The sound of the French horn provides one of the most emblematically Romantic timbres in nineteenth-century music. Why is that?
The French horn derives its origin from the hunting horn (in German, waldhorn or forest horn) — a brass instrument played while hunting on horseback to call back the hounds from the hunt.
Some horns, like the alphorn, were used in mountain regions to communicate and signal across vast distances.
And horns were used in the Middle Ages to call troops to battle.
So the sound of the horn is associated with the pastoral, with nature, and with the simple folk, peasants and hunters, people steeped in forestcraft and woodlore, men and women who are close to the land, and also with centuries past. The idea that the simple folk are the inheritors of a unique knowledge and wisdom is an important Romantic trope, part of the culture of resistance to the advancing technological specialization and industrialization of the age.
As the early nineteenth-century music theorist C.F.D. Schubart wrote:
The entire forest stops and heeds when the sonorous horn is sounded. Deer lie at the spring and listen; even the frogs slip out of the water; and sows lie nearby in sweet slumber, while their piglets suckle in 3/8 time. . . A horn call summons the dogs, that they might brave the frightful forest and pit themselves against the jaws of the boar . . . But the same all-powerful horn, ringing out in gentle tones from forest hills, compels the deer lying by the mossy spring to raise up its antlers and, as it were, to soak up the sound.
The nineteenth-century Männerchor (men’s chorus) was meant to imitate the sonic ambience of the woodland horn, and to evoke a feeling of the pastoral and the out-of-doors.
Brahms wrote his Four Songs for women’s choir, harp, and two horns — including the “Song from Fingal” — to evoke both folk music and a sense of nostalgia for the past: the first song is self-referential, about the effect of hearing a harp played in the landscape; the second song is a setting of “Come away, death” from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; the third song is about a gardener who loves a lady in vain, and anticipates his death from grief; and the fourth is a setting of a German translation of the Ossian verses.
Years later, Brahms would return to the pastoral sound of the horn to open his second piano concert on B-flat Major, op. 83. As Bill McGlaughlin has observed, this is more than music: it is a landscape in sound; the horn almost seems to call out of the mists, as if from one mountaintop to another.
And of course you remember Beethoven’s horns in his Symphony no. 3. What does Beethoven intend his horns to mean?