The Horn as a symbol

Whilst I realise I may have a stronger affinity for it than most, the sound of a horn has nevertheless echoed throughout our societies all over the world for millenia; ranging from the old post-horn to the train horn, hunting horn and those used in frustration on our motorways. 

The Conch is an interesting example to use as an ancestor of our modern day brass instruments if only for the fact that it was heard, at some point, almost everywhere in the world. Anthony Baines writes (in his book, Brass Instruments: Their History and Development (Courier Corporation), page 44) that the conch has been sounded “for everything from calling labourers from the fields in North Wales, to serving an Andalusian ducal huntsman in the boar hunt and announcing the daily opening of the public baths in Persia”.

The use of the horn as a unifier was also prevalent in West Asia and Africa via their use of the horns of the Ibex, a wild mountain goat that was domesticated around 6,000 BC. With the domestication of herds on open pasture, the herdsmen needed a way to control their livestock against predators both human and animal. Polybius tells us of the extraordinary skill of Italian swineherds during the Roman Period who, with a vast herd of pigs, were able to use particular horn calls to separate the animals by age-group or breed. 

For today’s recommended listening, I have chosen Hildegard Westerkamp’s Fantasie for horns II. This piece uses electronic sounds (both real, collected sounds from natural environments and artificially created sounds) to create a dialogue between the modern horn and different horns we find in our natural environments. This particular recording was made live as part of the Sound Festival Aberdeen in October 2020. 

Given that the essence of the composition lies in the interplay between electronics and acoustics, it is rather essential that the recording, where possible, be listened through good quality headphones/speakers. So much of the music is lost when played through conventional speakers on mobiles/tablets.

In the above piece by Hildegard Westerkamp, the composer uses the sound of Canadian train horns, foghorns from both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of Canada, factory and boat horns from Vancouver and surroundings—horns that Canadians heard in daily life at the time this composition was created in 1979. Additional sound sources are an alphorn and a creek. The interplay of sounds from nature with the modern instrument provide us with an interesting view into the development of the instrument. 

As the various animal horns; the conch, the Oliphant and the Shofar for example, presented their capabilities in society via their ceremonial uses and signalling functions, it was to be only natural that the successor, the development to these horns was one with a more functional purpose. The first examples that we have of horns being made from metal are the trompe; a hunting horn made in a crescent shape and with a single coil in the tubing as well as the cor à plusieurs tours, a much longer instrument and coiled in a spiral form. 

The technique of bending brass tubes, known to the Romans and then subsequently forgotten during the middle ages, was rediscovered during the fourteenth century. The adoption of the horn into the orchestra, its emancipation from function to art, was a gradual one and would not have been possible had the horn not developed from, quite literally, animal horns, (be it the conch, Ibex horn or Ivory) to a more developed, easier to hold instrument. 

The earliest example of the horn used in an “artistic” fashion was in the opera, Erminio sul Giordano, written in 1633 by Michalengeli Rossi. In this context, however, the horns were separate to the rest of the ensemble and played fanfare like figures by themselves. Later however, there is evidence that the loud and vulgar sounds produced by huntsmen and the horns used in war were adopted by 18th Century composers. For example, Leopold Mozart writes of his Sinfonia di Caccia, “At First, the G horns must be played very harshly, as is customary in hunting, and as loudly as possible” .

Many thanks to Ben Goldscheider for giving us permission to share this blog on our website. Visit Ben's website to read more of his blogs.

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