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Heinrich Domnich and the Natural Horn

Excerpts from his important horn method.

Dr. John Ericson

This article is based on materials published in The Horn Call Annual 8 (1996) with additional materials from my dissertation.

Heinrich Domnich (1767-1844) was born in Würzburg, the son of hornist Friedrich Domnich (1728-1790), and he went on to study and build a distinguished career in Paris [Pizka, 102]. His Méthode de Premier et de Second Cor (1808) gave a very thorough examination of the natural horn and its technique. Of particular interest are the comments of Domnich on the use of crooks, the hand in the bell, and transposition, which generally expound what could be considered a very traditional and standard approach to the natural horn.

Two very different editions of the Méthode appeared in Domnich's lifetime. The original Le Roy edition in French, which appeared in 1808, contains extensive introductory materials on the history and technique of the horn which do not appear in Schott's French and German edition of 1832 [ibid]. This later edition does, however, contain materials which were either revised by Domnich or altered editorially; this is most clear with regard to the subject of crooks and transposition, and in itself sheds some light on the rapid changes occurring in performing techniques employed on the horn.

One passage from the introductory materials of the 1808 edition sums up much of his commentary about transposition and crooks. Domnich was particularly directing his comments to those players who were cultivating only the middle range of the horn and the medium crooks.

Equally deprived of the high and low tones, the Cors mixtes, which custom and disastrous development of the new species has introduced in almost all our orchestras, are able to play neither on the C crook, nor on those of A and B-flat. How do they manage? When they are given a piece in B-flat, instead of being provided with the proper instruments in this key, the horn in E-flat is employed. They make use of the horn in D if the piece is in A, and if it is in C it is necessary to use the horn in F. Now if a composer has to render a brilliant design in one of these three keys, to express, for example the noise of war, the glory of victory, the pomp of triumph, he arranges the horns in such a manner that they are able to do all without the aid of the hand in the bell. But the Cors mixtes being obligated to transpose as in this operation, the sonorous notes are transformed often to stopped notes and the brilliant to dark and lugubrious accents, the prestige of the illusion vanishes, and with the illusion is destroyed all effect. Furthermore, in the factitious scale which results from the transposition, the artist must, at times, change the second part by playing notes absolutely destitute of tone, and which are only rendered as a dull quivering.

From this we learn that some performers were transposing on the natural horn in order to avoid using either the high or low crooks, but true artists on the horn did not adopt this practice. We also learn that players were to avoid the low stopped tones as they "are only rendered as a dull quivering." Domnich taught both the use of the full range of crooks on the natural horn and to avoid stopped tones which were outside the intentions of the composer.

In contrast, in the 1832 edition, some of the sections on the crooks in article ten, "How to employ the different tonalities of the horn" have been modified to explain how to transpose the more difficult crooks of C basso, A, and B-flat alto on the natural horn. These three keys are transposed onto the F, D, and E-flat crooks, respectively, as explained in the following section, which also serves well to review the conventional wisdom of the period on all the crooks of the natural horn.

Horn in C.

Of all the different keys, it is the horn in C which demands the most effort to play because of the multiplicity of its contours. Because of this, playing with the C crook is both trying and fatiguing and should only be employed for simple orchestral effects. A light or graceful melody will never be suitably rendered in this key. There is however a means to render playable solos which are in the key of C, and that is by simply rewriting the notes so that they may be played on the F crook.

Horn in D.

The horn in D is more manageable than the horn in C. However, its contours are still too numerous for it to be suitable for light melodies or difficult passages, although a simple tune played on this crook can produce a good effect.

Horn in E-flat, E, and F.

Everything that is possible to be played on the horn, from simple accompanying figures through to the most difficult concertos, can be played on the E-flat, E- and F-horns. In each of these three keys, the composer is free to follow his bent and bring into play all the resources of the instrument.

Horn in G.

The horn in G is naturally sonorous and requires some delicacy. It should be used with restraint. A simple melody played on this crook can nonetheless produce a pleasing result.

Horn in A and B-flat.

Horns in A and B-flat should only be used for simple orchestral effects. Their tonal quality is so shrill and penetrating that even the most competent of performers would not be able to make use of them in the accompaniment of a soft and graceful piece. There is however a means to render playable, solos which are written for these two keys. This means, which is analogous to the one employed for the C crook, consists of rewriting the notes so that pieces for the horn in A can be played on the horn in D, and those in B-flat on the horn in E-flat.

Horn in B-flat basso.

The horn in B-flat basso can be used with much success, if a somber, melancholic, or solemn colour is sought by the composer when writing in the key of B-flat; however its use should be limited to simple orchestral effects for the same reasons which have already been cited concerning the horn in C. Whenever the composer makes use of this key, he should take care to write at the beginning: Horn in B-flat basso. The horn in B-flat basso has the same range as the horn in C, and for the two types of horn it is divided in the same manner relative to its range.

Horn in C alto.

The horn in C alto can be used with much success, if vivacity, movement and brilliance are sought after by the composer in his piece when writing in the key of C; however as the natural timbre of this crook is very penetrating, its use should be limited for loud effects only. At the beginning of the piece should also be written: Horn in C alto. The horn in C alto has the same range as the horn in B-flat alto, and for the two types of horn it is divided in the same manner relative to its range.

So we see that by 1832 transposition was an accepted practice, if not by Domnich, at least by the editors responsible for the later German edition. Domnich concluded this section on crooks with the following section relating to the choice of crooks for the beginner (identical in both editions). Domnich made special note of the most characteristic crook for the horn and of how the other crooks should be approached.

We have seen that the low keys, such as those of C and D demand strength and that to be equal to it, one must have acquired firmness of lip, the late fruit of time and study. The high keys, such as G, A, and B-flat, demand on the contrary, delicacy and although shrill, they can be softened, but only by dint of skill. For giving to one and to the other the character which suits them, one has to be initiated up to a certain point in the practical knowledge of the instrument, of its means and resources.

Very near the middle of the two classes of keys are found those of E-flat, E and F among which it remains to choose. But one will not hesitate long if one considers that the tones of E and F already brilliant have a sort of tendency to the disadvantage of the high keys which they border upon whilst by its nature, that of E-flat is soft and harmonious.

The first trials in the last key will contribute then to training the ear of the beginner and to giving him at the outset the feel of the true quality of horn tone. He will be able next to pass to the other keys without danger. The difference in effect which he will find in them ceases to be a stumbling block for him and finally will not produce anything different in his playing. Guided by a period of steady comparison, he will endeavor to adjust those new nuances of key to that which is familiar to him and to preserve in his mind the right type.

About right-hand technique Domnich made many interesting observations. The most significant are stated in article five, titled "Evenness of tone."

All the notes of the horn can be divided into two principal classes: one whereby the notes are produced with the bell open, and the other whereby the notes are produced with the bell more or less stopped by hand.

There is clearly a difference in timbre between the stopped notes and the open notes which is impossible to make disappear because it is inherent in the nature of the instrument, but one can disguise it enough in order that the ear will not to be offended.

In order to obtain this result, no other means as yet has been found other than by making the attacks on the open notes softer in order that the stopped notes which are naturally weaker will not make too great a contrast with the open notes.

This method is good in principle but the result is not always satisfactory. It could be applied to a slowly moving succession of unimportant notes, but in a sustained melody or in a rapid passage it would be impracticable. Thus it is clear that such a hard and fast rule would be detrimental to the music. Since it is impossible to render the stopped notes with any brilliance of sound, and that to the contrary it is possible to suppress this brilliance on those notes which are not stopped, one is obliged to make use of the latter, but at the same time employing another method. The breath must play no role in this; it is the hand in the bell alone which must control this by opening as little as possible for notes which are not stopped, i.e. the hand should be open enough in order that each note be in tune and closed enough in order that the sound does not become too bright.

Domnich also presented a hand position chart for the natural horn covering a complete four octave range from written range from G (notated by Domnich in "new" notation) to g'''. [NOTE: Old notation, used by Classical composers and most composers of the period, notated horn pitches in bass clef an octave too low. New notation, utilized by Domnich, is commonly associated with twentieth century composers].

A number of the low stopped tones were highlighted as notes to avoid. The section of observations which followed in article eleven, "Sharps and flats," showed how to effectively employ the stopped tones in passage work.

Placing the hand in the bell enables execution of all the notes of the horn with their sharps and flats, i.e., playing natural and chromatic scales in all keys.

However this does not imply that every note of the horn can be used in any place and in any manner to the same advantage. If the stopped notes are played with a strong attack, the resulting sound is lugubrious and their timbre acquires an unpleasant quality. These notes are best placed in a flowing melody or in a soft accompaniment. There are even some notes in the first and second octaves [written G (new notation) to g'] which are absolutely dead, and no matter how they are employed, never produce a satisfactory result. Composers should, as much as is in their power, avoid using these notes.

Finally, the title of this work should be again noted; Méthode de Premier et de Second Cor. The high and low horn were treated as separate instruments in terms of range and equipment by Domnich; no one player could be expected to master the full range of the horn. Domnich did, however, feel that any individual player could master either range. The following passage from the article entitled "The two types of horn" is quite revealing.

It has already been said that it is impossible for the same player to play all the notes of the horn from the low register to the high register using only one mouthpiece. It is equally impossible for him to use in turn two mouthpieces of different diameters.

These limits being as they are have made it necessary to decide whether or not to sacrifice a part of the horn's range, or to divide into two, (sharing between two players), the complete range of the instrument. It is the latter which has been accepted resulting in two types of horn being established. One of these, known as the first horn [premier Cor], has been allocated to the high register, and the other, the second horn [second Cor], has been allocated to the low register. The intermediary notes, which one refers to as the middle or medium register belong equally to both types of horn.

It is generally accepted opinion that thin flat lips are best suited for first horn, and thick protruding lips are best suited for second horn. This idea is devoid of reason. The two types differ only in the mouthpiece which is used. For first horn, a narrow mouthpiece helps to obtain the high notes while for second horn, a larger more open mouthpiece favors the low notes. When considering the limits of their respective ranges, both of these demand the same effort for the lips, or more precisely, the same degree of mouthpiece pressure on the lips.

It is therefore true to say that there exists no particular natural tendency to either of these two types of horn. The pupil will be found to be equally well gifted for one or the other. From this it follows that from the first lesson, the pupil must adopt one of the two mouthpieces and thus choose between first or second horn.

Illustrations of the two types of mouthpiece followed. Undoubtedly, these comments of Domnich reflected opinions which were shared by many horn players of the period.


Heinrich Domnich, Méthode de Premier et de Second Cor (Paris: Le Roy, 1808) viii, trans. in Birchard Coar, A Critical Study of the Nineteenth Century Horn Virtuosi in France (DeKalb, IL: Birchard Coar, 1952), 27, 36.

________, Méthode, German, French and English ed., English trans. Darryl G. Poulsen (Kirchheim: Hans Pizka Edition, 1985), 5, 9, 12-16, 19, 23-25. Several minor spelling errors have been corrected.

Hans Pizka, Hornisten Lexikon (Kirchheim: Hans Pizka Edition, 1986).

Copyright John Ericson. All rights reserved.


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