Nodal Venting on the Baroque Horn

A Study in Non-Historical Performance Practice

Richard Seraphinoff
as published in The Horn Call/No. 27.1/November 1996

One of the most exciting aspects of the performance of early music on period instruments is the great wealth of unanswered and probably unanswerable questions that arise every time one picks up the natural horn to perform or study a piece of music. Differences of opinion among performers are inevitable, because each person finds solutions based upon individual interpretations of the sparse existing written and physical evidence, and upon personal philosophical views of the balance between the scholarly study of historical performance practices and the artistic making of music. Many of these controversies benefit us by keeping curiosity alive and keeping us moving forward in our quest for the Truth (whatever that is). Indeed, if we had all of the answers, some of the thrill of the historical chase would certainly be gone. Because we are, above all, performers, the main point is to make fine music. In the case of historical performance, we have decided to do it using the equipment and (as much as we can ascertain about) the styles with which the composers were familiar.

One of the current controversial subjects in natural horn performance concerns the use of vent holes, or "nodal venting," on the Baroque horn. The discussion of this subject will be approached in two different ways. First of all, myths, misinformation, and rumors of any historical precedent for this technique having been applied to the horn in the Baroque period will be explained and dispelled at the outset, so that the technique can be put into perspective in terms of its place in historical performance on the horn. Secondly, nodal venting will be discussed from the standpoint of the twentieth-century natural horn player, and whether any truly legitimate argument can be made for using vent holes in the context of historical performance.

To begin with, a little background on the Baroque horn and what we know (and what we don't know) about how it was played would be in order. Physical characteristics of the instrument varied greatly throughout Europe and evolved over time, but the horn in use during the first half of the eighteenth century can generally be described as being smaller in bell and bore size than the later Classical period horn, and it did not have a tuning slide. It was simply a round, coiled horn, either of fixed pitch (in a single key) or built to accept terminal crooks for the purpose of changing keys. We know very little about what was considered to be a "normal" mouthpiece, since the small number of suspected original Baroque horn mouthpieces that have survived cannot be accurately dated or identified, and they are remarkable not for any general tendencies that they exhibit in their design, but rather for their vast range of shapes and sizes. Ultimately, this should not be surprising, and we might assume that, due to the lack of quick communication and easy travel in the eighteenth century, there would be far greater variations, not only in horn design, but also in stylistic and technical aspects of playing, than we are accustomed to today.

That there was not a single universally accepted way to play the Baroque horn is illustrated very well in the book New Instructions for the French Horn, published in London around 1770, which is one of the most concise and detailed writings on the subject up to that time. The anonymous author tells us that the horn is to be played "with the right hand nearly in the middle of the hoop, the bell hanging over the same arm ... sometimes with the bell perpendicular, which last method is generally used in concerts." He goes on to say that "should you want to make the chromatic tones, you may hold the horn with your left or right hand as near as you can to the mouthpiece, the bell to bear against your side, one hand must be within the edge of the bell ready to put into the 'pavillion' or bell of the horn as notes may require. ... Mr. Ponto [Punto] and many others, famous on this instrument, constantly uses this method, by which means the half tones are expressed, which is not to be done by any other method, but it is deemed by Judges of the Horn that the principle beauty, the Tone, is greatly impaired thereby." The use of the hand is not discussed here as a new, revolutionary in provement to horn playing. The improvement of intonation is not given as a benefit of using the hand in the bell, nor is it apparent that the author felt that the intonation of the horn necessarily needed to be improved.

Does this mean that all players in England were still playing the horn without the hand in the bell at that late date? Or is this just the opinion of one person who wanted to perpetuate an old-fashioned style? If the anonymous author was a respected horn player, we might take this as good evidence that hand-stopping was used in Germany, where Punto was trained, long before it was accepted in England. The question of when the technique began on the continent, however, still remains. The fact is that we have only vague information of this sort, from which we cannot say with any great degree of accuracy who used their hand in the bell of the horn and when they first did it.

Another intriguing bit of evidence in support of early hand-stopping comes from a French publication on the clari net and cor de chasse as used in military bands, entitled Essai d'instrnction a 1'nsa,qe de cenx qui composent pour la clarinette et le cor by Valentin Roeser (c. 1735-82), published in Paris in 1764. Roeser, who was trained in Germany and moved to Paris around 1760, explains how to correct the out-of-tune overtones by using the hand in the bell of the instrument. He also says that one can produce other notes, and indicates Bq, F#, and A6 in the staff. This information is also not treated as a new discovery, but in a matter-of-fact way, as if it were a standard part of a horn player's technique. Even if the technique had come into use twenty years earlier, in the 1740s, it would still have been considered a "new invention." In our own fast-moving twentieth century, it still took a few decades for the descant horn to become a familiar and accepted tool of horn playing, known to an entire generation of horn players.

The horn was used in a serious musical way much earlier in Germany than in France, as evidenced by the horn writing of Bach, Telemann, Zelenka, et al. It seems reason able to assume that if French military band players knew about and used the techniques of hand-stopping to correct out of tune overtones around the middle of the century or before, they were probably known and used much earlier in Germany.

Additional questions arise when playing Bach's horn parts. There are so many non-harmonic series notes in Bach that one might think that the players must have had some method of altering the pitch of the open overtones other than bending the notes with the embouchure. One theory, put forth by Lowell Greer, speculates that parts marked with the notation "corno di tirarsi," which are some of the most chromatic of Bach's horn parts, may not have been intended for some sort of "slide" horn, but may in fact have been played on the normal Baroque horn using the hand to "slide" or pull the pitch down from an harmonic series note to its chromatic neighbor. This is an interesting and plausible theory, but one for which there is no evidence at present.

After all of this, we are still left without an answer to the question of whether the Baroque horn should be played with the hand in the bell to correct the eleventh and thirteenth partials and produce the occasional non-overtoneseries note, or whether it should be played with the hand out of the bell, allowing the intonation of the overtones to fall where it will, and having the embouchure as our only recourse for pitch variation.

It is at this point, knowing the nature of the Baroque horn and the controversy of hand use vs. open horn, that the question of the application of vent holes to the horn arises. The concept of nodal venting can be described briefly as follows. If a natural horn or trumpet is pitched in, for example, the key of C [see Figure 1], it will produce an overtone series based on C, with the eleventh partial (corresponding to F) being higher than F in either equal temperament or any of the historical unequal temperaments, and the thirteenth partial (corresponding to A) being too low.

C Harmonic Series Fig. 1. Harmonic series for an instrument in C

One solution to this is to place a hole in the instrument at the point about one-third of the way from the end of the bell to the mouthpiece. When the hole is closed (with a fin ger or bit of cork), the instrument sounds its C overtone series, but when opened, the instrument acts as though it were now pitched in F [see Figure 2], and the F and A become usable notes as the eighth and tenth partials of the series based on F.

Fig. 2. Harmonic series in F produced by a nodal vent

By alternating between these two series on the open horn, the player can use the best notes of each series to play more in tune than with the single overtone series of the instrument. Because we are altering the effective playing length of the instrument and choosing overtones from one series or another, much as we do from the various valve combinations on the modern horn, such an instrument can no longer be called, in all honesty, a "natural" horn. Nor can it be called an "historical" or "authentic" Baroque horn.

To date, there is no evidence of the vent hole having been applied to any brass instrument in the Baroque period, either through existing instruments or documentation. Written sources would in fact seem to confirm that such methods were not used. Johann Ernst Altenburg (17341801) published his Uersuch einer Anleitung zur heroischmusikalischen Trompeter- und Pauker-Kunst (Art of Trumpet and Kettledrum Playing) in Halle in 1795, for the purpose not only to instruct, but also to document the art of the clarino trumpet players, whose style of playing and writing for the trumpet was going into a decline by the end of the eighteenth century. Altenburg states clearly that the player must bend the out of tune notes into place as much as possible and, not until an Appendix concerned with improvements that should be made in the trumpet to complete its range, does he mention the possibility of adding keys or holes to the instrument. This would indicate that holes had still not been put to use as a normal aid to playing the trumpet even at that late date.

There is a trumpet which is still in existence, made by William Shaw of London, dated 1787, that has holes similar to those used today for nodal venting. (E. Halfpenny: "William Shaw's Harmonic Trumpet," Galpin Society Journal, xiii (1960), 7). There are also many examples of Post horns, made in the nineteenth century, with a single vent hole for raising the instrument by a fourth. But all surviving examples fall fifty to one hundred years after the period in question, and with the exception of a few experiments involving the application of keys to the horn before the turn of the nineteenth century (Anthony Baines, Brass Instrument, Their History and Development, London, 1976), the concept of holes appears not to have been used at any time on the orchestral horn.

In our own century, nodal venting was first used in the 1950s and '60s on Baroque trumpets when period instrument groups were first beginning to play eighteenth-cen tury orchestra music that required trumpets. Early string, woodwind, and keyboard instruments can play in equal temperament and in any number of historical unequal temperaments, but with truly "natural" brass instruments, using only the harmonic series, it is extremely difficult to match the system of intonation used by the rest of the orchestra. It soon became clear that there were two possible explanations of how horns and trumpets were played in the Baroque period: either the players were very good at bending notes into tune with the embouchure (or, in the case of horns, possibly using the hand), or audiences were simply used to the system of intonation used by the brass, which did not match with the intonation of other instruments, and accepted this fact as part of the character of those instruments. The truth probably lies somewhere between these explanations, with players striving to bend the out of tune notes, and audiences with expectations that were sympathetic to, and accepting of, whatever the brasses were able to do.

In spite of the fact that the overall intent was that of giving "au thentic" performances on period instruments, audiences, conductors, recording engineers, and other musicians were not likely to tolerate such an arrangement in the twentieth century. The solution chosen by trumpet players was to use vent holes, and thus sacrifice total authenticity for better intonation and accuracy, and consequently the better acceptance of the concert-going public. This had both positive and negative effects on the early brass-playing world. On the positive side, many performances and recordings of some of the most important Baroque works including trumpets were undertaken, which could not have been done in a way that would have been publicly (and hence, commercially) acceptable without vent holes. As a result, we can now listen to performances of Bach, Handel, Telemann, et al., that, even with the compromise of holes on the trumpets, probably come closer to what the composers actually heard than performances done on modem instruments. The negative effect of this is twofold. Many people are, even now, uninformed as to how the trumpet was played in the Baroque period, thinking that holes were common at that time. Players, having found a solution that has made the instrument workable, are less likely to turn their efforts toward practicing the natural instrument (i.e., without holes), and trying to develop the ability to bend notes and accustom the listener to the actual character of the Baroque trumpet. A few players have pursued the trumpet in its original form with encouraging results, and it is to be hoped that the next generation of trumpet players will build on their efforts.

The situation with the horn, however, is a bit different in regard to vent holes. As with the trumpet, there is a philosophical question of justifying the use of a compromise such as holes or correcting with the hand. But since horn players have, and always have had, the resource of the hand to correct intonation, and we also have evidence to suggest that, at least in some places in Europe, the horn may have been played that way, should that not be the preferred compromise? It seems much more likely that evidence of even earlier hand stopping will some day come to light than that confirmation of a vent hole theory w-11111 be found.

Holes were first applied to the Baroque orchestra horn in the 1980s in Europe, mostly in London, and quickly came to the U.S. The main justification offered for playing with holes is the large number of paintings and engravings that show horn players holding the instrument with the bell up, and therefore obviously not using hand technique at the same time. The argument is made that "if" this is the way the horn was most often played, then the use of holes preserves the open horn, bell-in-the-air quality of sound, which would be lost with the bell downward and the use of the hand. When the Baroque horn is heard in the orchestral texture with the bell up, the sound is really quite remarkable for its bright, projecting quality, and surprising lack of "edge."

Assuming that hand stopping did not come into the picture until the middle of the eighteenth century, one could use the same argument that trumpet players have given for vent holes: that is to say, in order to satisfy critics, conductors, and the CD buying public, and at the same time hold the bell up (removing the possibility of hand-stopping), the vent holes are the only solution that gives consistent results in intonation and accuracy. Accuracy is certainly improved: the first octave interval of the B Minor Mass "Quoniam" (d' to d"), for example, is the eighth to the sixteenth partials on the D horn. By opening the vent hole far the top note, it becomes the twelfth partial of the G horn, which is a much larger and friendlier (i.e., slower-moving) target than the sixteenth of the D horn. Whether or not to use a vented instrument in this case is a practical decision based on a willingness to introduce a compromise into the re-creation of Baroque horn technique, and one cannot completely discount the value of performances on instruments with holes. We do, after all, live in the twentieth century, and play for twentiethcentury audiences. The decision to use vent holes, however, is based on the assumption that the hand was never used, and it is my belief that this was not the case. The written evidence and the music itself, while not absolutely conclusive, point strongly to hand-stopping having been used quite early in some areas by the best players, and much later by others elsewhere. Mozart's "wrong" notes in the Minuet of the "Musical Joke" (K. 522) would indicate that listeners were not unaccustomed to the written F and A played badly out of tune by the horn players of town bands. The effect can be gotten very easily by simply not stopping these notes on the natural horn.

My own approach to the Baroque horn is that I will play with vent holes when requested by a conductor or leader of an early instrument group. But when given the choice, I prefer to work under the assumption that by using hand stopping, I am emulating the technique of the best horn players of the Baroque era. We must give the players of that period the benefit of the doubt and assume that they were clever enough to try the experiment of putting the hand into the bell to correct intonation when asked by a conductor or violinist or oboist to "please do something about those out of tune notes," a request that was probably made more than once in the early part of the eighteenth century. Job security has always been the mother of invention.

The other reason that I prefer not to use holes when I have the choice is more philosophical, and brings us to the question of why we bother to play on old instruments in the first place. I play the natural horn because I am fascinated by the pursuit of good music-making on the old horns in their original forms, as we found them, and enjoy developing the necessary skills and working out methods of playing as closely as I can to the way in which I think audiences of the period heard them and composers expected them to sound. No one should be condemned for playing the horn with vent holes if they feel that the compromise is necessary to produce what they believe to be an authentic Baroque sound, and at the same time make the intonation acceptable to audiences in the twentieth century. I would hope, however, that when we play with holes, we would be well enough informed on the subject to know that this is no longer a true Baroque Natural Horn, and especially that we would not intentionally lead anyone to believe that we are using an historical technique.