For several centuries the horn served as a signaling instrument in many areas of daily life: shepherds blew it to gather their flocks, inhabitants of Alpine regions used it to send messages from one peak to another, messengers blew to announce their arrival, hunters communicated with each other using horn signals, and last but not least the horn was, of course, indispensable in battle. It is hardly surprising that this multiplicity of functions gave the instrument huge significance as a symbol of communication: the horn is still used in many European countries as a symbol of the mail service, and as a symbol of hunting and the forest (the literal meaning of Waldhorn is “forest horn”).
In addition to this the horn has always been a symbol of status or the independence of a community (e.g. as a symbol of knighthood). This is shown by elaborately decorated horns made of precious materials such as ivory or silver that had originally been brought to Europe from Byzantium. In Renaissance times the horn became a status symbol among the aristocracy, and especially a symbol of the splendor of the aristocracy’s hunting expeditions.
Thanks to the instrument’s natural sound characteristics the forest imagery developed further until the horn came to symbolize the expanses of nature, wide open spaces, (unsatisfied) yearning and solitude. With the more widespread use of the valve horn from the end of the 19th century the soft, dignified and majestic sound of the horn began to epitomize romantic and sentimental feelings.
Not least since Gustav Holst’s The Planets does the sound of the horn also conjure up visions of space, the infinite universe, mankind’s yearning to explore its vastness and push forward into new dimensions. Today, this symbolism is used very often in film music.
In the 20th century the horn was used to express a wide variety of sometimes contradictory emotions, from the pain of parting to the joy of arrival, from the yearning for peace and security to feelings of triumph.