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French Horn Guide Part 3

Advanced and Professional Horns:

I refer to high level horns as either advanced or professional horns. “Advanced” and “professional” are vague terms with no real solid definition so my classification may differ from a manufacturer’s. The difference lies in the time taken and techniques employed to build the horn. A professional horn will have more hand built parts and offer finer details than an advanced horn. An advanced horn will offer much the same as a professional horn but done to a lower price point with more components mass produced and assembly done by less trained employees. An advanced horn will look exactly like a professional horn and can actually perform equally or better than a professional horn. 

Cost: A high level double horn is a big investment. There are scores of makers from massive corporations to individuals who produce ten or less horns per year. Expect to pay over $5000 for a Chinese built advanced horn and up to $8000AU for one built in Japan, Europe or the US. Because of the cost of labour to produce this very labour intensive product, you will find a relatively small field of horns in this price range. The more expensive professional instrument's price quickly escalates to over $10,000 and can reach prices two or even three times that. 

Revisit: string vs. ball and socket valve action. Many people think that the more expensive ball and socket action is superior to that of string. This is definitely not the case. In fact two of the finest horn makers I know, Stephen Shires and Engelbert Schmid, both prefer string action. First of all, modern string material is vastly superior to that used in the past so durability is rarely a significant issue. String action is more efficient than mechanical action (see why here) and provides the player with not only an overall shorter valve stroke but one that is even in pressure. The simplicity of string action has fewer moving parts so is less likely to cause extraneous noise. Lastly, the easy adjustability that string action offers means a player can set up a horn quickly and easily to their optimal preference.

The change valve - 4th valve - on all full double horns have only six tubes entering the valve. Compare that to valve 1, 2 and 3 which always have eight. Some makers use a smaller diameter valve for the change valve. This smaller diameter valve needs to accomplish a 120° rotation to operate whereas a standard rotor makes a 90° rotation. The 120° rotation can be difficult to operate with a mechanical linkage so don’t be surprised if you see a mechanical action horn that still has string action on the 4th valve. In contrast, Alexander’s large single level valve on the Model 103 needs only to turn 60° and thus functions extremely well with a mechanical linkage.

Re-Wrap: When you look at professional and advanced full double horns (as well as intermediate full double horns) you’ll often hear the broad terms “Kruspe” or “Geyer” wrap. These are the names of two historical makers that set a precedent for the tube wraps and valve set-ups that many modern horns utilize. Kruspe is often used to describe a horn with the change valve near the first valve and Geyer used to describe horns with the change valve near the 3rd valve. These terms are used far too broadly and are often assigned incorrectly. There are in fact many, many more - Schmidt, Knopf, Merewether to name but a few. 

A “Geyer” style layout does always have the thumb operated change valve placed near the 3rd valve. A Geyer style wrap directs the airstream through the valves in the direction of 1-2-3 when in F and reverses that in Bb to go through the valves 3-2-1. A true Geyer wrap is very open, with broad bends to the tubing, hence often being called “open” wrap. A true Geyer wrap horn has a very large body loop and will fit in only the largest cases. Geyer style wraps are very common but many makers have modified the wrap to create a horn that is more compact, the Knopf wrap being a great example. Many Geyer wrap horns and ones of similar layout offer more adjustment options for the placement of the thumb trigger and can be found to be more comfortable than horns of Kruspe and similar wraps. Most Geyer style horns have two main tuning slides, one at the end of the leadpipe and one along the F circuit. Tuning slides on the Bb circuit are uncommon but not entirely unheard of.

The “Kruspe” style, sometimes referred to as “closed” wrap, has the change valve near the 1st valve. The Kruspe valve layout creates an instrument with more tight bends. To compensate for the tighter bends these horns tend to have larger bell throats (or broader taper before the bell) and are often built of nickel rather than brass. A true Kruspe wrap horn will have the airstream enter the valves 1-2-3 in both Bb and F, a feature preferred by some players. It should be noted that many Kruspe style horns only offer the change valve to stand in F and it can be impossible (or very difficult) to swap it to Bb if that is what the player prefers. Almost all Kruspe models offer 3 main tuning slides and some even have 4: a main one off the leadpipe, a backside one for the F horn, sometimes an additional F slide on the front (primarily for aiding in draining water) and/or a small one for the Bb horn. 

Current trends over the last few decades have been decidedly leaning towards the Geyer style. The Kruspe is still favoured by many players but a quick search on the internet will find the emphasis on development has been moving away from the Kruspe. It should also be noted that the most popular horn in German orchestras, and subsequently popular here in Australia, is the Alexander 103 which is neither a Geyer or a Kruspe wrap.

Other Wraps: These are a few of the more common horn wraps that are often incorrectly labeled as Geyer or Kruspe wraps:

  • A Paxman horn with the Merewether system might be confused with a Geyer style because the change valve is near the third valve. The Merewether system was specifically designed to have the airstream enter the valves in the same direction in both Bb and F, in this case 3-2-1.
  • An Alexander 103 (and similar horns) might be confused with a Kruspe wrap because the change valve is near the 1st valve. Alexander (and a few other makers) use a very large single level rotor while other makers use a more standard two level rotor that effectively does the same thing. And while, yes the valve is placed near the 1st valve, the airstream enters the valves the same way as a Geyer (Bb: 3-2-1/F: 1-2-3). This layout also offers an independent tuning slide on the Bb circuit. These horns can be recognised by the fact that the tapered tube leaving the 4th valve dissects the centre of the horn rather than routing immediately outward toward the outer circle of the horn body..
  • The Schmidt wrap was developed so that, like the Kruspe and Merewether, the airstream enters the valves in the same direction on both the F and Bb horn, in this case 1-2-3. The original Schmidt horns were built with a piston change valve that sat under the hand and was operated by the thumb creating a more open layout than the comparable Kruspe. The thumb operated piston has proven challenging and few makers continue to produce horns like this.

The Controversial First: The first maker of the full double horn is still argued to this day! The first patented and produced double horn exists to this day. Patented in 1897 by the Ed. Kruspe firm, this horn utilises a dual rotor system that is uncommon today though this system is quite similar to what Engelbert Schmid uses on his triple horns. This patent and horn however, have been erroneously documented for the last one hundred plus years, most recently in 2012. Alexander claims on their website to have produced the first modern full double horn and valve patent in 1909. Wherever you land on this debate, the Alexander model 103, still being made to this day, can be credited as the first full double horn to use a single rotor to change from Bb to F and therefore played a significant role in the development of the modern horn.

Beyond… Horns are really cool! The above is really just the tip of the iceberg. Horns come in a vast array of keys, combinations and styles as well as employing different types of valves. Here are some things that you might see in pictures or on the stage:

  • The Hand Horn or natural horn: Before there were valves there was this. Crooks can be added to a basic horn body to enable the player to hit the right notes. The player can use their hand position in the bell to raise or lower the pitch. This is why the horn is played with the hand in the bell to this day. 
  • Extra Valves:  Many makers offer horns with an extra valve. These valves are most often “stopping” valves. Designed to correct the pitch when a horn player plays stopped - with the hand tightly pressed in the bell or with a stopping mute - and the horn pitch goes extremely sharp. Sometimes extra valves can be seen on single horns to allow the player access to notes in the low register that could otherwise not be reached. Extra valves are also needed to make a triple horn (see below).
  • The Vienna Horn: As used in Vienna, this horn has “Wiener pumpen” style valves to change pitches. These single horns are played similarly to the French horn with the player’s left hand on the valves and right hand in the bell. These horns have their own distinct sound colour and characteristics that are quite effective, especially when played together in a section. If you’ve ever heard a Viennese orchestra, you’ve heard a Vienna horn. 
  • Walzen style: These are compensating system horns that use a single, long rotor (Walzen means roller or barrel in German) to open the length of new tubing needed to put a horn in a lower key. A great description and history is available here. A German maker named Cornford currently makes a triple horn (see below) with two Walzen valves. It is quite distinct on the front side compared to other horns and the back side is truly remarkable.
  • The High Horn: These horns are typically pitched in F - one octave above the F french horn. These single horns are used for repertoire in the upper end of the register. 
  • Other Double Horns: Double horns don’t need to be just Bb and F. You can get a double horn that combines the high F (or E-flat) horn with a Bb horn - often called the “descant” horn - enabling a cross over from the extreme high to include the high and middle registers.
  • The Triple Horn: Combining the high horn, the Bb horn and F horn all into one instrument. This is the ultimate do it all instrument that requires the player to have a dexterous thumb to operate the two levers for the two change valves. The triple horn presents a challenge for the maker to create a horn that is light and for the player to deal with a horn that is heavy. Different layouts abound for triple horns, some involving special piston valves and some using up to seven rotors. The compensating system is often used on a triple horn to reduce weight. These can be really fascinating to look at and try to figure out the air route!

Further reading: There are tons of resources about horns, horn playing, horn players and music at your fingertips with a google search. A couple great places places to start are: