Haydn and the Horn

Cite this article as:

Juan Marcos Campos. (March 13, 2022). Haydn and the Horn. International Journal of Music. Accessed July 25, 2024. https://ijm.education/winds/brass/horn/haydn-and-the-horn/

The life story of Joseph Haydn may not garner widespread interest, but the narrative of his musical conquest in Europe presents a situation unparalleled in its time. Aspects of his life, such as the decline of his reputation almost to oblivion and his ascent to the pantheon of great masters, two hundred and fifty years after his death, evoke curiosity and passion to this day.

Joseph Haydn’s relationship with the horn stands out as one of the richest in the history of music. Through two concertos, chamber music works, and some of the most challenging orchestral passages in the repertoire, he made a significant contribution to the instrument.

Spanning nearly all the musical transformations of the classical period due to his long life, Haydn witnessed or played a direct role in the events shaping the language, taste, and social organization of music. (Pestelli, G., 1977).

In the second half of the 18th century, the horn underwent significant evolution and development at all levels. Composers began exploiting the horn in orchestral, operatic, chamber, and solo settings during this period, as noted by R. Morley-Pegge (1969). The repertoire for the horn flourished, and the number of performers increased.

Mid-century saw the specialization between alto and bass horns emerge. Heinrich Domnich (1808) later explained that those adopting a narrow embouchure found it easier to produce high notes but struggled with low ones. This led to the division between first and second horns.

F.J. Haydn was a pioneer in this movement, with the Esterházy court having at least six horns, specialized in high or low parts. Robbins Landon (1988) pointed out that Haydn’s influence extended to later composers like Mozart, his student and friend, and Beethoven, who became his favorite pupil after Mozart’s death in 1792.

While Haydn’s contemporaries generally confined horn writing to the middle register, he continued the old tradition of the clarino technique. Symphonies No. 31 and 72, written for four horns, feature extremely challenging solos, especially for the first horn, requiring extensive use of the high register. Haydn occasionally employed a special technique for the second horn, introducing the so-called “stopped” notes, produced by inserting the right hand into the bell. The advent of valves largely overcame the difficulty of producing these “stopped” notes in the low register (Robbins Landon, 1955).

The prominence of the horn in Haydn’s work becomes evident when considering the unusually large number of works for four horns: Symphonies No. 13, 31, 39, and 72, and chamber compositions for four horns, such as his Divertimento No. 10 in D major, Hob. II:D22. Given that the Esterházy orchestra consisted of only sixteen or seventeen musicians, the horn section in these pieces constituted a quarter of the orchestra. This proportion, according to David Wyn Jones, was not surpassed or even contemplated by later composers like Gustav Mahler or Richard Strauss. Haydn introduced the instrument, using its timbre and virtuosic capabilities to glorify and celebrate his patrons and courtiers (2002).

In this first part of the exploration of Haydn’s relationship with the horn, we will delve into the composer’s early life, spanning from 1732 to 1759.

Haydn: Early Years

Haydn was born in 1732 in the Viennese town of Rohau, near the border with Bohemia (now on the border between Vienna and Hungary). In 1738, at the age of 6, he was taken to Hamburg by Johann Mathias Fanck, a friend of his father, to study music. Fanck served as the director and organist in Hamburg, providing lessons in singing, string, wind, and percussion.

Two years later, in 1740, Karl George Reutter, the choir master of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, heard Haydn sing and sought permission from his parents to bring him to Vienna to join the Vienna Boys’ Choir.

In 1750, young Haydn met Johann Michael Splanger, a young chorister from the St. Michael’s Choir, who welcomed him into his home, providing musical contacts and opportunities for Haydn to play in dances, serenades, and small chamber music recitals. This helped the Bohemian composer connect with the bourgeoisie. His first Mass in F, reflecting his youth and musical immaturity, dates from this period.

Haydn became largely self-taught, studying and composing on his own. He refined his keyboard skills by studying Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s sonatas and completed his theory studies with common treatises of the time: Joseph Fux’s “Gradus ad Parnassum” (1725), Johann Mattheson’s “Der vollkommene Capellmeister” (1729), and David Kellner’s “Treulicher Unterricht im General-Baß” (1737).

In 1752, he met Metastasio, who began to show interest in the young composer. A year later, in 1753, Nicola Porpora arrived in Vienna, a pupil of Metastasio. Haydn started as an accompanist pianist in the artist’s classes. Although he did not receive good treatment from the irascible singer, through him, Haydn established contacts with the Viennese upper class (Robbins Landon, 1972). In 1754, the Countess of Thun, whose family would later have relationships with composers like Gluck, Mozart, or Beethoven, wanted to meet Haydn after studying one of his piano sonatas.

In 1759, Karl Joseph von Fürnberg recommended him to Count Ferdinand Maximilian von Morzin as a director and chamber composer. This not only brought social recognition but also economic stability: Haydn received two hundred florins per year, along with accommodation and meals, composing for his own orchestra of about sixteen musicians.

In the summer of 1759, he moved to Lukavec, Morzin’s summer residence in Bohemia, where he composed and premiered his first symphony, conducting from the harpsichord. This premiere was one of the most significant moments in Haydn’s life; Prince Paul Anton Esterházy attended and was fascinated by his music (K. Geiringer, 1947).

The Horn: Organological Study

The history of the horn until the first half of the 18th century was marked by the European fascination with its predecessor, the hunting horn. These early hunting horns had a variable design, as their length allowed them to coil with one or two turns. They lacked tuning slides, and the mouthpiece was fixed on the leadpipe. The most common keys were F and D, as John Humphries (2000) noted that extreme pitches did not work well with the instrument and its technique.

As Paul Austin (1993) and others affirm, the horn primarily played a role in hunts, and horn players didn’t read music. Composers had little opportunity to discover the instrument’s potential. Fanfares were typically performed, based only on the harmonic series of the instrument. Due to the scarcity of written music, performers had no incentive to develop their technique, as they couldn’t earn a living as professionals.

Authors like John Humphries (2000), Kurt Janetzky (1988), Bernhard Brüchle (1988), or Morley-Pegge (1942) agree that the horn was first introduced to the orchestra in several 17th-century operas: Rossi’s “Erminia sul Giordano” (1633), Cavalli’s “Le nozze di Teti e di Peleo” (1639), and Lully’s “La Princesse d’Élide” (1664). However, there was no significant development until Count Franz Anton von Spork heard the instrument during his visit to the Versailles court in the 1680s.

An evolution from the hunting horn brings us to the Baroque period: in 1700, the Leichnambschneider brothers in Vienna were the first to compress it, giving it a more compact shape with a reduced diameter. This horn was intended for use within the orchestra; its larger bore and wider bell produced a less penetrating and more gallant tone. Several sources claim that the first orchestral score including two horns was Reinhard Keiser’s opera “Octavia” (1705) (Janetzky and Brüchle, 1988).

Fixed mouthpiece horns were then manufactured, with a body and a system of coiled tubes called crooks that attached to the main tubing, allowing the pitch to be changed using the same central body.

Unlike the hunting horn, this instrument lacked a tuning slide and was tuned by small tubing typically added between the body and the crook. The implementation of a tuning slide contributed to greater stability, expanding the instrument’s tonal range, classified into three categories: high keys in B-flat and A, central and penetrating; low keys in B-flat (bass) and C, with a considerable length—the bass B-flat tone is about 5.5 meters—producing a dark and deep sound; and, in the middle of the spectrum, the four most commonly used crooks at the time—Fa, Mi, E-flat, and D (Dauprat, 1824).

A technical aspect of the horn contributing to a shift in writing during this period was the use of hand stopping. It was discovered that by using the hand in different positions, all notes not part of the natural harmonic series could be produced. This technique turned the horn into a chromatic instrument, providing composers the opportunity to use the instrument’s full range. In the Classical period, the horn achieved a unique and prestigious position in the world of music, used in various formations and as a solo instrument due to its versatile sound and timbre.

The most famous schools of the instrument in the Classical period were the French and the Austro-Bohemian (the latter being the reference point for Joseph Haydn).

Examples of Haydn’s Horn Writing in this Period

We can perceive in Haydn’s works his profound understanding of the horn. One characteristic of the instrument was its diversity of sound and colors, considering that each crook represented a different timbre and color, in addition to the different sounds provided by hand technique. Joseph Haydn was well aware of this aspect and exploited it to the fullest, as evident throughout his works.

Another aspect to consider is the specialization, dividing the horn world into cor alto and cor basso, i.e., horns specialized in the high register and horns specialized in the low register, each using the appropriate instrumental equipment for these two different functions.

Symphony No. 19, orchestrated for strings, two oboes, and two horns, is one of the author’s early compositions.

In this period, Haydn writes the first movements of his symphonies in sonata form, and we can also observe his inexperience in the use of wind instruments, which almost without exception are used only to reinforce the tutti or, at most, contribute with non-essential rhythmic patterns within the melodic development of the work (Robbins Landon, 1955).

In the case of horns, we find a purely rhythmic use that has nothing to do with what happens within the orchestral fabric, similar to the usage in symphonies numbers 1, 16, and 17. The use of the D key for this symphony highlights the composer’s knowledge of the timbre and sound of the crook in question, as the rhythmic motifs were typical of hunting fanfares that were normally played with horns in that key.

Also in this early period of Haydn, in the final movements, we encounter two basic forms: sonata and rondo. We can further divide the tempo indications into three: Presto, Allegro molto, and Tempo di minuetto. On this occasion, Haydn writes a movement in sonata form with a Presto indication. These movements have a melodic and simple form structure; most consist of simple melodic units, four-bar phrases where horns are used with harmonic motifs contrasting with a p indication.

Haydn uses horns to tonally embellish the orchestration, as we can see in the small coda of the last movement, where the horns play in unison with the oboes, enriching the brilliance of the reed instruments with the D tone.

Symphony No. 37 is one of the compositions categorized by Robbins Landon (1955) as “early symphonies in C major.” The first symphonies in the key of C major reflect solemnity and grandeur. The use of horns in the high C key, trumpets, and timpani are the vehicles used to create bright and festive music.

Composed for two horns, two oboes, bassoon, trumpets, timpani, and strings, in this work, Haydn continues the Baroque tradition of using high trumpets and horns. Although he still includes trumpets in these early symphonies, reviews from the composer himself found in the Esterházy palace show that the use of the trumpet is mostly due to the absence of horns during the composition period of these works (Robbins Landon, 1955).

These types of symphonies are examples of the Baroque heritage of the clarino technique and the specialization of the high horn player. The demand faced by performers was high, although they lack passages with main melodies or motifs. Haydn knew the high tones of the instrument very well and used color and brilliance very effectively. The tuning, precision, attacks, the high level of knowledge of the use of the air column, and the concept of ensemble within the orchestra required by these compositions remain a challenge today.

In the Divertimento in G major, Hob.II:G1, with orchestration comprising strings, two oboes, and two horns, we find an example of compositions for a small chamber ensemble. There is little information about these works. Reviews can be found in various biographies of Haydn, although they are often vague and confusing. So far, there is no intensive study of these compositions, which, in relation to the horn, are no less important than the symphonies.

Their formal structure, however, belongs to the classical style, although they still follow the Baroque suite format. They are usually divided into five or six movements: 1. Scherzo or Presto, 2. Allegro molto or Presto, 3. Moderato or Minuet & Trio, 4. Adagio, 5. Minuet & Trio, 6. Finale Presto. In this divertimento, we find a classical suite with five movements.

The divertimento we are going to analyze is composed for the G key, which gives the horn a very balanced tone and sound. G is the first key belonging to the high crooks of the natural horn. As Dauprat (1824) explains in his method, it offers clarity and brilliance to the work, being a versatile tone in these aspects, and Haydn takes advantage of the range of possibilities it offers. In the style used, the horn is part of an instrumental ensemble alternating its role as harmonic reinforcement with that of a soloist with the other instruments.

This excerpt is an example of that harmonic usage, where the similarity with the writing used in Symphony No. 37, typical of high tones, can be verified.

It is worth noting that in all the mentioned examples, the composer uses notes that require hand technique (writes F, B, and A, notes not belonging to the natural harmonic series of the instrument). This gives us an indication of how Haydn delved into the world of the horn and the emerging new interpretive technique, the so-called hand technique; moreover, it provides an initial visualization of the relationship between Haydn’s writing for the horn in his early compositions and the evolution of technical and interpretive resources that the horn undergoes in the same period.


In exploring the intricate relationship between Joseph Haydn and the horn, we have traversed the composer’s early years and delved into the organological study of this versatile instrument. Haydn’s life journey, from his humble beginnings in Rohau to the prestigious Esterházy court, marked a transformative period not only for his personal career but also for the evolution of the horn in the musical landscape.

As we navigate through the historical context of the horn, from its origins as a hunting instrument to its integration into orchestras, we witness Haydn’s astute understanding of its potential. The Baroque period saw significant developments in the design and use of the horn, paving the way for its prominence in the Classical era. Haydn’s compositions, particularly his symphonies and chamber works, stand as testaments to his mastery in harnessing the diverse colors and timbres offered by the horn, showcasing its unique capabilities.

The division between cor alto and cor basso, the specialization in high and low registers, and the intricate hand-stopping technique became integral aspects of Haydn’s horn repertoire. His orchestral compositions, such as Symphonies No. 31 and 72, demonstrated his innovative approach, pushing the boundaries of the instrument and influencing later composers like Mozart and Beethoven.

In examining specific examples from Haydn’s early works, like Symphony No. 19 and Symphony No. 37, we discern his evolving understanding of the horn’s capabilities. The use of different keys, the employment of the clarino technique, and the strategic integration of horns into the orchestral fabric underscore Haydn’s meticulous craftsmanship. His compositions not only showcased the technical prowess required of horn players but also contributed to the expansion of the horn’s expressive range.

As we explore the Divertimento in G major, Hob.II:G1, we find a glimpse into the lesser-studied chamber works, further emphasizing Haydn’s versatility in adapting his horn writing to various musical contexts. The balance of tone and sound in the G key reflects Haydn’s deliberate choices, showcasing his keen awareness of the instrument’s tonal possibilities.

In conclusion, Joseph Haydn’s contributions to the evolution of the horn were profound and enduring. His innovative compositions, coupled with his exploration of the horn’s technical and expressive potential, left an indelible mark on the instrument’s history. The enduring legacy of Haydn’s horn repertoire continues to captivate audiences and inspire horn players, highlighting the symbiotic relationship between composer and instrument that transcends time.

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