If It's Not English, and Not a Horn, What Is It?

Jul 23, 2017

What instrument has been used to conjure a shepherd’s horn as well as a human cry of despair? WRTI’s Susan Lewis has more on the oddly named, but evocative, English horn.

Radio story:

When I meet with Philadelphia Orchestra English horn Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia, she plays a famous solo from William Tell. Rossini is one of many composers who used the English horn to depict a shepherd's horn.

She says, right at the start, "[The English horn] is probably the worst-named instrument ever invented, it is neither English nor a horn, but a member of the oboe family." 

It looks like a member of the family, but longer than an oboe, with an egg-shaped bell. "Since it’s longer, it has a lower sound," says Masoudnia. "And because of the bell—a more mellow sound than the oboe." 

Later composers, including Shostakovich, used it to express a sense of isolation. But Masoudnia says it was Berlioz who put the English horn on the orchestral map with his Symphonie fantastique. He also praised its distinctive sound in his book on orchestration. 

Masoudnia says it's "an extremely expressive instrument, and so composers use it usually when they have something very special to express." Wagner, Strauss, and Mahler are among other major composers who have written notable solos for the instrument.

As for the name? Likely a mistranslation. Masoudnia explains: "In German, it was called angelish horn—or horn of the angels—and the French word for it is cor angle, which meant angled horn."

In the orchestra, the English horn player sits with the oboes, and is often called on to play both instruments.

You can hear Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia playing Berlioz's famous English horn solo from Symphonie fantastique on Sunday, July 30th at 1 pm on The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert broadcast on WRTI.