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What Was the Omnitonic Horn?

A mere footnote in the development of horn design.

John Ericson

This article is based in part on materials published in The Horn Call 28, no. 3 (May, 1998), with additional materials from my dissertation.

While it is essentially only a long footnote to the entire discussion of the horn in the nineteenth century it is nevertheless appropriate to examine the omnitonic horn. It has been suggested that valved and omnitonic horns were invented for the same reasons [Morley-Pegge, 55]. Their simultaneous invention, however, was the result of the same basic technology being used to solve different problems. The first omnitonic horn was constructed ca. 1815 by J.-B. Dupont of Paris [ibid, 57]. The invention allowed the horn to be tuned into every key without the use of separate crooks by means of a long graduated valve, and saw several improvements in design during the early nineteenth century. See figure 1.

Omnitonic horn

Figure 1. Omnitonic horn, as illustrated in Dupont's patent application of 1818.

While the mechanism of the omnitonic horn outwardly had the same function as the valve, that of changing the length of the horn, the ultimate purpose of the mechanism was different. The omnitonic horn is not a fully chromatic instrument, and could not be performed upon as such. The key changing mechanism was not designed to be operated instantaneously while playing and the instrument could not perform music more complicated than that of the natural horn, as it relied on the usage of the right hand in the bell to perform chromatic passages. The valved horn, on the other hand, is fully chromatic and can be used to perform any pitch as an open tone without resorting to hand-horn technique.

The most successful omnitonic horn was introduced in 1824 by Charles Sax (1791-1865) of Brussels [ibid]. This design was reviewed in an article by French musicologist, critic, and composer F. J. Fétis (1784-1871) in Revue Musicale. Fétis gave Sax's omnitonic horn a very favorable review, but with the following qualifications.

Unfortunately the best things carry with them their inconveniences. Thus the Cor omnitonique can not be equipped with all the tubes necessary for playing in all keys, without becoming a little heavy in the hands of the artist. This defect, inseparable from the advantages of the instrument, is also augmented by the difficulty of joining to the Cor omnitonique the mechanism of pistons, for the equipment in itself is quite heavy [trans. in Coar, 111].

That combining valves with the omnitonic horn would even be considered is a strong indication that the mechanism was seen as having a different essential function than the valve, that of changing keys, and that the valved horn had chromatic advantages the omnitonic horn did not possess. The omnitonic horn saw only limited acceptance, primarily in France, and even there had few supporters after mid-century [Coar, 112].

The basic idea of applying an automatic key changing mechanism to the horn however would not die, and achieved its perhaps most useful form in the Tonwechselmaschine [transposing valve] patented by Czech instrument maker Václav Frantisek Cerveny (1819-1896) in 1846 [Joppig, 217-218]. See figure 2.


Figure 2. Tonwechselmaschine, as illustrated in patent application.

This special, large rotary valve allowed the instrument to be placed in several keys without the use of crooks. Cerveny's advertising literature shows a Cornon (the prototype of the Wagner tuba) in F with a transposing valve for E, E-flat, and D, and the device is known to have been applied to valved horns as well. [NOTE: An example of a horn equipped with a transposing valve for use in the keys of F, E, and E-flat marked F. Pelz, Kolin (Bohemia), is in the collection of Eli Epstein. The instrument would appear to have been rebuilt from an older instrument (possibly a natural horn) in the 1880's.] The system was even copied by French maker P. L. Gautrot (fl. 1835-84) in perhaps the last attempt (1870's) to improve on the natural omnitonic horn (the device is illustrated in Morley-Pegge, 2nd ed., plate V, 5) [Buchner, vol. 1, 325 and Morley-Pegge, 60]


Alexander Buchner, "Václav Frantisek Cerveny," New Grove Instruments, vol. 1, 325.

F. J. Fétis, "Nouveau cor omnitonique," Revue Musicale, 13 (1833), 172-174, translated in Coar, Virtuosi, 111-112.

Gunther Joppig, "Václav Frantisek Cerveny: Leading European Inventor and Manufacturer," Historic Brass Society Journal 4 (1992), trans. by Veronica von der Lancken, 210-228.

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

Copyright John Ericson. All rights reserved.


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