Natural horn cases

by Lowell Greer
horn-yahoogroups Digest Number 1232
14 October 2002

We have a query concerning natural horn cases.

Let me respond. I have been living the part of an itinerant natural horn player since 1971 when I butchered a pawn shop King single F horn of it's valve section to form an unnatural horn (Cheap, but not recommended! You'll never be satisfied with the results.) Over the years, I have played valveless horns in many locations and have dealt with every conceivable early horn situation relating to storage and conveyance issues.

Old "original" 19th century natural horns came, usually, in a "coffer," or box, with slots for the horn corpus and each, and every, crook. The top of the coffer usually had a compartment in which a variety of items could be put; the seldom needed and never supplied F# crook, for example. One attic find (during the 1970s) yielded a perfect-condition-like-new Raoux cor d'orchestre, with every standard crook. Perfect. In the top of the coffer were the remains of a paper-wrapped ossified ham sandwich from the era (YUM!), a clean change of underwear (hornplayers have always been a well-bred bunch of folks), and directions to the opera house (destroyed since-They might have heard about the sandwich. Code enforcement in Europe can be very strict.)!

Back to the exposee. In the pit or concert hall, the needed crooks were, usually, transferred from the coffer to hooks on the bottom of the music stand where they were within reach at a moments notice for crook changes encountered in the chosen repertoire. Such stands with hooks have been encountered in the equipment of several historic venues, among others, at the Opera House at Drottningholm, where the entire operation was suddenly shut down immediately following the assassination of King Gustav. Opera lovers will here recognize the plot of Un Ballo in Mascara. The sets, furniture, music stands, etc., were locked up, untouched, until the 1950s when a student of architecture read of the existence of the opera house, and obtained permission to enter the edifice. Many important lessons in 18th century day-to-day operatic practices were learned, thereby. Today, productions are once again undertaken there, with remarkable results, sonically and musically. For our purposes, a board with hooks can be fabricated easily, to clamp onto the bottom of a standard modern stand, but there is a major caveat here; any movement or bumping of an accidental nature (clumsy viola player?) may result in one or more crooks "clanking" together (Der Bogen Zusammengebangen vom Bratschescratcheren!?!) with unwanted nonmusical results and even the possibility of damage to a crook should the disturbance be great enough. The stand hook arrangement is significant in that it reveals three things; 1) players needed several crooks during the execution of the horn parts during most performances, 2) space in the pit especially, was in short supply, and 3) 18th century viola players were probably much more coordinated than those today.

Returning to the issue of natural horn cases, unless one has in retention a valet to carry such a coffer around, the inconvenience of the weight of the coffer arrangement quickly proves itself. The arranging of guitar-strap-conversions for over the shoulder use likewise become tiresome, and most of today's "Waldhornisten" seem to prefer a modular arrangement of gig-bag-plus-crook-case fashioned from one of the various catalog cases, used by pilots for their charts, or computer cases. Such items offer the additional convenience of being available in black or other dark colors, allowing their discreet formal use on the concert platform. In storage, all crooks are well protected, both in transit and during use. The natural horn, with its less-than-valve-horn mass, seems to sustain damage less often than a valve horn would in the same somewhat less-than-ideal protection offered by a gig bag (dent-bag). It is also much easier to get the twin encasement aboard an airplane than a coffer which, without exception, must be placed underneath the plane.

I have lived both roles; as hornplayer, and as player/valet, and have found little or no advantage to having both the horn and crooks contained in the same case. I think that most other players currently active would tend to agree, although I am reluctant to speak for them. The costs of the split encasement are significantly lower than the costs of the heavy case, and unless the case is a gorgeous piece of furniture, the first urge will still be to put it in the closet anyway.

Most discount houses will carry catalog cases and computer cases at very low cost. The interior of the case can (must) be lined with accordion files to separate the crooks, or those with ingenuity might wish to make cardboard compartments lined with velvet or chamois (very 18th century!). Space will, doubtless be found for mute, pencil, slide grease (Beeswax and lard, according to one 18th century recipe), etc.

Good luck with the endeavor.

dah Perfesser