A while back, I said I would write an entry explaining some basic differences between horns from an equipment standpoint. After visiting Cleveland and talking “shop” with the horn players there, it seems like the right time to deliver on that promise. Bear in mind, this will be a brief synopsis. I will focus mostly on horn wraps, without going into much detail about the merits and disadvantages of various bell throat sizes, bore sizes, types of metal, valve design, bell weight, and all of the other myriad variables that can affect the way a particular horn plays. And forget about mouthpieces and any other gear you might add! Suffice it to say that every horn is unique, the things that make it unique are numerous and complex.
In the horn world, the word “wrap” refers to the shape and direction of tubing in the instrument. Horn builders who make double horns are divided into two predominant camps: the Kruspe wrap and the Geyer wrap.
The Kruspe style wrap was standard in the United States for most of the early to mid twentieth century. This wrap places much of the weight distribution near the top of the instrument, and contains numerous twists and turns in the tubing. The thumb valve that switches the horn from being in F to being in B-flat is placed at the top, toward the player’s face. Kruspe style horns are renowned for their warm, deep sound. The player can reach a loud dynamic with very little brassy “edge” in the sound. Some players find that Kruspe style wraps take a great deal of effort to play and can be inefficient, and find clarity to be an issue. This is all a matter of personal taste.
The Geyer style horn was once a more characteristically European horn, but Geyers have taken root in the United States and are becoming very popular. This wrap moves more of the weight toward the bottom of the instrument, and uses as many straight lines as possible in the tubing. The key that switches the horn from F to B-flat is still operated by the thumb, but it is connected to its corresponding rotary valve by a long lever so that the valve is on the bottom end of the horn, away from the player’s face. Geyer style horns are renowned for their light sound, clarity, and efficiency. Many players find that it does not take as much effort to play in all ranges and dynamics on a Geyer style horn as it does on a Kruspe. Geyer style horns tend to “edge out” at loud dynamics, however, and some people find them to be too bright and brassy, preferring the warmer, richer sound of the Kruspe.
Take a look at the pictures of the Kruspe and Geyer style horns. The visual difference is clear. Look at the Kruspe’s numerous twists and turns compared to the Geyer’s more open design.
There are many other variants on these two types of wraps. Every horn maker puts his/her own stamp on these designs. The Knopf wrap, for example, is very similar to the Geyer wrap, but there is a slight bend in the tubing on either side of the valves that distinguishes it from the perfectly straight Geyer tubing. Some other styles are entirely unique. Alexander horns (very popular in Germany, to the point of exclusivity) and Lawson horns (played in the Minnesota Orchestra) are neither Kruspe nor Geyer style. But for the most part, if you ask a horn player what the two most popular wraps are, Kruspe style and Geyer style are the first two names that come to mind. These wraps are named for the horn makers who designed them, but I’ll save the history lesson for another entry.
The Cleveland Orchestra horn section plays exclusively on Conn 8D horns, a Kruspe style wrap. I knew this going in and was eager to find out why. As I mentioned earlier, Kruspes used to be the standard in the United States. The “New World” sound was one that was characteristically rich and dark. Within the last few decades, however, many American horn players have gravitated toward Geyer style horns. As concert programs become more demanding, many horn sections have sought out horns that maximize clarity, minimize effort, and produce a sound that can cut through a massive orchestra. Cleveland has stayed the course on Conn 8D’s for the last several decades. After hearing the orchestra’s Mahler 7 dress rehearsal, I interviewed Richard King (principal horn), Jesse McCormick (second horn), and Richard Solis (fourth horn, retired). As expected, a number of factors have contributed to continuing Cleveland’s Conn 8D legacy.
One chief factor in this decision is, of course, personal preference. Solis stressed that he believes the Conn 8D is the best possible orchestral instrument for his taste. He finds it to be very versatile and flexible in its sound, able to play in a number of styles. The player can adapt his/her sound to be appropriate for the repertoire at hand. The other players concurred, praising the singing, deep quality the Conn 8D can produce.
Another factor that I had not considered was that of the hall. King described the hall as an “extension of the instruments.” Severance works beautifully with the Conns, easily projecting their sound without excessive effort on the players’ part. Some halls have more reverberation than Severance, which is on the dryer end of things, acoustically. McCormick explained that after some renovations to the hall in 1999, Severance was slightly more resonant, but not enough to upset the balance. Fun fact – that gorgeous organ at the back of the stage is fake! Behind the pipes is a black screen that leads to a resonating chamber behind the orchestra, which allows the sound to linger a bit longer. The real organ is behind the stage.
Solis pointed out that in other halls, the Conn 8D might not be the best choice for the section. Cleveland has a history of touring the orchestra throughout the country, and the section has found that projecting clearly in halls with more reverberation can be a challenge. As it stands, however, Severance fits the horn section beautifully, and their dark, velvety sound projects easily.
Some of the members of the Cleveland Orchestra horn section entered the orchestra already playing Conn 8Ds. Others, however, changed horns upon their acceptance. As principal horn, King is fairly adamant about this. He finds that playing in a section with unified equipment makes blending much easier between the players. Different horn models have different intonation tendencies (certain notes are reliably sharp or flat), and horns can also vary in tone quality and volume production. Taking these factors into consideration makes playing in a section of dissimilar instruments seem like an uphill battle. With this in mind when auditioning a new horn player, the section listens for musical concept. The player can easily change equipment to preclude the aforementioned challenges while maintaining his/her artistic abilities.
Cleveland’s long history of being a Conn 8D section seems unlikely to change in the near future. Preference for the Kruspe sound, respect for tradition, desire for uniformity, and balance in the hall contribute to this continuing legacy.
Despite all this talk of equipment, King stressed an important point. “Ultimately I really don’t take much interest in equipment,” he said. “As I get older, I become less interested in horn and more interested in music.” Looking past all of the nuts and bolts of choosing instruments, the section values making beautiful music above all else.