and Liège, and were sometimes referred to as the Belgian horn school, following the example of the famous Belgian violin school. They were recognised for their elegant and lyrical playing as well as for their technical mastery. The Ghent Conservatory was founded by one of the most important horn players of the time, Martin-Joseph Mengal (1784-1851), while eminent artists such as Hubert Massart (1793-1858), Jean-Désiré Artot (1803-1887) and Henri-Louis Merck (1831-1900) proved their worth at home and abroad. The many Belgian horn players of the 20th century and today have followed and continue to follow in their footsteps, both on the original natural horn and on the modern version with valves.


Jeroen Billiet, Brave Belgians of the Belle Époque : A Study of the Late-Romantic Ghent Horn Playing Tradition, Gent, Universiteit Gent, 2021

John Humphries, "French Horn" in Trevor Herbert, Arnold Myers, John Wallace (eds.), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Brass Instruments, Cambridge University Press, 2019, p. 178-184

Jeroen Billiet, 200 Years of Belgian Horn School? A Comprehensive Study of the Horn in Belgium, 1789-1960, Tielt, Corecole Editions, 2008