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Oscar Franz and Richard Strauss on the Horn in the Late Nineteenth Century

Important comments from a hornist and from a composer.

John Ericson

This article is based on materials published in The Horn Call Annual 4 (1992).

Portrait of Oscar Franz

Oscar Franz (1843-1886--many sources give the year of his passing as 1889, which is incorrect [Damm, 5]) was one of the most prominent teachers and performers of the horn in the late nineteenth century. Franz spent most of his career in Dresden, where he taught at the Dresden Conservatory [Pizka, 134, and Morley-Pegge, 166. There is a surprising almost total lack of modern biographical information on Oscar Franz]. Franz was well respected in his time, and it is to him that Richard Strauss (1864-1949) dedicated the orchestral score of his Horn Concerto No. 1, Op. 11 (1883) [Johnson, 59. The original piano reduction, prepared by Richard Strauss, is however dedicated to his father, Franz Strauss]. Oscar Franz wrote a number of teaching materials for the horn. His Grosse theoretisch-practische Waldhorn-Schule [Complete Theoretical and Practical Horn Method] was first published around 1880. In this method Franz put forth many of his ideas for performing on the horn.

Franz opened his method, as had Kling, with exercises for the open natural horn. The hand horn is introduced soon afterward with the following advice, which hornists of any period would be wise to follow.

It is extremely important for the beginner to become proficient in "Stopped Horn" playing as soon as possible. Through its practice the player's ear is sharpened and the tone developed to an unusual extent. The player must endeavor to produce these "Stopped Notes" as clearly as possible, and the difference in tonal quality between these and the "Natural Tones" must be equalized as much as possible; the "Stopped Tones" must not sound as though a cloth had been introduced into the instrument. If a player has become proficient in "Stopped Horn" playing, it will be an easy matter for him to keep on playing, even if in case of an accident one of the valves refuse[s] to work; if he has only studied the Valve Horn an accident of this kind would render him helpless and compel him to discontinue [Franz, 35].

While Franz's method retained the natural horn for educational purposes, its primary focus was the valved horn. Franz's most significant points on technique relate to transposition.

Franz expressed a more moderate opinion on transposition than Kling [see Henri Kling and the Valved Horn in the Late Nineteenth Century], but by no means did he abandon the use of crooks. The section on transposition contains examples showing when to transpose and when to use crooks, and Franz strongly agreed with Kling that the high crooks should be retained whenever composers suggested them. His examples and comments are very similar to Kling's. However, Franz also showed how some transpositions could be made easier by using crooks other than F: A, B-natural and F-sharp transposed on the E crook and A-flat transposed on the E-flat crook. Franz wrote the following in the preface to the section on transposition.

It cannot be denied that the tone in certain passages will sound better when executed in the original pitch, than when transposed; but on the other hand, it is decidedly wrong to insist, as so many do, that, when a composer has written a passage, say for the E Horn, the same will not sound as well when transposed upon the F Horn; certain passages of course will sound better when played upon the originally-pitched instruments, as the tone of the E flat and C Horn sounds fuller than F. However, as long as a passage is executed perfectly, little notice will be taken whether or not it has been transposed [Franz, 54].

Franz favored using crooks, but recognized, however, that the exclusive use of the F crook did not preclude a successful performance. Franz also made the following comments in the section of "General Rules" on tuning when transposing.

To insure purity of intonation, the valve-slides of the F-Horn should be drawn out (according to necessity) when transposing upon it for the variously pitched Horns. The intonation upon this instrument being somewhat too high for the lower, and in turn too low for the higher pitched transpositions [Franz, 11].

This general rule makes sense only when one considers that crooks would be used in making transpositions; if only the F crook were used, no adjustments of the valve slides would be necessary.

Given the Strauss Concerto dedication, both Richard Strauss and especially his father, Franz Strauss (1822-1905), must have agreed with Oscar Franz on points of horn technique. Franz Strauss was one of the leading horn virtuosi of the nineteenth century. He performed in the Bavarian Court Orchestra and was professor at the Academy of Music in Munich [Trenner, 62]. Franz Strauss left no method, but his son's advice to composers in the annotations to Berlioz's Instrumentationslehre [Treatise on Instrumentation] (1905) must certainly reflect some of his father's ideas. These comments reflect the experiences of Richard Strauss as a composer and conductor in the late nineteenth century as well and thus give further insight into the techniques used by horn players such as Oscar Franz in the late nineteenth century. [See Berlioz on the Valved Horn for the ideas Strauss is reacting to.]

Strauss, in the following passage, makes observations on both his compositional practices and on the choices of equipment by horn players of the period.

Although horn players now use almost exclusively the horns in E, F, high A and high B-flat (incidentally, it requires practice to change the bright and sharp tone of the horn in B-flat into the soft and noble timbre of the horn in F), it is nevertheless advisable to retain Richard Wagner's method of indicating the key of the horn according to the changes of key in the music. It is true that horn players do not observe these different keys any more; but they are accustomed to transpose any key instantly into the key of the horn they are using, and they much prefer this method to being forced to read all the time in F, for instance, with a great number of accidentals (sharps, double sharps, etc.). Hence, composers should indicate: horn in E-flat, D, D-flat as they see fit. In my opinion, this has the advantage of a clearer appearance of the score. Personally I prefer to read the horns in the different keys and to transpose them (habit may have something to do with this, too). The score is much clearer on first sight, since the staves of the horns and trumpets at once stand out plastically in contrast to the staves of the wood-winds and strings with their transpositions and numerous accidentals.

Except for the above stated difference in softness between the horns in F and high B-flat, all the other differences in timbre between the various valve horns are merely illusory. This is why many horns in different keys are no longer used. Generally, the players of the first and third horns use the horn in high B-flat for almost all pieces in flat keys and the horn in high A for all pieces in sharp keys. The players of the second and fourth horns use horns in E and F [Berlioz/Strauss, 279-80].

It is notable that Strauss reported the E and F crooks (along with A and B-flat) were widely used, as he called for these crooks most frequently in his own music. His tone poem Don Juan, Op. 20 (1889), is typical of his early writing. In this work Strauss called for both the E and F crooks and, importantly, allowed time to make these changes of crooks if desired. By using the E crook, one could avoid many accidentals and cross fingerings. Horns in this period were manufactured with A and E valves; while useful as stopping valves, these were also used to simplify the fingerings in passages in E by some players, as some continue to do today. This type of horn could be very useful in performing slightly later works of Strauss, such as Ein Heldenleben and Till Eulenspiegel, where little time is allowed to make the requested changes of crook between F and E. In Don Juan it could actually be coincidental that enough time is allowed to make the changes of crooks requested, as the rests and crook changes could occur for unrelated compositional reasons, but even without those rests the crook changes could be easily made with an A or E valve.

While military bandsmen had used the high B-flat crook for some years, it was in this period that many orchestral high-horn performers began to use it also [Baines, 224]. Franz Strauss is reported to have used this crook in family performances of his son's Concerto [Del Mar, vol. 1, 20]. Horn sections using a mixture of F and B-flat crooks would have had a certain lack of a homogenous sound that must have been striking. This division of equipment between high and low horn players can be considered a remnant of the distinct division between the cor alto and cor basse of the classical period.

Teachers such as Oscar Franz left students whose teaching and performing careers would last well into the twentieth century. Some of his technical ideas have fallen by the wayside: beginners no longer start on the natural horn, right-hand technique is limited to harsh sounding stopped notes, and crooks are only rarely used on valve horns. These techniques, while no longer generally employed by hornists today, are by no means lost. They can be relearned and applied to appropriate nineteenth-century literature. Some horn players have already begun this study in an attempt to re-create the authentic sounds of that century.


Baines, Brass Instruments: Their History and Development (London: Faber and Faber, 1976).

Hector Berlioz, Treatise on Instrumentation (New York: Kalmus, 1948), enlarged and revised by Richard Strauss, translated by Theodore Front.

Peter Damm, Correspondence, The Horn Call Annual 9 (1997), 5.

Norman Del Mar, Richard Strauss (London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1962).

Oscar Franz, Grosse theoretische-practische Waldhorn-Schule, revised and enlarged German and English ed. (New York: Carl Fischer, 1906), translated by Gustav Saenger.

Bruce Chr. Johnson, "Richard Strauss's Horn Concerti: Signposts of a Career," The Horn Call 12, no. 1 (Oct. 1981), 58-67.

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

Hans Pizka, Hornisten-Lexicon (Kirchheim: Hans Pizka Edition, 1986).

Franz Trenner, "Franz Strauss," The Horn Call 2, no. 2 (May 1972), translated and slightly condensed by Bernhard Bruechle, 60-65.

Copyright John Ericson. All rights reserved.


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