This instrument is a taxonomic conundrum. It is shaped like the tubas, and has some of the characteristics of that family, but due to its narrower bore structure, I place it here with the cornets. If we look at the British brass bands, we will see that this is how they are grouped (as the middle voices in a cornet choir). Early in the history of American bands, the Alto Horn, then known as the E-flat Horn, was seen in nearly all groups as a substitute for the Horn. However, the Alto Horn is not a substitute for the noble Horn at all, and should never be treated as such. Because of this association, the Alto Horn has been much maligned, and has even been given derogatory names such as the “blat-weasel.”
With this in mind, I know of no work in the band literature where the Alto Horn is used as anything other than a substitute for the Horn. This is a real shame, as it would fill in a much needed voice to the brass choir and serve to separate the Horn from the heavy brass.
I once owned an Alto Horn to investigate its characteristics. I really fell in love with the sound of this instrument. I even used it as an off-stage solo instrument in a large orchestra. It is far more direct than a Horn, and has a bright sound that carries well.
In brass bands three parts are used (confusingly notated Solo, 1st, and 2nd). In a concert band, we probably do not need this many parts. One or two instruments should be plenty. As a solo instrument it can provide a unique sound to the middle-range brass, while as an ensemble instrument it can fill in needed harmonies that are otherwise provided by the Horn section. A quartet of two Alto Horns and two Baritone Horns will give a homogenous and unexpected chorale (this would be almost akin to Wagner’s use of a quartet of Wagner Tuben).
In the U.S., the Alto Horn is rather uncommon, but should be easy to get a hold of. Most major brass manufactures make the instrument. The problem will come in finding personnel to play the instrument. Unlike the higher cornets which are played by trumpeters and the Baritone Horn which is played by trombonists or Euphoniumists, there is no corresponding player for the Alto Horn. Pitch-wise, the closest instrument is the Horn, but as the mouthpieces of the two instruments are so radically different, it makes an odd doubling. I leave this conundrum up to band directors to find the players suited for the instrument.
Mute selection will be very limited, and possibly only straight mutes will be available (though some small-bore trombone mutes will work on the Alto Horn). It is best to only call for straight mutes here.
A note on the name of this instrument: I choose to use the American term Alto Horn as opposed to the British term Tenor Horn. There is a reason for this. The term Tenor Horn is somewhat ambiguous. In Germany, a Tenorhorn is not the same instrument, but what we and the British would call a Baritone Horn. So, I always use Alto Horn for this instrument to make sure to avoid confusion.
Alto Horn solo with brass band.
Another solo with brass band.