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The history of the French Horn is a most fascinating one – as fascinating as the instrument itself.
One question which often arises is why, since the instrument is the oldest in record of continuous use – the Hebrew shofar still in use after 6,000 years being its direct ancestor – is its name “French”?
By the time of the French King Louis the XI, in the latter part of the 15th century, the hunting horn (descendent of the shofar) had developed to a point where it was used for a kind of a telegraphic hunting code set to music. These calls progressed to a high musical order and found their way into orchestral scores to be played on the “French (hunting) Horn.” Thus, the name “French Horn” was started.
In 1753, a man by the name of Hampel of the Dresden orchestra came out with his celebrated “Invention Horn,” incorporating changeable slides directly in the body of the horn somewhat as tuning slides are inserted in horns today. He also found that inserting the musician’s hand in the bell not only softened the tone but raised it a semi-tone. While this discovery was made in the early 1700’s composers did not write for the hand horn until early in the 19th century.
French Horns, like other brasses, went through the keyed instrument era. However, the opening and closing of the ports by keys produced tones of unequal quality and with the development of the piston and rotary valves, these difficulties were overcome.
Early composes, however, were reluctant to accept the valved instrument and still wrote for the hand horn. It was not until almost the 20th century that the hand horn was entirely abandoned in favor of the valve horn. Even Beethoven wrote much of his early music for French horns without valves.
Modern single horns are built in the key of F or Bb, and in the double horns, the two horns are incorporated in one instrument by using a rotary change valve. No other brass instrument can equal the French Horn in velvety tone, playing range, dynamic expression, and variety of effects. Expressive as a solo instrument but having a unique quality of tone, it blends well with strings, woodwinds, and other brasses.