Distinctive features of the Viennese horn
In the world of music the Viennese horn is known for its particularly colorful tone. In modern orchestral practice, however, it is a rarity – only very few European orchestras still use it (e.g. the Vienna Philharmonic). It is regarded as a very difficult instrument to play, because it is less easy to hit notes accurately than it is on other horns and demands a high level of proficiency from the musician.
Between 1985 and 1987 the director of the Institut für Wiener Klangstil, Prof. Gregor Widholm, carried out a comparative study between the Viennese horn, the double horn in F/Bb and the triple horn in F/Bb/high f, achieving new insights into the acoustic, playing and tonal characteristics of the Viennese horn (http://iwk.mdw.ac.at):
The findings of the Institut für Wiener Klangstil show that the Viennese horn’s sound contains a greater number of harmonics and therefore has a brighter sound when compared directly to the double horn, the most commonly used horn. On the Viennese horn the musician can articulate tied notes more softly and alter the instrument’s timbre more easily, which gives him a greater range of musical expression. Played fortissimo, Vienna horns are less conspicuous in the overall orchestra sound than double horns.
Comparison between horns (from left to right): Viennese horn, double (French) horn in F/Bb, triple horn in F/Bb/high f
Why is the Viennese horn harder to play?
In the initial phase of sound generation the Viennese horn requires more energy than the double horn; in fact, the air column to be vibrated is twice as long as that of the horn in high f (triple horn in F/Bb/high f). Passages with a large number of staccato notes are therefore very demanding.
In the upper register greater care must be taken than on other horns to apply the correct lip tension in order to avoid the dreaded “squeak”, which must nevertheless be counted as one of the Viennese horn’s lovable “peculiarities”.
The distinctive sound and playing characteristics of the Viennese horn are a result of its construction:
Compared to the double horn, the Viennese horn has a narrower bore: the cylindrical part of the bore has a diameter of about 10.8 mm compared to 11.5–13 mm on the double horn. Its bell and bell joint are also narrower. The result, as pointed out above, is a larger number of harmonics. The Viennese horn’s high harmonics rise more quickly than those of the double horn, even in fast crescendo passages, which means that the musician has a wider range of tone colors at his disposal.
Detachable F crook
The crook is a piece of coiled tubing, which is detachable on the Viennese horn but fixed on the double horn. By changing the crook, which accounts for nearly a third of the total tube length, the instrument’s character – i.e., its response, tone and intonation – can be altered.
The Vienna valve is a twin-piston valve. The position of the valves on the piston valve unit aids mellow formations of legato notes, which flow and change very smoothly. In fact, in fast legato passages the notes sound slightly blurred. On rotary valve instruments a short interval of noise separates the individual notes from each other, so that even in fast legato passages the impression of distinct notes is given.