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What Are the Different Types of French Horn Music?

By Peter Hann
Updated May 23, 2024
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The clear sound of the French horn has often been associated with hunting and with military music, and this is reflected in its use in orchestral and film music. The use of the French horn in a musical ensemble or orchestra began in the Baroque Period and various examples of French horn music are found in the works of Georg Philipp Telemann. The French horn also was used by George Frideric Handel, and the sound of the horn is clearly heard in the first Brandenburg Concerto of Johann Sebastian Bach. French horn music featured later in the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and other classical composers in symphonies, horn concertos and wind or brass quintets. In the 20th century, orchestral composers such as Gustav Mahler used the horn to create heroic or triumphant effects while the sound of the instrument was increasingly apparent in film themes and background music.

In the Baroque Period, many works were written that prominently featured the horn, including Handel's Water Music and Royal Fireworks Music. In the Classical Period, French horn music took various forms, including the horn concerti and other pieces by Mozart that featured a solo horn. French horn music in the Classical Period featured the French horn in combination with different instruments. Robert Schumann wrote the Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra and Johannes Brahms created a Horn Trio for the violin, horn and piano. The Romantic music of Richard Strauss made use of the heroic tone of the horn, making particular use of the instrument in Til Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks.

In the 20th century, composers incorporated the French horn into their individual styles. Benjamin Britten, for example, wrote Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and Michael Tippett wrote Sonata for Four Horns. The score for Gustav Holst's The Planets requires six horns. Another development beginning in the middle of the 20th century was the growth of horn choirs and horn ensembles through which musicians of varying abilities may come together to practice and play works written or adapted for such ensembles. The wide range of the French horn enables the music composed or arranged for a horn choir to heighten interest by making use of the available possibilities for contrasting tones and counterpoint.

The French horn in the 21st century tends to be known simply as the horn, though the name "French horn" has stuck in the United States. Orchestras generally include two horns, though some musical scores require four or more. The triumphant sound of the horn has made it a popular instrument for film themes. The instrument is used with majestic effect in the themes for the films Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Superman and Jurassic Park, all composed by John Williams.

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