The history of the French horn

How the instrument evolved from a hunting horn to the modern instrument we know today – and the influence of Dennis Brain on its popularisation

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In the 18th century, several family horn ensembles formed, including Joseph, Wensel and Jacob Ziwiny, the Boeck brothers and the Nisles family.

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In the mid-19th century, brothers Joseph and Constantin Lewy pioneered the valve horn, and of course Franz and Richard Strauss constitute two key names in the repertoire.

The French horn evolved out of early hunting horns, and was first used in 17th-century hunting scene fanfares.

In 1814, Stölzel and Blühmel produced a valve horn, which nullified the need for several crooks to play chromatically. Not everyone took to this evolution: Weber found its sound ‘intolerable’, while Brahms’s Horn Trio was written for natural horn, as was Mendelssohn’s Ein Sommernachtstraum nocturne. But in 1898, Kruspe developed the double horn in F/B-flat; various versions were played during the 20th century, from the French/British instrument that had lighter tone, to the German horn with rotary valves and a wider bore.

Hear Brahms’s Horn Trio played here on period instruments, including a natural horn.

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It was Dennis Brain’s switch from a French-style horn to the German version that sparked the fashion for the German model as the modern instrument.