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Choosing an Artist French Horn

by Louis Stout

It is more difficult to choose a fine French horn than any other instrument in the brass family. There is a twofold reason for this. First, the French horn plays the most important role of any instrument in the brass family so far as the symphonic repertoire is concerned. As a member of the brass family the French horn must have, at least by American standards of performance, a large, full-bodied timbre and sonority. Second, many composers utilize the French horn as a member of the woodwind family and expect its timbres and sonorities to blend with individual instruments in this family as well as with the sonority produced by the family as a whole.

The most important things to consider when choosing an artist French horn are these:

  1. The instrument must have an evenly balanced tone quality on every note in an extended four octave range.
  2. It must have matched timbres throughout on both F and Bb sides.
  3. It must have a matched pattern of intonation throughout on both F and Bb sides.

1. I use the horn solo in the 2nd movement of the Tschaikowsky Fifth Symphony to check the response on slurred intervals, the production of an evenly balanced timbre from low to high register, and accuracy of intonation. The Nocturne from Mendelssohn’s incidental music to “Midsummer Night’s Dream” is played for similar checking purposes; and also to check the intonation on the high F#. While the octave jump from F# to F# is a fearsome interval to play smoothly on most French horns, it is a very reliable interval when played on my Holton instrument.
TSCHAIKOWSKY, P. “Symphony No. 5 In E Minor” Andante cantabile, con alcunalicenza
MENDELSSOHN, F. Nocturne from “Midsummer Night’s Dream” Andante tranquillo

2. I use the horn call from “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” to check the accuracy and ease of response in the upper register. French horn players must be able to play this call accurately, with precise intonation, and yet “con abbandono.” This is a most difficult feat. When a performer is forced to worry about the inherently faulty intonation and inferior response of his instrument, playing this call can be a traumatic experience. Many instruments play well in the low register, but are stuffy and difficult to play in the high register. Playing this horn call will pinpoint this weakness immediately. A horn player’s life is much too complicated to add to it the worry of playing an instrument that makes it difficult to play solo passages like this.
WAGNER, R. “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” In F

3. I use the first example from Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony to check for smooth response and intonation on slurred passages at the top of the staff. The horn call found in the last movement is used to check the responsiveness and intonation of the instrument on the octave leap from G to G. On most French horns, if the lower G is in tune the higher one will be very flat. When a player endeavors to “lip” the high G into tune he will, more often than not, play the low G quite sharp on his return to that note. Both G’s are beautifully in tune on my instrument.
Symphony No. 6 in F Major “Pastoral” Allegro – Finale – Allegretto

4. The horn call in the opening measures of the Strauss’ tone poem, “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks,” is very difficult to play. I use this example to check the easy response of an instrument when playing tongues passages throughout a wide range and, at the same time, check for true intonation and an evenly balanced timbre in this range.
STRAUSS, RICHARD “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks”

5. The horn call in the Handel oratorio, “Judas Maccabeus,” is written in a high, narrow tessitura. I use this example to check the ease of response when playing high notes only. If the player must do something with the hands or the lips to play this call in tune, it will sound very stuffy. The truth is that many horns are very flat on these high notes. I can play this passage in tune very easily on my Holton French horn.
HANDEL, G. Oratorio “Judas Maccabeus” Moderato

6. The wide range of the horn part in the Prummer Overture to “Klosterbauerin” offers a fine opportunity to check the general ease with which an instrument responds in the middle and high registers.
PRUMMER Overture to “Klosterbauerin” 
In E Andante

7. The horn call in the Dvorak “New World” Symphony is used to check an instrument’s response when moving from register to register at moderate dynamic levels. This call must be played quietly, without seeming effort on the part of the performer. When playing this passage my instrument responds exactly as it should, easily and accurately.
DVORAK, A. Symphony “From the New World” Adagio – Allegro

8. The 1st horn part in the Trio of the Minuet from the Mozart G Minor Symphony #40 must be played lightly and delicately. This is a very good test, since the light, deft articulation most appropriate to playing this passage is difficult to achieve on many French horns.
MOZART, W. A. “Symphony in G Minor” Minuet Trio

9. The 1st horn part in the slow movement of the Beethoven Second Symphony can be used to test the ease of slurring upward from one high register note to another. This solo passage strikes terror into the hearts of performers who are forced to play on an inadequate instrument. My Holton French horn’s great flexibility, accurate intonation and consummate ease of response makes it a great joy to play this solo.
Symphony No. 2 in D Major Larghetto

10. The horn solo in the 2nd movement of the Ceasar Franck Symphony in D Minor is used to check the ease of playing both upward and downward slurred passages, and also for the ease with which the instrument responds during the sudden changes of dynamics that occur so frequently in this solo.
FRANCK, CEASER “Symphony in D Minor” Allegretto

11. The horn solo in the 1st movement of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony is much more difficult to play than it may seem. The upward slurs of an octave present formidable difficulties to performers, the more so since the passage must be played “piano.” This solo is often performed by two players rather than one. I find it very easy to play the entire passage with assurance and poise on my instrument.

12. Playing smooth, accurate lip slurs in the high register presents a real problem to the performer in the horn solo found in the adagio of Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony. The high G# is a bad note on many instruments and must be fingered with the 2nd valve and “lipped” into tune. I find it possible to use either the 2nd valve or the regular fingering when playing this note on my instrument. Both valve combinations allow the note to sound clearly and in tune.
HAYDN, J. “Farewell Symphony” Adagio

13. The Haydn “Horn Signal” is used to test another traditionally bad note on most makes of horns, the high A. On most instruments this note must be played “open” because the regular 1st and 2nd valve combination is very sharp. I find it possible on my Holton French horn to play the high A in tune with either the “open” or 1st and 2nd valve fingering combinations. Indeed, when playing this note, the latter fingering provides me with a most comfortable, pleasant feeling of security.
HAYDN, J. Symphony No. 31, “With the Horn Signal” Allegro

14. I use Variation IV from the foregoing example to check the accuracy on intonation and ease of playing the high C#. When playing this note on most horns, it is necessary to use the fingering of the note a semitone higher in order to play the high C# in tune. I fine it possible to use the regular fingerings on my instrument when playing the extremely high notes, all the way up to F above high C.
Variation IV

15. Finally, I use the 2nd horn part in the overture to Beethoven’s “Fidelio” to test the ability of the instrument to move quickly and with ease into the lowest register.
BEETHOVEN, L. VAN Overture to “Fidelio” Adagio – Allegro

Playing these musical examples on a Holton (Farkas model) Double French horn will convince even the most unreasonable skeptic about the superb response, intonation and timbre of this instrument, the finest French horn ever made.

Professor Louis J. Stout was the professor emeritus of horn from the University of Michigan where he taught for 28 years. This article is a reprint of the LeBlance pamphlet by the same name.