Like all the members of the oboe family the English horn evolved from the shawms of the Middle Ages. During the Renaissance the shawm family included the bombardes (or bombardons), the direct precursors of modern double-reed instruments, and instruments of every pitch, from the treble shawm (third octave above middle C) to the great bass shawm (contraoctave).
During the 17th century the treble shawm evolved into the hautboy (also known as the hoboy in England, and as the hautbois in France), the forerunner of the present-day oboe. The tenor oboes, which evolved from the alto bombarde (the tubing of the deeper bombardes was angled, giving rise to bassoons), began to be modeled on the soprano instrument a short time later.
Tenor oboes in the 18th century
*1. Taille de hautbois; 2. Vox humana; 3. Oboe da caccia*
During the 18th century several types of tenor oboe pitched in F (today this register would be alto) were being made. Four of these instruments were used in contemporary double-reed consorts to play the middle voice, while two soprano oboes and a bassoon covered the upper and lower registers. It was toward the end of the century that the English horn, now the alto instrument of the oboe family, established itself.
Until the end of the 17th century the earliest tenor oboe in F, the taille (de hautbois), had the same form as the oboe, although it was somewhat larger because of its lower pitch. It consisted of three parts and had two keys. Around the turn of the century a pear or bulb-shaped bell was added, probably by German oboe makers. The instrument was common in many parts of Europe, and in England was known as the tenner hautboy. It was used primarily in concert music and the theater, e.g., in Henry Purcell's Dioclesian (1690), religious music (e.g., in Johann Sebastian Bach's cantatas) and wind bands. In about 1780 it disappeared.
The vox humana, a straight tenor oboe in F consisting of two parts, was used in England and southern Italy from the second third of the 18th century. Its body was plain and unadorned, and the bell flared only very gently. It had six finger-holes and two keys and was played chiefly in double-reed consorts in church. In around 1780 it was superseded by the English horn.
The oboe da caccia (hunting oboe, hautbois de chasse/de forêt), was played between 1720 and 1760 in some parts of central Europe, mainly Germany. This sharply curved tenor oboe in F with a flaring bell was made out of a single piece of wood and covered with leather. The curved shape was achieved by cutting out wedges and then stretching the instrument over an arch. The flaring bell gave it an overall appearance reminiscent of a horn, hence the name. The most famous part written for this instrument is Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion, in which two oboi da caccia (and one transverse flute) accompany a soprano aria.
Why “English” horn?
The modern English horn was developed in around 1720, probably in Silesia, by adding a pear-shaped bell to the oboe da caccia. The oboe maker J. T. Weigel was evidently one of the first to make such a ”cor anglais”, as the instrument was known. The keywork was the same as on the oboe, the reed was fixed on a short, curved, small pipe. In the course of the century the shape became less curved, until by the end of the century an angular form of the instrument had established itself too. This form remained popular for decades afterward.
The name ”English horn” is most probably derived from the horn-like shape of early tenor oboes, especially the oboe da caccia: it seems to have resembled the horns with which angels were depicted in religious illustrations from the Middle Ages and thereafter. In Middle High German the word engellisch meant ”angelic” (German Engel = angel). At the same time, however, it also meant ”English”, which may explain how the latter adjective came to be applied to the instrument after the disappearance of the early tenor oboes.
Another theory suggests that the French term cor anglé (”angled horn”), which described the angled instrument, became cor anglais (”English horn”) over time. However, it is likely that the name English horn was in use before the angled form of the instrument appeared (in around 1790).
The English horn in the orchestra
Niccolò Jommellis paved the way for the admission of the English horn into the orchestra with his Ezio, premiered in 1749 in Vienna. Initially the instrument was always used in pairs. One of the first composers to use the English horn regularly was Christoph Willibald Gluck, who first scored for it in La danza (1755). The English horn subsequently gained great popularity in Italian opera, in which it was given the task of performing lyrical and vocal-like parts. Italian opera houses were established in many European cities, including Vienna, Munich, Dresden, Hamburg, Milan, Venice, Naples and Lisbon. It was also in these cities that the makers of English horns set up their workshops.
At the beginning of the 19th century French musicians began to take an interest in the new-style low-pitched oboe, too. The virtuosity of the oboist and English hornist Gustave Vogt (1781-1870), a professor at the Paris conservatoire, inspired several composers to write outstanding parts for the English horn, among them Gioacchino Rossini (e.g., the solo in the William Tell Overture) and Hector Berlioz.
It was Berlioz who began exploiting the English horn's typical sound characteristics, which he did from his earliest works, to evoke sentimental, melancholy and mournful moods. In his Theory of Instrumentation (1843) he notes that no other instrument can convey ”feelings of absence, abandonment, painful isolation” as vividly as the ”English horn”. Throughout the entire century the English horn was used exclusively to perform such quintessentially romantic and elegiac tasks.
From 1810 the distinguished oboe maker Guillaume Triébert worked together with Gustave Vogt on technical improvements to the English horn. He added extra keys and straightened the lower joint. The Triébert workshop began producing English horns with straight tubing from about 1860.
For his part, Vogt's successor at the Paris opera, Henri Brod (1799-1839), had developed his own straight version of the instrument in 1830, which he called first an alto oboe and later a cor anglais moderne.
The straight English horn had better resonance than its predecessor and was more manageable. The modified version of Henri Brod's instrument produced by François Lorée (1835-1902) remains the blueprint for the construction of English horns today.
The modern English horn
At the beginning of the 19th century the English horn was hardly ever used in German-speaking countries; consequently it is missing from Beethoven's late works, and from Schubert, Spohr, Brahms and Weber. It was not until the Romantic period that composers such as Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler rediscovered the instrument and integrated it fully into the orchestra by giving it the same tasks as the other woodwind as the middle voice of that section. However, it was still used for special effects, e.g., as a shepherd's shawm or for exotic sounds in Saint Saens's Samson and Delilah (1877) or Borodin's In Central Asia (1880). In England and Russia it had already established itself in the 1830s.
Since the 20th century particularly the English horn has been entrusted with an increasing number of solo tasks. Apart from concerts, several pieces for chamber music ensembles have been written. The English horn nevertheless remains first and foremost an orchestra instrument.
The English horn is about a third bigger than the oboe and has a pear-shaped bell in contrast to the latter's gently flaring one.
Like the oboe, its tube - or body - consists of three parts, one inserted inside the other: upper joint (head joint), lower joint and bell (also called the “liebesfuss”).
The upper joint turns into a small metal pipe, about 7.5 cm long, to which the double-reed mouthpiece is affixed. The reeds on the English horn are wider and longer than on the oboe (on the Viennese model the reeds are wider, but shorter).
As on the oboe the most commonly used keywork is the French conservatoire mechanism developed by Frédéric Triébert in Paris in 1875. Most of the keys are on the upper and lower joints; there is only one key on the bell.
The English horn is a transposing instrument and sounds a fifth lower than written. Notation is in treble clef.
In modern works notation is occasionally written without transposition (sound is as written, e.g., in Hans Werner Henze).
In historical parts there are various types of notation:
Sounding as written, in alto clef (e.g., in Bach);
In bass clef, sounding an octave higher than written (in Italy from the late 18th to the middle of the 19th century, e.g., in Rossini's William Tell Overture, so that the part could be read by a bassoonist, who played it. The bassoonist could finger the written notes as if he were playing the bassoon and the right pitches would sound on the English horn);
Sounding as written, in mezzo-soprano clef (in France between 1820 and 1840). With this notation the musician simply needs to replace the mezzo-soprano clef with the treble clef and finger the resulting pitches as usual. This automatically corresponds to modern notation, transposing by a fifth.
The English horn has a range from E3 - A5 (B5).
- E3 - Ab3, A3
- A3, Bb3 - C5
- Db5 - A5
Sound is produced according to the same principles as on the oboe:
The double reed is placed between the lips and blown which causes both reeds to vibrate against each other. They open and close very rapidly, sending bursts of energy into the air column inside the instrument and causing it to vibrate in sympathy. A good English hornist is one who can do this in a controlled and sensitive way.
Because it has wider reeds than the oboe, attack on the English horn is easier. Conversely, its larger size means response is slower, making it a little more ponderous.
As on all woodwind instruments it is primarily the keys which are used to produce the various pitches. Like all oboes, the English horn overblows to the octave. The speaker keys make overblowing largely redundant. The same fingering is used on the English horn as on the oboe, but the pitch is a fifth lower.
In general, the same playing techniques are possible on the English horn as on the oboe. Owing to its voice-like sound it was used mainly for the performance of cantilenas, especially in the Romantic orchestra, but nowadays all the most common playing techniques of the oboe are also required of the English horn.
Can be played up to about MM 140 (4 sixteenths per quarter note 140).
Microtonal fluctuations in pitch and/or volume which are produced by movements of the diaphragm, larynx and lips. Opinions in the various schools differ as to which of these three factors is the most important for the production of an ideal vibrato.
Forced, short attack followed by a rapid reduction in tone intensity.
Forced, short attack with continuance of tone intensity.
Rapid dynamic reduction from forte to piano.
Double and triple tonguing are hard to perform because the articulation is hindered by the reeds in the mouth.
In short passages 4 sixteenths per quarter note 200 are possible, in longer passages up to 4 sixteenths per quarter note 150.
On the English horn a rolled (guttural) R is generally used, since the lingual R (produced with the tip of the tongue) is made more difficult by the reed and hampers the embouchure.
The slower the articulation, the softer the sound. This technique can be performed over the entire range but is harder to play in the lower register.
Half tone and whole tone trills are playable and effective throughout the whole compass, with the exception of the lowest note.
Tremolo is not one of the playing techniques typical of the English horn and in many cases requires complicated fingering.
The larger the interval, the slower the speed at which the tremolo can be performed.
In general, the same modern playing techniques are possible on the English horn as on the oboe, although the slower response must be taken into account. However, these techniques are hardly ever required, at least in orchestral playing.
Glissando, harmonics/bisbigliando/double harmonics, rolling sound, slurping noises, blowing through, sucking noises, humming and playing simultaneously, playing only the tube, playing without the tube, playing with a trumpet embouchure, playing only on the upper part of the instrument, circular breathing, use of electronic devices …
Mellow, full, powerful, sonorous, resonant, expressive, vocal, insistent, wistful, plaintive, mournful, melancholy, acerbic, reedy, penetrating, distant, warm, veiled, pastoral.
Due to the lower pitch and the pear-shaped bell the English horn sounds darker and more powerful than the oboe. The timbre remains relatively homogeneous in all registers, so the transition between registers is smooth.
(E3 - Ab3, A3)
Sounds warm, intense and rather dull. At piano levels the effect is mellow, played forte the rough, shawm-like characteristics are more in evidence. The lowest notes are sometimes compared to stopped horn notes. It is not possible to play pianissimo in this register.
(A3, Bb3 - C5)
The most frequently used register on the English horn and a downward extension of the oboe. The sound is very versatile; it can express a wide variety of feelings, from melancholy and despair to carefree merriment and mischievous abandon. The sound seems to come from a long way away which makes it ideal for the creation of sentimental and nostalgic moods. This is why it is a favorite of composers for the performance of lyrical, expressive and melancholy airs, though it is also used for pastoral, merry, archaic and exotic motifs.
(Db5 - A5)
The high notes sound acerbic and insistent; penetrating when played forte.
The English horn was a late - last third of the 19th century - addition to the woodwinds in the orchestra, when it took its place as the third voice in that section. Before then its striking and distinctive character meant that it had been used exclusively as a solo instrument to suggest pastoral moods (in Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, for instance, the English horn symbolizes a shepherd's shawm) or to evoke feelings of nostalgia by playing elegiac cantilenas.
English horn + other woodwinds
The English horn provides a powerful and distinctive middle voice in the woodwind group.
English horn + oboe produce a homogeneous blend. Combinations with the other melody instruments (flute, clarinet) are also effective, the higher-pitched instruments often doubling the English horn an octave below. The English horn is also used in unison with the clarinet; when the bass clarinet is added an octave below, a substantial, somber composite sound emerges.
English horn + brass instruments
Combines well with the trumpets and especially the horns. The English horn lends the horns a more precise profile, the overall effect is mellow and full.
English horn + strings
Combines well with the strings. A blend is possible with the violas, which share some of the English horn's dark and acerbic properties.
English horn in the orchestra
Johann Sebastian Bach
- St. Matthew Passion (oboe da caccia) (1727/1736)
Christoph Willibald Gluck
- Orphée et Eurydice (1762)
- Symphony no. 22 The Philosopher (1764), Stabat mater (1767)
Johann Mederitsch/Peter Winter
- Babylons Pyramiden (1797)
- Guillaume Tell overture (1829)
- Symphonie fantastique op. 14 (1830), La damnation de Faust op. 24 (1846)
- Römischer Carneval (1844)
- Ruslan and Ludmila (1842)
- Der Fliegende Holländer (overtüre, 1843), Tannhäuser (1845)
- Lohengrin (1850), Tristan und Isolde (1865, prominent solo)
- Christus (1866-72)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
- Romeo and Juliet (1870)
- Early symphonies
- Carmen (1875)
- Symphony in d minor (1886-88)
- 9th symphony op. 95 (1893, prominent solo)
- Hansel and Gretel (1893)
- The Swan of Tuonela (1893)
- Symphonies, Lieder
- Ein Heldenleben (1899), Don Quixote
C. M. Loeffler
- A Pagan Poem (1906)
- The Bells (1913)
- Taras Bulba (1915-18)
Ralph Vaughan Williams
- Pastoral Symphony (1921)
- Concierto de Aranjuez (1939)
- 8th symphony (1943)
Solo concertos with orchestra
- Gaetano Donizetti
- Concertino in G major for Orchestra and English Horn (1817)
- Pieta di me (terzet, late 1780s)
Johann Michael Haydn
- Quartet for English horn and strings (1790)
Ludwig van Beethoven
- Trio for 2 oboes and English horn op. 87 (1794)
- Variations on Mozart's Là ci darem (?1795)
- Dixtuor (1906)
Arnold E. Tr. Bax
- In Memoriam (1916)
- Conversations (1920)
- The Curlew (1924)
- Concertino for English horn and strings (1982)
English horn and piano
- Pastoral (1940)
- Sonata (1941)
- Quartet for four English horns
- Zeitmaße for wind quintet (1955-56)