The modern valved instrument pictured left is known as a French horn. Only in English is the adjective "French" added to "horn" in order to describe it. Debate continues as to why that is. One recent theory is that the first orchestral horn players in Britain arrived from France and, after their first efforts were not wholly successful, were cursed by the musical director thus: "Oh those French horn players!" What is certain is that the horn was first used to provide musical signals during hunting. More than 200 years of technological development has resulted in the French horns of today, which can now meet the demands of even the most complicated of scores.
"A stunning performance ... Alec Frank-Gemmill made the instrument dart, wail and flutter as if those were normal things for a French horn to do."
Herald, July 2013 (Appel interstellaire at East Neuk Festival)
The modern "French horn" has valves but this was not always the norm. The "natural horn" without valves was used in orchestras from the 18th century through to the middle of the 19th century and even beyond. Since the rise of the period performance movement it has found its place again in orchestras and even as a solo instrument. The special sound of the natural horn means it is increasingly in use even when the other members of the orchestra play on modern instruments.
"Fabulous stuff from those recalcitrant beasts, the natural horns… Consigned to the back of the orchestra, the players constantly tend these wayward charges, turning them over to drain saliva from their innards, spare lengths of tubing slung on their music stands like wheels in a bike shop. But what a magnificent noise they make. They received and deserved the Prommers' loudest cheers for lighting up the scherzo with their gloriously gritty sonority."
Observer, August 2013 (Prom 49, Scottish Chamber Orchestra cond. Robin Ticciati – Beethoven Symphony No. 3)
Another name for the natural horn is the "hand horn" because players place the right hand in the bell of the instrument, altering the pitch by adjusting their hand position. This practice of "hand-stopping" certain notes was developed during the 18th century but it remains unclear at what point the method had become universally adopted. All we know is that horns from the first half of the 18th century tend to have smaller dimensions than later natural horns and are thought to have been played without the right hand in the bell. Fiendishly difficult to play, the “baroque horn” is seldom heard in concerts as a solo instrument, even though there are many pieces written for it. Also known as the "corno da caccia" from its original use in the hunt, this instrument has a highly distinctive sound and certainly deserves a place beside the modern French horn and the natural horn.
"There were fabulous instrumental solos in the accompaniments to the arias, too – none more so than Alec Frank-Gemmill’s bravura treatment of the horn obbligato in Zazzo's powerhouse performance of the hunting aria from Handel's Giulio Cesare."
Guardian, December 2013 (La Nuova Musica cond. David Bates with Lawrence Zazzo, countertenor)