The Myth of the Ideal Horn Sound

Kathryn Zevenbergen

Many writers of the 18th and 19th century considered the human voice to have the ideal quality of sound to which players of all instruments must strive, and the horn was no exception. The writer Franz Joseph Fröhlich, in his multi-volume orchestral instrument treatise, begins the chapter on the horn by stating “If we consider the worth of instruments generally in accordance to the relation of their likeness to the human voice, the horn deserves an excellent rank under the same.” He goes on to refer his reader to his chapter containing a singing school, and recommends that horn students use the singing of etudes as a supplement to the given horn etudes. Beginning in the 1740s, as the range of the horn began to fall from the previously used, extremely high “clarino” register, horn players began to specialise in one part of the range, and thus became either cor alto (high horn) or cor basse (low horn) players. Each type of player had a specific function in both solo and orchestral music, as well as a specific sound ideal. This presentation uses examples from Beethoven’s orchestral and chamber repertoire, as well as excerpts from concertos for two horns, to explore the ways in which composers treated cor alto and cor basse players differently, considering sound as well as playing technique. The history of the distinction and modern consequences for horn players will also be discussed.