"Once you've heard the rumblings of a serpent, there really is no going back"

Last Sunday night Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Revolution et Romantique performed Beethoven Symphony No. 5 and Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique at the BBC Proms. (Broadcast available on the BBC website for a limited time). After the performance I got the following tweet asking about the horns we were using:

For the first half of the performance (the Beethoven) Joseph Walters and I used standard natural horns but, indeed, for the second half (the Berlioz), Joe, Chris Larkin, Martin Lawrence, Sue Dent and myself were using crookable piston horns. Now, Twitter being Twitter, for me to reply properly to the above enquiry from Alex Robinson would take more than 140 characters (!) hence me taking the liberty of replying in a more leisurely manner here.

Berlioz was a master orchestrator. Some of the effects he calls for in the Symphonie Fantastique and Lélio (the sequel to Symphonie Fantastique, which Gardiner/ORR are playing in concerts this week and next in the Edinburgh International Festival and the Festival Berlioz de La Côte Saint André) are incredibly inovative, for example in Lelio (V. La Harpe Eolienne-Souvernirs) he requests that the clarinet plays into a leather bag, thus to mute the sound of the instrument. Berlioz is often very exacting about the techniques and approaches he wishes the musicians to use, for example the general level of detail he uses for the percussion and timpani regarding exactly what sticks and (in the case of the Marche au supplice) hands to use. These works date from an interesting period in the development of the horn and it is clear that Berlioz was fascinated by what the instrument (or instruments, if one considers the natural horn and the valve horn two separate instruments) was capable of and in these two works we see hints of what contemporary horn players were themselves experimenting with.

The valve had been invented in 1814 and, between 1823 and 1831 the opera composer Gaspare Spontini (then working as Generalmusikdirektor for King Frederick William III of Prussia) sent a number of two and three valved horns, trumpets/cornets from Berlin to influential brass players in Paris including, most notably, the eminent horn professor Louis-François Dauprat (see Georges Kastner Manuel Générale de la Musique Militaire, Paris: Didot, 1848, p.192). Dauprat was not taken with the instrument but his student, Joseph Meifred (pictured below) was and set about improving the instruments sent from Berlin. In 1827 the new design (on which, more later) received a silver medal at the Exposition des Produits de L'Industrie" and the music writer François-Joseph Fétis dedicated an article to it in the August 1827 edition of Revue Musicale (you can read it here online). This was followed, on the 9th of March 1828, by Meifred performing a solo of his own composition in the first concert of the influential Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, alongside compositions by Cherubini, Rossini and one of the earliest performances in France of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. Again, Fétis was there and wrote:
"A solo, for horn with pistons, was performed by M. Meyfred [sic]... [which] gave a high idea of the resources you can find in this instrument. Difficult passages, frustrating on the regular horn, and multiple modulations were played by M. Meyfred with an ease that demonstrated, even to the least enlightened listeners, the benefits of new processes. I have no doubt that the valve horn generally be adopted as soon as a skillful factor multiplied the will, and that will be published Dauprat excellent method he composed for the use of this innovation." (Fétis, Revue Musicale, Vol. III, 1828, p. 148

Joseph Meifred (1791–1867) - Professor of the "Académie Royale de Musique". 
Not all were convinced by the new developments. Joseph d'Ortigue writing in La Quotidienne (22nd of June, 1833) voiced his doubts:
"A quintet, written with great talent by Mr. Strunz, for three cornets and two horns introduced us to the brilliant results that can be obtained by way of the pistons. We doubt that these results are a real advantage in the orchestra: the horn especially would lose this shy and virginal expression which gives it so much charm, and, in wanting too much to multiply the resources of instrumentation, one risks making of it something trivial, like a coquette who loses some of her real and naive appeal for every bit of finery she puts on. But in the concerto, the piston system is a clear advantage. Mr. Meifred, to whom we owe this happy development, has been appointed professor of horn at the Conservatory. This skilful artist was worthy of such a reward after so many years of care and work."

Both of these performances, one showing the new valved horn as a solo instrument, one as a chamber music instrument pre-date the oft quoted first appearance of the valved horn as an orchestral instrument in the opera La Juive by Jules Halévy. This work was premiered at the Paris Opéra on the 23rd of February, 1835 and calls for two pairs of horns, one pair on natural horns and one pair doubling valve horns (crooked in G, E, E flat and D) and natural horns. (More on this piece can be found on John Ericson's website here). Castil-Blaze (in his L'Académie impériale de musique; de 1645 à 1855, Paris: Castil-Blaze, 1855, p.148) recalls that the valve horn players for the premier were Frédéric Duvernoy and Meifred.


Berlioz was fascinated with how instruments work and his Grand traité d'instrumentation et d'orchestration modernes (1844, subsequently reworked by both Berlioz himself and later Richard Strauss) goes into aspects of each orchestral instrument in fine detail. Berlioz treats the natural horn and the valve horn separately. 

The natural horn, Berlioz states, comes in the keys of C alto down to B flat basso. Each key has the following notes available, some are open and some are certain degrees of "stopped", i.e. the horn player uses their hand in the bell of the instrument to manipulate the acoustics of the instrument, thereby altering the open harmonics and creating a new note, often with a markedly different timbre.

A Treatise upon Modern Instrumentation and Orchestration by Hector Berlioz. Translated by Mary Cowden Clarke (London: Novello, Ewer and Co, 2nd edition 1858, p.131)
Berlioz then deals with the valve horn and explains that the instrument is best in the keys of A flat, G, F and E. One of the issues with crookable piston horns is that there are only a certain number of crooks that are going to work. The reason for this is that if you wish to use the crooks and the valves then as you lower the horn with lower and lower crooks you are going to have to also lengthen the individual tuning slides for each valve. According to Kastner (again in his Manuel Générale de la Musique Militaire) the first valve horns that Spontini brought to Paris were quickly copied by Parisian makers and, thanks to the guidance of Meifred, the makers improved the design of these instruments adding the valve slides thus making it feasible to tune for the individual crooks leading to this design of horn being known as the cor Meifred

Traditionally on most piston horns you will have three valves, though in the beginning two were deemed sufficient. Like on the modern instrument, the first valve lowers the instrument by a tone, the second by a semi-tone and the the third either lowers by a tone and a half (so in effect doing the same job as the first and second valves combined) or, in the case of some French instruments known as the cor ascendant, raises the instrument by a tone). To maintain these relationships the musician needs to incrementally change the length of each of these valve tuning slides when the crooks are being changed. This is limited, the valve slides will be all too long if the horn is crooked in a high alto key, or all too short if the horn is in a low basso key, hence Berlioz suggesting the keys of A flat, G, F and E. 

Raoux-Millereau cor ascendant (L) and cor descendant (R) from Émile Lambert Méthode Complète et Progressive de Cor Chromatique (Paris: Lemoine et Cie,1922) 

Opinion on what crooks worked varied. In Meifred's De l'étendue, de l'emploi et des resources du cor en général, et de ses corps de rechange en particulier, avec quelques considérations sur le cor à pistons (Paris: Richalut, 1829, pp.30-31)Meifred suggests the crooks of F, E, E flat and D as being the best saying that crooks higher and lower than these keys did not retain their unique character timbre on the piston horn, whilst Urbin, in his Méthode de Cor à trios pistons ou cylindres (Paris: Richault, 1853, p.11) suggests A, Ab, F and E, rationalising that A and E should be used for pieces in sharp keys and A flat and F used for pieces in flat keys. The French style of piston horn was very popular in the UK up until the mid 20th century with makers such as Boosey, Hawkes and their combined forces Boosey and Hawkes making what were in effect rip-offs of the top French makers Raoux and Courtois. Note below the "poinçon" from Joe Walter's Hawkes piston horn (left), this was Hawke's "take" on the recognisable Raoux mark (right). Also note the neat tuning slide markers on Sue Dent's Hawkes & Sons piston horn helping guide the player as to where to put the tuning slides dependent on the crooks. 

Berlioz revised both Symphonie Fantastique and Lélio a number of times and it's quite tricky (and perhaps a fruitless?) quest, to try and unpick what would have certainly been the original versions of these works. Symphonie Fantastique was originally written in 1830 and premiered on the 5th of December, 1830. Berlioz spent much of 1831–2 constantly revising the work and is thought to have continued tinkering with it up until the publication of the first printed score and parts in 1845 which is probably when directions as to where to use valves came in. Many of his changes, such as the added cornet obligato in II. Un Bal are visible in the manuscript held at the Bibliotheque National de Paris (and accessible on their marvellous Gallica website here). Lélio has a similar history of revisions, it was was composed as Le Retour à la Vie in 1831 (and, again, the manuscript is helpfully available on the Gallica website here) and greatly revised in 1855 (as Lélio) for Berlioz's performance of the work in Weimar.

One of the curiosities that emerges in the various editions is Berlioz's directions to the horn players as to when to use valves and when not to. The classic example is in the Marche au supplice in which he asks the horn players, at the beginning, to specifically use the instrument like a natural horn ("Faites les sons bouchés avec la main sans employer les cylindres" i.e. "play the stopped notes with the hand and do not use the valves") and then, in the "big tune" to use valves ("avec les cylindres, tous les sons ouverts" i.e. "with the valves, all the notes open").

Another clear indication to use valves comes in the final bars of the second movement, Chœur d'ombres, of Lélio. Over the years the direction in the score has changed and, as the Bärenreiter edition with the correct directions is in copyright here is what often is presented to horn players, the Malherbe/Weingartner "Berlioz Edition" published by Breitkopf und Härtel in the early 20th century.

This is a 20th century "rationalisation" of the earlier directions which should read: for the first two bars is "solo, sons bouchés avec les cylindres", followed by "sans cylindres" in bar three and then reverting to "sons bouchés avec les cylindres". This means that the horn player needs to use the valves to play the, normally open, notes (the written Cs and Gs) stopped, but would just use traditional hand technique for the E flat and D (stopped notes on the natural horn). 

If we look at the history of these pieces it's clear that Berlioz was a pragmatic composer and, whilst he includes revisions to include colours and effects possible on the early valve horn, there is very little in Symphonie Fantastique nor Lélio that would phase a competent natural horn player of the time. Many examples can be seen of Berlioz writing "dovetailed" horn parts, a trick where a composer writes for a pair of horns, each in a different key, one pair stop when the music starts to stray into difficult territory with the other pair crooked into a key that facilitates the rest of the music being played, so the melody straddles all the horn parts. A good example is the final movement of Lélio where the tune is played in its entirety by the clarinets and bassoons but divided between the two pairs of horns in F and C.

Berlioz Lélio 6. Fantaisie sur la tempête de Shakespeare - bars 286 -305.

If we return to the example from the second movement of Lélio the first 1831 version the manuscript shows Berlioz's original approach to the final four bars. Instead of one solo horn playing the phrase, all hand stopped, he divides the melody between the four horns thus:

So we can see how in these works there are these directions from Berlioz saying to USE valves in certain places, to NOT USE valves in others and, most fascinating of all, places in which he asks the player to USE valves on traditionally "open" harmonic notes, so that the note can be played stopped. With the exception of a couple of notes (such as the low A flat, top F sharp and B flat) all the notes on the natural horn are either open or stopped. What Berlioz seems to be hinting at in these directions is a type of "mixed" technique, partially natural horn and partially valve horn. This was exactly the type of approach advocated by Meifred, a musician who Berlioz knew. Berlioz recalled an incident with Meifred during rehearsals for Benvenuto Cellini in 1838:
"I had occasion to point out to the second horn a mistake in an important passage. I did so in the mildest and politest manner; but the player, Meifred, though an intelligent man, rose in wrath and, losing his head completely, shouted, "I'm playing what's there. Why do you suspect the orchestra like this?" To which I replied, even more mildly, that it had nothing to do with the orchestra but only with him, and that secondly I suspected nothing, for suspicion implied doubt, and I was quite certain he had made a mistake."
Memoirs, "Travels in Russia, Sequel" quoted in Hugh Macdonald Berlioz's Orchestration Treatise: A Translation and Commentary p. 182.
Could this be an example of what Berlioz himself suggested conductors should do when faced with a piston horn player playing material conceived for natural horn on their new instruments?
"Many composers object to this new instrument because, since it began to appear in orchestras, certain horn players use pistons to play parts written for the ordinary horn; they find it more convenient to use the mechanism to play as open notes those notes which the composer intended to be played stopped. This is in fact a dangerous misuse and it is up to conductors to stop it spreading". Berlioz Grand traité d'instrumentation et d'orchestration modernes (Paris: Schonenberger, 1844), translation from Hugh Macdonald Berlioz's Orchestration Treatise: A Translation and Commentary p. 181. 
Both Symphonie Fantastique and Lélio can be played by natural horn and I believe that Berlioz's originally intention in the 1830s would be that the works would be for natural horn. But in his revisions later in life he starts to be more enthusiastic about the benefits of the piston horn.
"A number of composers object to cylinder horns because, they maintain, their timbre is inferior to that of the natural horn. I have several times experimented by listening to the open notes of the natural horn and of the chromatic or cylinder horn one after the other, and I must confess I could not detect the slightest difference in tone or volume. There is at first sight more substance in another objection that has been raised against the new horns, but it can be easily disposed of. Since this instrument (now perfected, in my opinion) was introduced into orchestras, certain hornists who play natural horn parts on cylinder horns find it less trouble to produce the stopped notes indicated by the composer as open notes. This is certainly a serious abuse, but the fault lies in the player and not in th instrument. Far from it, indeed, for in the hands of a skilful artist the cylinder horn note merely produces all the stopped notes which the natural horn produces but can actually play the entire compass without resorting to a single open note. The conclusion is simply that horn players should know the technique of hand-stopping as if the cylinder mechanism did not exist, and that composers should henceforth indicate the notes that are to be played stopped by some special sign, the player producing as open sounds only those notes which carry no such indication."
Memoirs, "Travels in Germany", I/7, 1865, quoted in Hugh Macdonald Berlioz's Orchestration Treatise: A Translation and Commentary p. 183-4.

As mentioned early, Meifred wrote a short method for piston horn in 1828 but then returned in much greater detail in a 1840 Méthode pour le Cor Chromatique ou à Pistons originally published for the two valved instrument and later (1849) revised for the three valve instrument. 

Chromatic horn by Antoine Halary as depicted in Joseph Meifred's Méthod pour le  Cor Chromatique ou à Pistons (1840)

In these works he gives great insight into the aesthetics of his approach setting out his "rules":

This means that Meifred proposed using valves to:

1. To restore to the horn the notes it lacks;
2. To improve the intonation of some of its notes;
3. To make the muffled notes sonorous, while retaining those that need only slight stopping, the tone of which is so agreeable;
4. To give all leading notes, whatever the key or mode, the character they have in the natural scale.
5. Lastly, not to deprive composers of crooks, each of which has its own particular tone colour.
Meifred Méthode (translation Reginald Morley-Pegge, The French Horn, p. 109).
The beauty of Meifred's method is that suddenly a whole new world of colours are available to horn players. For our performances of these Berlioz works the horn section decided to use crookable piston horns. The colour of each crook is particular identifiable - it's no accident that Berlioz chooses F major for the "pastorale" third movement of the Symphonie. For the basso crooks we use higher crooks and then use the valves as a crooking system, so, for example, in the Marche au supplice, I use an E flat crook (which works perfectly for the bit where Berlioz requires valves) and put all three valves down and use hand technique for the other "natural horn" passages which makes the horn in to a B flat basso instrument. (NB to anyone reading this in detail and wondering about this, E flat and 1st and 3rd valve should be sufficient but not quite on my instrument, hence all three valves). Then, on top of this we've been experimenting with various "effects" such as all of the horn section using hand stopping for the final bars of the first movement, I. Rèveries - Passions of the Symphonie.

The introduction of the valve was a very interesting development in the history of the horn. Like a number of other inventions, it didn't suddenly pop up over night. It was accepted in fits and starts and evolved in different ways in different countries. France, with it's superstar natural horn players were very sniffy about the new instrument and felt it potentially would loose the colours and effects that they held dear. Meifred's approach, combining the best of both instruments, offers a fascinating world for horn players to explore. Best of all, to my mind, the potential interpretations using his ideas are pretty endless, it feels like some sort of "choose your own adventure" story where you're constantly faced with decisions and artistic choices which is wonderfully fun!

Back row: Chris Larkin and Martin Lawrence
Front row: Sue Dent, Anneke Scott and Joseph Walters.
Photo courtesy of Andrew McGregor, BBC Radio 3.

For this project the section used the following instruments:
Anneke Scott: M.A.Raoux natural horn (c. 1862) with later (1918) Boosey detachable valve block crooked into F, E and E flat.
Joseph Walters: Hawkes piston horn crooked into F, E and E flat. (c. 1914)
Christopher Larkin: Raoux Milleraux piston horn crooked into F and E flat. (c. 1879-1911).
Martin Lawrence: Hawkes piston horn (with detachable valve block) crooked into F and E flat. (c. 1914)
Sue Dent: Hawkes and Sons piston horn (with detachable valve block) crooked into F, E and E flat. (c. 1920).