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Joseph Meifred and the Early Valved Horn in France

A pioneer of the valved horn

John Ericson

This article is based on my dissertation, which is an expansion of materials published in the Horn Call Annual 4 (1992).

Joseph Meifred (1791-1867) was an active teacher, a student of horn design, and a pioneer performer on the valved horn. A Cor basse, Meifred studied the natural horn with Dauprat at the Paris Conservatory, where he was awarded the First Prize for horn in 1818. In 1833 the Paris Conservatory instituted a valved horn class with Meifred as professor; he held this position until his retirement in 1864 [Coar, 156-57].

Meifred's Méthode pour le Cor Chromatique, ou à Pistons, published in 1840, was the first method for the valved horn written by a major performer. In the introduction Meifred put forward five major objectives of his approach to performing on the valved horn.

First. to give to the horn the sounds it is lacking;

Second. to re-establish proper intonation to some;

Third. to render notes that are muted sonorous, all the while preserving those which are lightly stopped, for which the timbre is very agreeable.

Fourth. to give the leading tone, in whatever the key or mode, the countenance that it has in the natural range.

Fifth. to not to deprive composers of crook changes, each of which has a special color [trans in Snedeker, diss, 148].

For artistic reasons, Meifred especially wanted to maintain the use of some right-hand technique in his valved horn playing in order to perform what he referred to as the "Notes sensibles" [sensitive tones], particularly those a half step lower than the tonic or the fifth of a key. To quote from the Méthode, "I have advanced . . . that to want to prohibit all the stopped notes of the horn, replacing them with open sounds, would be to inflict harm on the countenance of the instrument and to make it to lose its special character that gives it an indefinable charm." Meifred held firm to the same underlying aesthetic of the natural horn that was held by his teacher Dauprat; that the lightly stopped tones were very expressive and what made the sound of the horn so unique and beautiful (see the article Dauprat on the Tone of the Natural Horn).

Meifred gave the following example to show how his valved horn technique differed from natural horn technique. In addition to the markings for the superior (whole step) and inferior (half step) valves (the Méthode was for the two-valved horn), notes to be taken lightly stopped and fully stopped are noted.

 Cor ordinaire . . .

 Cor ordinaire, showing how to perform a passage on the natural horn

Cor à Pistons . . .

 Cor à Pistons, showing the new method that would be used combining the right hand and the valves

Example 1. Meifred, Méthode, p. 32.

Heavily stopped notes, such as written f' and d', were thus avoided, while all leading tones were taken lightly stopped.

Meifred used the valves in part simply as crooking devices [Snedeker, correspondence, 17]. In the first concert ever given by the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire on March 9, 1828, Meifred performed a valved horn solo that formally introduced the new instrument to the French public [Morley-Pegge, 108]. The review of this solo appearance gives a clear picture of how he applied this technique to the horn.

A solo for the valve horn, performed by Mr. Meifred, to whom is owed its improvements, gave an advanced idea of all the resources one can find on this instrument. Difficult passages, unperformable on the ordinary [natural] horn, and multiple modulations were played by Mr. Meifred with a facility that demonstrated even to less-informed listeners the advantages of the new process [Fetis, trans. in Snedeker, diss, 26-27].

The most significant point is that the work contained multiple modulations. Meifred was especially concerned with preserving the proper relationships of open and half-stopped sounds in new tonal areas. The valves were used as crooking devices only in the sense that a short-term modulation was found in the music to a key area that had many notes available using one fingering, the "effective" key being those produced by a crook and the "false" keys being those produced by the valves [Meifred, 28, 47, 70]. No reference was made in the Méthode to using the valves to crook the instrument into new keys for long-term use as a hand-horn; clearly Meifred did not see the valved horn as a type of omnitonic horn. [What Was the Omnitonic Horn?]

In the preface to the section on transposition, Meifred stated in regard to orchestral playing that "It will always be better, in the interest of execution, to use the crook indicated by the Composer . . . ." It is in this context that transposition is explained by Meifred. A chart in the Méthode shows how to transpose every key to the F crook by clef.

It is important that Meifred, a major performer and teacher, used the technique of transposition. That he was, however, anxious to maintain the use of the full range of crooks was clearly shown in the Méthode. He stated that the first valved horns that were made in Germany were constructed in F and could not change keys, a design which he modified to allow the instrument to be crooked in several keys; the most significant modification was the addition of tuning slides on the valves which could be adjusted for those keys. A valved horn of this design would be ideal to perform the following example which Meifred gave from the Marche Funèbre of Dauprat's Quatuors, Op. 8. Meifred maintained the use of the originally requested crooks and gave fingerings for valved horns pitched in G, F, and D. Especially notable are the varied fingerings, which treated some pitches as either open or covered tones, depending on the harmonic context.

  Meifred, Méthode, p. 84 (Dauprat, Marche Funèbre, Op. 8, mm. 1-14). This passage is for Cor-Alto in G, Cor Alto in F, Cor Basse in F, and Cor Basse in D and give the fingerings and right hand positions Meifred would use on the valved horn

Example 2. Meifred, Méthode, p. 84 (Dauprat, Marche Funèbre, Op. 8, mm. 1-14).

Meifred worked diligently to promote and develop the valved horn and its technique in France (with only limited success; after Meifred retired from the Conservatory the valved horn was not taught there again until 1896 and was not officially recognized by the Conservatory until 1903 [Morley-Pegge et. al., vol. 2, 245]). Through his technical approach, Meifred was able to maintain much of the tonal character of the natural horn on the valved horn. Timbre variations were considered an inherent part of the sound of the horn.


Birchard Coar, A Critical Study of the Nineteenth Century Horn Virtuosi in France (DeKalb, IL: Birchard Coar, 1952).

F. J. Fétis, "Régénération de l'École Royale de Musique. Société des Concerts," Revue Musicale 3 (1828), 148, trans. in Snedeker, diss., 26-27.

Joseph Meifred, Méthode pour le Cor Chromatique, ou à Pistons (Paris: S. Richault, 1840).

R. Morley-Pegge, The French Horn, 2nd ed. (London: Ernest Benn Ltd., 1973).

Morley-Pegge et al., "Horn," New Grove Instruments, vol. 2, 245.

Jeffrey L. Snedeker, "Joseph Meifred's Methode pour le Cor Chromatique, ou à Pistons, and, Early Valved Horn Performance in Nineteenth-Century France" (D.M.A. diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1991).

________, "Correspondence," The Horn Call Annual 5 (1993), 17.

Copyright John Ericson. All rights reserved.


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