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The Natural Horn Today

Jeffrey Snedeker looks at the natural horn and its relevance to composers today.
( see: for more info on Jeffrey Snedeker)

A Natural Horn by LLBrown
The revival of historical instruments and the performance of period music has become an influential force in classical music during the past 50 years. This influence has impacted musicians' practices and techniques but, more importantly, “historically-informed performance” has altered ways in which we all hear this music, whether the response to it is positive or negative.

An interesting by-product of the historically-informed performance movement has been a number of new compositions written for certain of these historical instruments, perhaps most noticeably the surprising number of contemporary compositions for the natural horn. The natural horn, the valveless predecessor to the modern instrument, has several unique characteristics that seem to appeal to contemporary composers—the heroic, hunting qualities so often associated with the horn throughout its history are frequently used, but a wide ranging color palette offered by hand technique (introducing the hand into the bell to create new pitches and tone colors) and by crooks (extra pieces of tubing which put the horn in different keys, each having a slightly different tone color) offer new choices to contemporary composers. Initially, performers prepared works inspired by their experience with the instrument, and some composers envisioned the potential for a new "niche" to gain attention and name recognition. Over time, however, more composers have been inspired to write longer, more complex pieces, often combined with modern instruments like piano, strings, or percussion. The natural horn's unique color palette and technological limitations have posed interesting challenges that have pushed the instrument into an interesting new light-- one that combines its ancestry with its potential as a legitimate contemporary instrument. Nowhere is this more evident than with Györgi Ligeti's recent Hamburg Concerto (1999/2003), which features natural horns prominently.

As mentioned above, many composers were also performers if not on the natural instrument, like Hermann Baumann, certainly on the modern descendent, like Douglas Hill or Randall Faust. Some composers were commissioned by friends looking to expand the contemporary repertoire, like James Collorafi/Nicholas for hornist Richard Seraphinoff. In many cases, desires to add to or create a niche for a "new" instrument played a role for some. Since, on the natural horn, hand-stopping technique is required to play notes outside of the harmonic series, composers have been attracted to the necessary but "naturally" broader collection of colors, particularly as dynamics are combined with the different possibilities. Certainly, some choices are made based on the heritage of the instrument, using the natural harmonics to emphasize hunting or heroic calls to arms, but many find the mix of stopped colors to be useful as well, for contrast.

From a practical standpoint, it important to know some of the ground rules that performers of the natural horn expect composers to follow.

1. Generally, the harmonic series is notated in C so the open notes are easily discerned.

2. The horn should then be crooked to the desired key; even if there is no “key”, the composer must decide what concert pitch harmonic series will be played with open sounds. Indicate the “key” by using “Horn in F” or “Horn in D”. With this indication, the performer will know to change the tube length by means of interchangeable tubes, or crooks. These keys work the same as before: Horn in F creates a concert pitch down a fifth from the notated pitch, and the others generally follow suit:
  • Horn in C alto—reads concert pitch (like a C trumpet)—very bright sound
  • Horn in B—not used
  • Horn in B-flat alto—concert pitch sounds down a whole step from the notated pitch
  • Horn in A—sounds down a minor third—bright but more centered
  • Horn in A-flat—rare
  • Horn in G-sounds down a perfect fourth
  • Horn in F-sharp—rare
  • Horn in F—notated just like the modern horn
  • Horn in E—sounds down a minor sixth
  • Horn in E-flat—sounds down a major sixth—full, rich tone color
  • Horn in D—sounds down a minor seventh
  • Horn in D-flat—rare
  • Horn in C basso—sounds down an octave from notated pitch—dark tone
  • Horn in B—rare
  • Horn in B-flat basso—sounds down a major ninth-- very dark, almost muffled sound
  • Horn in A basso-- rare

3. It seems that once the key/crook is chosen based on the desired open notes, the rest basically is dictated by the desired pitches or effects. Generally, it is best to think of the available stopped notes as being produced by bending open notes down to fill in the gap between two open notes in the series. Thus, performers can bend e' down as far as c#', g' can bend down to f', and so on. As the intervals between the open notes decrease, the range of stopped possibilities also decreases, but there are some nice opportunities for glissandi in both directions, either up to or down from the open note. NB: playing stopped notes below c' becomes less and less practical the lower you go. Most players can negotiate b, b-flat, even a; a-flat is tough, but can be lipped up from g. Below g, f# and f are practical, but e, e-flat, d, and d-flat are very difficult. Below c is also problematic, but possible to G

4. One of the pleasant surprises in this approach to handstopping is the opportunity to explore different degrees of stopped-ness. The following chart shows the “handerings” that are required to play the notes, as notated in relation to the crooked horn notated in C. As might be expected, “half-stopped” notes are more muffled but still somewhat warm, “3/4-stopped” are closer to the modern brassy sound, and fully-stopped (“+”) notes have the capability to sound brassy and nasally; they also can sound soft, round, and far away.

The notes missing in the lower octave are listed in many handhorn tutors of the 19th century, but, as mentioned above, are not practical for the typical natural horn player. Below c is also possible but quite precarious, especially entering on notes that low.


I am pleased to say that most composers who have written for the natural horn have not treated it as an anachronism but, instead, placed it in a contemporary context. Some interesting pieces for further study include:

Douglas Hill Thoughtful Wanderings for Natural Horn and Percussion (also with recorded percussion and nature sounds). This piece is inspired by images associated with Native American culture, uses only the natural harmonics of the horn (no hand-stopping) in four movements, depicting an eagle in the sky, woodland trail, insect dance, and rain dance. The nature sounds add enjoyment to the performance, but, as with any taped piece, coordination with the recorded percussion takes more time than with a live percussionist (also an option for performance). It is surprising to hear (and see) the range of expressive possibilities within the self-imposed limitations of the harmonic series alone. The fact that the composer is also a renowned player and teacher was undoubtedly helpful in terms of choices made, but the musical inspiration—using the harmonic series on the horn because of its resemblance to the notes of the Native American flute—holds the piece together remarkably well.

Score available from: International Horn Society Manuscript Press,
Recording: Thoughtful Wanderings: The Music of Douglas Hill (2 CD set);

Robert Patterson’s Quartet for Natural Horn and Strings has many contrasting sections and is 17 minutes long. This is a serious composition with no holds barred for the horn player. Orchestrated for violin, viola, and cello, the work is substantive and extends the technique of the natural horn player to contend with all manner of contemporary techniques. In many ways, it seems like Patterson simply wrote a piece for horn and strings and then just asked for natural horn, but I know this is not true—it was conceived as a natural horn part. It is extremely dissonant, asking the horn player to cover a full range of chromatic notes and all dynamic levels. Patterson takes full advantage of his knowledge of the instrument as a horn player, effectively using the “out of tune” harmonics, lontano effects, heroic and lyrical figures. The blends between wind and strings available due to the color changes are very satisfying.

Score and Recording: from the composer at

Jeffrey Agrell’s September Elegy for Natural Horn and Piano “arose as an expression of grief from the tragic events of September 11, 2001.” What makes this piece interesting (not to mention 9-10 minutes long) are the three freely improvised sections, two featuring the hornist, one featuring the pianist. The horn in E-flat lends a darker overall tone color to the horn. The four sections include a Prologue (horn improvises freely with piano playing from a limited number of note choices); Chorale (notated); Reflection (pianist improvises alone); Epilogue (similar to Prologue). Performers are directed to respond to the tragedy of the event and the mood of the moment.
Score: JOMAR Press
Recording: Repercussions, Wildwind Records CD 1001,

Hermann Baumann’s Elegia für Naturhorn was composed by this famous horn player for the 1984 Bad Harzburg natural horn competition. The unaccompanied natural horn moves through various stages of grief: sadness, increasing frustration, anger, resignation, and acceptance of loss. The performer is allowed to choose the crook that suits them for the piece, and I find E-flat makes the best compromise between darkness of tone and stuffiness of longer tubing. The range is chromatic from b-flat to c''', with extensions down to c, and there are no apologies for the color changes, in fact, they heighten the progression of emotions as a mix of open and stopped sounds give way to loud, open notes as the anger peaks. The mix of colors gives the piece a vocal, wordless quality, that has made it one of the more popular natural horn pieces on recitals.

Score: Bote and Bock (Boosey and Hawkes)
Recording (out of print): Klassische Musik für Naturhorn: Thomas Müller and Schola Cantorum Basilensis Horn Studio. Deutsche Harmonia Mundi HM 953-2.

And, for those especially interested: a recording of Ligeti’s Hamburg Concerto was released in 2003 on Teldec Classics.
These pieces described above show the natural horn in four very effective settings. There is a surprising number of others that include piano, voices, and a recent piece using digital delay. It is clear that the natural horn, in the hands of a knowledgeable player, has the capability to participate as an equal in contemporary music. Clearly, all that remains is the opportunity to hear and try new things. It is a chromatic instrument with some limitations, but a substantive color palette and full expressive range, in many ways broader than the modern valved instrument, despite the clear impression that the modern horn can do all of these things, if asked. Much like hearing harpsichord music on a piano, some is gained but much is lost, and hopefully, composers will continue to explore all historical instruments for their potential in contemporary music.