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Berlioz on the Valved Horn

Excerpts from his famous treatise on orchestration.

John Ericson

This article is based on materials from my dissertation.

The single most influential source on orchestration in the nineteenth century is the Grand Traite d'Instrumentation et d'Orchestration Modernes (1843) of Hector Berlioz; this work clearly sheds light on the use of the valved horn in this period. After a very thorough discussion of the natural horn, Berlioz opened his discussion of the valved horn with a theoretical discussion of how the valves could be used to obtain a chromatic scale.

The horn with pistons can make all its notes as open notes, by means of a particular mechanism of which the action consists in changing instantaneously the key of the horn. Thus the use of such and such a piston transforms the F horn into the E horn; or an E-flat horn, into a D horn, &c.; whence it follows that the open notes of one key being added to those other keys, the complete chromatic scale is obtained in open sounds.

Berlioz went on to show how the natural low range of the horn had been extended from C to F-sharp1 because of the valves, and that the written range for a valved horn crooked in E-flat was from F-sharp1 to c''', although he noted that those notes below C were "very rare; and difficult to keep steady." He continued to discuss the low range uses and advantages of the valved horn and on the best crooks for the instrument, stating,

This system offers advantages, especially for the second horns, owing to the considerable blanks which it fills up between their natural low tones, commencing from the last low C ascending; but the timbre of the horn with pistons differs a little from that of the ordinary horn, which it cannot therefore entirely replace. I think that it should be treated almost like an instrument apart, and as particularly fitted for giving good basses, vibrant and energetic, yet not possessing so much force as the low sounds of the tenor trombone, to which its own bear much resemblance. It can also render a melody well, especially one principally on the medium notes.

The best keys for the horn with pistons--the only ones indeed which leave nothing to desire on the score of correctness in tune--are the intermediate keys. Thus, the horns in E-flat, F, G, and A-flat, are much preferable to the others.

While noting a number of advantages of the valved horn, Berlioz also made reference to the greatest drawback of the valved horn: its different tonal color. He also noted the best crooks for the valved horn, a choice undoubtedly made with some concern both for tonal color and for the possibility of adjusting the valve slides for correct intonation. [NOTE: A horn built in a high key, such a B-flat, requires much shorter valve slides than an instrument in a lower key, such as F (see, for example, the dual sets of valve slides on a modern double horn); a single horn with only one set of slides can thus only be tuned accurately in a few possible crookings]. In the immediately following passage Berlioz also called attention to a "dangerous abuse" carried out by some horn players, noting also that the solution was within the grasp of every performer.

Many composers show themselves opposed to this new instrument, because, since its introduction into orchestras, certain horn-players, using the pistons for playing ordinary [natural] horn parts, find it more convenient to produce by this mechanism, as open notes, notes intentionally written as closed notes by the author. This is, in fact, a dangerous abuse; but it is for orchestral conductors to prevent its increase; and, moreover, it should not be lost sight of that the horn with pistons, in the hands of a clever player, can give all the closed sounds of the ordinary horn, and yet more; since it can execute the whole scale without employing a single open note. Since the use of the pistons, by changing the key of the instrument, gains the open notes of other keys, in addition to those of the principal key, it is clear that it must also secure the closed notes.

This passage is especially relevant to his own Symphonie Fantastique (1832), movement IV, where in a note to the published score (1845) Berlioz requested at the beginning of the movement that the horns "produce the stopped tones with the hand without using the valves" ("faites les sons bouchés avec la main sans employer les cylindres"); this instruction is almost universally ignored today. [See Hector Berlioz, Fantastic Symphony (New York: W. W. Norton, 1971), ed. Edward T. Cone, 122, for this marking, not seen in all editions of the work (noted in Snedeker, diss., 77-79)].

Next he addressed the technique of stopping the bell on the valved horn. The hand could be used to play every tone of the horns range as a closed tone. His example shows that Berlioz saw hand stopping on the valved horn as requiring a very tightly covered bell, fingering the pitches a full step higher than notated. This is the same type of hand stopping which would be used on the natural horn to lower a written g' to f'. While perhaps theoretically possible, practical experimentation would confirm that this approach to performing stopped notes on the valved horn does not actually work, except for a few isolated notes in the lower range.

Berlioz concluded with a brief comparison of the tone of the natural and valved horns, and reported the general adoption of the valved horn in Germany.

The horn with valves differs from the preceding only by the nature of its mechanism.

This difference is all in its favor on the score of flexibility and quality of tone. The sounds of the horn with valves do not differ materially from those of the ordinary [natural] horn. This instrument is already in general use throughout Germany, and, without doubt, will soon become so everywhere.

This last statement is unashamed boosterism on Berlioz's part, perhaps in reaction to the slow adoption of the valved horn in France. He later noted in his Memoirs the continued use of the natural horn in Leipzig and a few other unnamed north German orchestras in the 1840s. Berlioz commented very favorably on J. R. Lewy and the horn players in Dresden after his visit there in 1843 (Berlioz conducted concerts in Dresden on February 10 and 17, which included a performance of the Symphonie Fantastique), noting,

The most remarkable of the horn players is Levy, who enjoys a great reputation in Saxony. He and his colleagues use the cylinder [valved] horn, to which the Leipzig band, unlike almost all the others in the north of Germany, has hitherto refused admission.


Hector Berlioz, Memoirs, trans. Rachel Holmes and Eleanor Holmes, rev. Ernest Newmann (New York: Dover, 1966), 292.

________, A Treatise On Modern Instrumentation and Orchestration, trans. Mary Cowden Clarke (London: Novello, n.d.), 141-142.

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

Copyright John Q. Ericson. All rights reserved.


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