Which way round is right?

One of my bug-bears is when graphic designers "flip" images of musicians or musical instruments. I'm certain that they are trying to make things more visually pleasing but it grates so much to see an image like this:

Exploring the Musical Mind: Cognition, emotion, ability, function. John Sloboda (Oxford Univerity Press, 2004)

I don't think I'm the only one who starts to twitch when I see these things. But it's very common, to the extent that it can pass you by. For instance, here's the cover of a fantastic book, one that should be on any brass players bookshelf:

Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments edited by Trevor Herbert and John Wallace (Cambridge University Press, 1997).

I remember eagerly awaiting the publication of this book. Partially as I was a student at the time and really getting into period performance and brass history. But partially because the horn on the cover was "mine" (well, a college instrument, on loan to me). John Wallace was head of the brass department at the Royal Academy of Music at the time and co-opted a number of us to bring instruments to his room so that this collection of brass instruments could be photographed for the cover. It was only many years later I clocked that the image had been reversed.

Not so long ago I got a comment on social media from an old friend. She had commented on a photo of me, and made a joke about the fact that I should really know which way round the horn goes by now.

But which way round does a horn go?

When one reads the 18th and 19th century sources on how to play the horn, most of the writers encourage horn students to hold the horn with the right hand but do admit that the reverse is also possible, for example 

"Suivant quelques Artistes, il est indifférent qu'on tienne le Cor de la main droite ou de la gauche; cependant ce dernier système est plus généralement adopté." "In accordance with a few artists, it is indifferent whether one takes the horn with the right hand or with the left, however the latter system is the one most generally adopted." (George Kastner - Méthode élémentaire pour le Cor Paris: E.Troupenas, 1840, p. 9).
 "Gewöhnlich hält man das Horn zunächst dem Mundstücke mit der linken Hand, und an der Öffnung (Becher, Trichter, Sturz) mit der rechten Hand, die man auch zum Stopfen der Öffnung bei Hervorbringung verschiedener Töne gebraucht... Jedoch kann man das Horn auch umgekehrt halten, was aber nicht gewöhnlich ist, ob dies gleich, wenn man sich daran gewöhnt hat, den Vorteil gewährt, dass die beiden Hornisten sich besser hören können, indem die Öffnung beider Hörner gegen einander kommen, wenn der Primarius die linke Hand, der Secundarius aber die rechte zum Stopfen gebraucht". "Usually the horn is held by the mouthpiece with the left hand, and the right hand is in the bell, which is also used to seal the bell when the different notes are produced... However, the horn can also be reversed, but this is not usual, whether this is the case, when one has gotten used to it, it has the advantage of the two horns can hear each other better by this has been the case when one is accustomed to the advantage that the two horns can hear each other better with the bells being opposite each other, the first horn using his left hand, the second horn his right, to stop the bell." (J. H. Gördolt Ausfürliche Theoretisch-Praktische Hornschule Quedlinburg: Basse, 1833, p. 4)
 "The common method of holding the horn is with the right hand nearly in the middle of the hoop, the bell hanging over the same arm : But it may sometimes be held in the left hand, the bell hanging over the same arm ; and sometimes the bell perpendicular. When two horns are blown with equal strength, the two bells of the horns should be in one direction, that the tones may more equally unite" (The New Instructions for Horn, Longman & Broderip, c.1780).
The last of these sources (The New Instructions...) also illustrates the point that the bells "should be in one direction" with this frontispiece:

We also find sources where the bells are pointing in opposite directions:

Representation of horn-blowing beaters on a blue printed tablecloth border, Moritzburg, ca. 1740
(Bernhard Brüchle and Kurt Janetzky, A Pictorial History of the Horn, Schneider, Tutzing, 1976, pg 85).

Johann Elias Ridinger (1698–1767) Detail from an engraving, 1729
(Bernhard Brüchle and Kurt Janetzky, A Pictorial History of the Horn, Schneider, Tutzing, 1976, pg. 140)

The Mannheim Orchestra 

Here's Joseph Walters and myself recreating such an effect:

Les Ambassadeurs, directed by Alexi Kossenko, Tage Alte Musik Regensburg, 2015

For me there are six main reasons I like playing with the bells facing in opposite directions.
  • It makes the "stereo" antiphonal effects easier to achieve than if the bells are facing in the same direction. 
  • Whilst at the same time because the two horn players are in close proximity to one another, any details passages are easier to get together. (the beginning of Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 is a great case in point, the hunting calls sound as if they're coming from different sides of the stage but once the music gets to the running passages it's easier to "lock in" to one another).
  • It looks good - this might sound shallow but symmetry is pleasing to the eye and in the 18th and 19th century musicians obviously had pride in the artistic value of their instruments - see for example painted bells.
  • By making a change such as reversing our instruments we can take the opportunity to see how that makes us question or rethink what we automatically do when playing "normally". Often when I play "backwards" my first shock is how loud the horn is, followed quickly by how out of tune. Shaking things up, making these sorts of changes, can be a very positive way of reevaluating.
  • Flexibility and strength of body. I like to be reminded about the muscles that aren't as strong on the right hand side of my body as my left! When I've done a period of "reverse" horn playing I often notice that by the end of the second or third day I'm feeling it physically. With this in mind it's worth being cautious about playing "backwards" (stretching before and after helps) especially if one has any back/neck problems.
  • Flexibility and strength of mind. I find I have to concentrate that little bit more when playing like this. Little things like getting water out of the horn become less of a reflex action. Distances are a bit different. These have to be taken into consideration.

For a much deeper investigation into "reversal" of horns and horn players I'd highly recommend readers consult Richard J. Martz's article "Reversed Chirality in Horns, or Is Left Right? The Horn, on the Other Hand" published in the Historic Brass Society Journal Vol. 15 (2003). And also available on line here.