Re-inventing the Classical Horn

The Early Classical Orchestra Horn by Anton Kerner, Vienna, 1760

This is an important instrument, because it fills the gap between the baroque orchestra horn, now often played “bells up” for pre-1750 literature, and the classical horn, which makers have most often copied from instruments of around 1800 or later. The period that has been neglected includes most of the output of Joseph Haydn, W. A. Mozart, Rosetti, the Mannheim composers, and many other early classical composers.

 Many of us who perform with period instrument groups on the classical horn play instruments that have been copied from examples made in the early 19th century, and more often than not, French instruments. The 19th century classical horn was designed to play effectively in the 19th century orchestra, at a time when the range from the top of the staff up to the 16th partial and beyond were no longer used regularly, and the orchestra was growing in size. There was a French school of “cor-alto” players in the early 19th century, but they seemed to confine their playing in the extreme upper register to soloistic pieces, and had little influence on the orchestral writing of the period, which seemed to stay, for the most part, in the range that is familiar to us in the symphonies and operatic writing of composers such as Beethoven and Schubert.

Earlier in the 18th century it appears that the standard type of horn in use was the fixed pitch horn that played in a single key at a single pitch level. Although Horace Fitzpatrick cites evidence that the Leichnambschneider brothers in Vienna made horns with crooks very early in the 18th century, there is very little evidence in the form of extant instruments, iconography, or written sources from the period that would suggest that crooked horns were in regular use before about 1770. As composers began requiring players to play in a wider variety of keys, it became necessary to be able to change keys easily, especially in opera, and fixed pitch horns were no longer feasible.

In this period after 1750, when the classical style of orchestral writing was beginning to solidify, composers such as Johann Stamitz, Rosetti, F. X. Pokorney, and Hadyn in his early writing, still asked horn players to play often in the clarino range above the staff, sometimes into a range that seems excessive for us as modern players. The early 19th century horn that many players have been playing as their classical instrument, can be difficult in this range, and upon examining the types of instruments actually in use at the time, the mid 18th century horn was quite a different instrument, and was much better suited to this range than the larger later instruments.  

The horns of Anton Kerner, one of the most prominent makers of the period, seem to be ideal for the orchestral, chamber, and solo music of the second half of the 18th century. The earlier symphonies of Haydn, including the “Horn Signal” Symphony, No. 31, will be much more accessible on this instrument, with its narrower bell profile and diameter.

The fact that the horn players in Haydn’s orchestra at the court of Eszterháza played on Kerner instruments is documented in receipts from the period cited in an article by Richard Maunder in the Galpin Society Journal, vol. 51, 1998. These receipts state that Kerner did the following for the court at Eszterháza:

Repairs on a horn in 1768
Supplied two horn mutes in 1771
Delivered a "Waldhorn.... samt alle Bögen" (horn with all crooks) in 1773
Supplied three pairs of horns with crooks in 1780
Repaired horns and crooks in 1782

Those are among the surviving documents, and it is impossible to say how many other instruments he made for Eszterháza, but it is proof that the Kerner orchestra horn is the right instrument for Haydn's music.

There are a number of references in the literature of the period that would indicate that Kerner’s instruments were well known and respected throughout Europe. A passage in the “Essai Sur La Musique Ancienne et Moderne” of Jean-Benjamin Laborde, Paris, 1780,  suggests that the horns of Anton Kerner were played by many of the best players and considered to be one of the best instruments available.

Les cors de Vienne en Autriche, fait par M. Kerner, sont les meilleurs pour les concerts.”

In his “Universal Lexicon  der Tonkunst”, Stuttgart, 1847, Ferd. Simon Gassner wrote that Kerner was

 “a horn and trumpet maker working at Vienna about the middle of the last century whose instruments were sought after and treasured the world over, and commanded high prices.” (Translation from H. Fitzpatrick, "The Horn and Horn Playing in the Austro-Bohemian Tradition")

This type of horn has often been overlooked due to the small number of playable examples. The fact that there are very few examples of Kerner’s work in museum collections is easily explainable. Court orchestras of the second half of the 18th century were small groups, and the court often purchased the instruments and owned them. There were probably relatively few made, and it is likely they were played until they were worn out, so that relatively few have survived to the present day. French instruments of the early 19th century, however, were required in larger numbers due to the requirements of the Paris Conservatory, founded in the 1790s, public concert series, theater orchestras, and military bands, so that a large number of horns from this period are available to us today for performance, study, and copying.

The Original Kerner Horn

The original of the instrument that I’ve copied is in the collection of the Mährischen Nationalmuseum at Schloß Jevisovice in Brno in the Czech Republic.

A short description of the original:

  • Anton Kerner senior (1726-1806), Vienna, dated 1760 on bell garland
  • Wound very small, in 2 ½ turns, no tuning slide
  • Narrow bell profile, bell diameter approx. 25 cm
  • Inlet socket for crook missing, and therefore the horn was not playable until restored.


Natural horn player Stephan Katte, in Weimar, Germany first took notice of this instrument in 2007 and offered to have it restored to playability for the museum. The restoration and full measurement and documentation was done by Markus Raquet of the Germanisches National Museum in Nürnberg, Germany. Both Markus and Stephan very graciously shared with me the photos, measurements, and other information gathered from the horn, and Stephan gave me his impressions of its playing qualities. He also made his own copy of the instrument using historical handworking methods.

The easy upper range helps to explain the early solo, chamber, and symphonic writing of Haydn, Johann Stamitz symphonies, Rosetti solo and double concertos, and other high horn playing in the early classical style when the clarino range was still very much part of the high horn player’s technique. The horn is also remarkable for its clear, centered stopped notes throughout the range, which indicates that the development of this type of bell design was necessary for the further refinement of the chromatic handstopping technique begun by Josef Hampl and the previous generation of players.

This is likely the kind of horn used by German players in the important centers of horn playing, and apparently by German horn players working in Paris. This would presumably have been the type of instrument used in the 1760s and 70s by the early traveling soloists such as Punto, Türrschmidt, and Palsa, using a well developed system of chromatic handstopping.

Many players of the period shortly after 1750 were still playing fixed pitch horns, as seen in countless engravings and paintings. A portrait of Jean Joseph Rudolph, painted in 1769, shows the horn player with a fixed pitch horn with a rather small bell of roughly the size of the Kerner horn. But it was also during this period that the crooked horn started to appear, and the present horn seems to be an early example of this design. It is possible that the term “Inventionshorn” initially referred to any horn that had crooks, and not specifically to the instrument with fixed mouthpipe, tuning slide, and central body crooks developed by Werner in Dresden, working with Josef Hampl. 

Of the handful of Kerner horns of this period in collections, most are fixed pitch horns, but this single example, and one other mentioned by Horace Fitzpatrick, are the only ones with crooks known at this time. Markus Raquet notes in his restoration report on the instrument that there is evidence on the horn to suggest that it started its life as a fixed pitch horn when made in 1760, and was later converted to a crooked horn.   



Anton Kerner, the elder (1726-1806) Keyserlisch-Königlicher Hoff Waldhorn-und Trompetenmacher

1751 - Took the oath of citizenship, and probably attained the rank of Instrumentenbaumeister on January 27th, 1751, at the age of 26.

1785 – bought the “Hornmacherhaus” at No. 796 Dominikanerplatz in Vienna

1803 – Became head of the Horn-and trumpet makers’ guild

His two sons, Anton II and Ignaz were also instrument makers.

(biographical information from H. Fitzpatrick)