E-flat Alto Horn (Tenor Horn)

Alto Horn

alto horn range

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.

17 thoughts on “E-flat Alto Horn (Tenor Horn)

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  9. Dr. Robert Rustowicz

    I have access to a number of late 19th/early 20th century original band scores. Almost all use an instrument referred to as ‘Genis.’ It is written, mostly in treble clef (occasionally in bass clef) and pitched in Eb. The composer/arranger was a music professor in Naples that organized a number of community and youth bands, and supplied, evidently, a good portion of their music. I am working with the owner of the manuscripts to create modern transcriptions, but we are all somewhat confused with the ‘Genis.’ After reading some of your materials, it appears the E-flat Alto Horn (Tenor Horn) is a possibility. Some of the manuscripts also ask for ‘Tenors.’ Any assistance would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Yes, Genis is an odd Italian name for the E-flat Tenor/Alto (Sax)Horn. I wish I knew the etymology of the term, but that has eluded my research so far. Today, they simply refer to it as a Contralto Flicorno. Do you happen to be the director of the San Antonio Wind Symphony perchance?

      1. Dr. Robert Rustowicz

        Yes, I am that person. This past October we performed a transcribed version of Puccini’s Act III to Tosca. It was done by Alfredo Sturchio, grandfather to San Antonio’s Alfred Sturchio. It contained a set of parts for ‘Genes’ that we scored for horns – the horns and gents parts were almost identical. Thank you so much for the information on the Alto horn and the Tenor, it helps a lot!

    2. One more note on it, I forgot that you asked about “tenors.” Everywhere, except the UK (and the Commonwealth), Tenors were usually Bb instrument, essentially the true Baritone Horn. It would totally depend on how the parts are transposed whether or not it is a Bb instrument or an Eb instrument.

  10. Here’s another online reference for the alto horn (or E-flat tenor horn): https://rosevillebigband.org/personnel/MoreGN/AltoHorns.html
    The alto horn players in the brass bands I’m familiar with are most often French horn players in other ensembles. They don’t seem to have any difficulties with the different mouthpieces. Others are trumpet or euphonium players who’ve moved into the brass band horn section, adapting quickly to the different mouthpiece size.

  11. RE: the Alto Horn. What a beautiful sound. A real solo horn. I’ve never been comfortable with the standard French Horn as a solo instrument, only as an ensemble. I have of course heard the Baritone Horn in the Mahler 7, but that is too dark sounding for regular use although it too has a wonderful tonality.

  12. Tim

    The Alto Horn is a Saxhorn. It’s function as Eb Tenor Horn is moot since it has no partner instrument. Soloist Alto Horn examples may closer suit the Cornet, but those are quite different from the typical upright examples.

    It’s demise isn’t so inexplicable. The alto range is generally reserved for harmony instruments, and it’s not 1920 anymore. All of the old alto things are collecting dust because they all featured shakey intonation and inconsistent build qualities. A good Alto Horn will have a good but not entirely flexible tone color and gobs of power. That’s not good enough when you already have French Horns and Alto Saxophones that are already getting fairly mundane parts. As much as I hate to endorse the Marching Melly over the Alto Horn, if all you’ve got for music is upbeat garbage, catching eyes is more important than sounding good.

    Regardless, some orchestras do find a place for the Alto Horn, but mostly in the Konzerthorn variant, for whatever reason.

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