Episode 5 – The Tenor, errr Alto Horn

Matt and I take a look at the Alto Horn, A.K.A the Tenor Horn (or Peck Horn, or Blatweasel) and why it’s not used anymore in American bands.

From Bandestration


B-flat Baritone Horn

Baritone Horn

baritone horn range

This is the lowest member of the cornet family.  It looks like a skinny Euphonium, but is not.  For decades, the terms “Baritone” and Euphonium were interchangeable.  However today, most composers, players, and band directors are savvy enough to know the difference.  The British brass bands have always known the difference between the two and provided two parts for each the Baritone Horn and the Euphonium in their ensembles. Continue reading “B-flat Baritone Horn”

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.  Continue reading “E-flat Alto Horn (Tenor Horn)”

Various 19th Century Brass Instruments

The 19th Century was a century full of experimentation, especially in France.  We often have the idea that Paris was highly conservative, and in many regards, it was.  In the middle of the 1800s, the music being composed there was not highly original or innovative.  Berlioz  was the lone bright shining star of creativity, all other composers were mired in the Conservatory’s conservatism.

However, outside of musical composition, Paris was full of innovation.  One of my favorite authors, Jules Verne,  can be seen as one of the most innovative and forward thinking individuals of all time.  Technology and exploration was king.  It is in this line that the musical instrument manufacturers fell into.  In this era, we got such instruments as the saxophone, the saxhorn, and the sarrusophone as well as a whole host of other instruments that are long since forgotten.


Adolphe Sax can be credited for creating no less than 4 families of new instruments.  Two are well-remembered, but two have slipped into obscurity. The saxotromba was patented in 1845.  We know surprisingly little about this group as few surviving members of the family are extant.  What we do know, is that these instruments were somewhere in bore shape between a trumpet and a natural horn.  That is to say, they were mildly conical, but no so conical as a cornet.  The mouthpiece was cup-shaped like a trumpet but unlike the deep conical cup of the saxhorn.  They were used for a time in French bands, but were abandoned by the 1860s.  Interestingly, Richard Wagner first envisioned the Bass Trumpet part in his Ring Cycle for the Alto Saxotromba in E-flat (and for the Wagner Tuben to be played by saxhorns).  Evidently, the saxotromba was made in the exact same sizes and pitches as the saxhorns.


These were yet another creation of M. Sax.  Again, little is known and only a few are extant.  These are almost identical to his saxhorns except in their shape.  Saxhorns were either made in tuba shape (bells up) or in trumpet shape (bells forward).  Saxtubas, on the other hand, look curiously like Sousaphones.  They were designed to look like Roman Buccine, and thus would be perfect for Respighi’s Pines of Rome.  There seems to have been used only twice – once in an opera by Halévy and once in a parade.


Sax did not have a monopoly on creating unusual brass instruments.  The most unusual of the 19th Century brass instruments is most assuredly the sudrophone.  While they are very close to a saxhorn, they are shaped closer to a valved ophicleide. However, sudrophones have distinguishing one feature.  Sudrophones came with a vibrating membrane in the bell.  This membrane is reminiscent of the Chinese flute the Di (or Dizi) which has a similar membrane.  The membrane could be switched on an off if the resultant buzzing was not desired.

Antoniophone and Orpheon

The two instruments were essentially the same thing only differing by the brand name given by the maker. Antoniophone were made by Courtois, while Orpheons were made by Boosey. These instruments were essentially saxhorns.  The only difference here was the shape.  They were shaped somewhat like a saxophone with a curved bell that pointed upwards.  I’ll let this video do most of the explaining.

Needless to say, all of these instruments have faded from use.  As they are in some way or another slight modifications of existing instruments, there seems to be absolutely no reason to revive them for modern usage.


I’ve purposely skirted around the subject of Saxhorns throughout my run of this blog.  Saxhorns are really a complete mess of a family.  Adolphe Sax intended them to be a homogeneous family of valved brass instruments.  However, to say that these instruments are wholly his invention would be false.  All he did was make them uniform and slap his name on the family.

There are usually thought to be 7 members of the family

  1. E-flat Sopranino
  2. B-flat Soprano
  3. E-flat Alto/Tenor
  4. B-flat Tenor/Baritone
  5. B-flat Bass
  6. E-flat Bass/Contrabass
  7. B-flat Contrabass

In addition to this, there are references to a B-flat Piccolo and  E-flat and B-flat Subcontrabasses or Bourdons.

A performance and explanation (in German) of Adolphe Sax’s instruments using original instruments from Sax.

Numbers 1 through 4 can be thought of as one family, while numbers 5 though 7 can be thought of as a second.  Numbers 5, 6, and 7 are the easiest to deal with, so I shall tackle them first.

The Whole-Tube Saxhorns

A whole-tube instrument is a brass instrument that is able to play the fundamental (i.e. pedal) note with ease.  These are usually wide-bore conical instruments.  Today, we call these tubas.  Saxhorns number 5, 6, and 7 are simply nothing more than today’s Euphonium, E-flat Tuba, and B-flat Tuba, which Sax standardized and somewhat perfected.  Numbers 5 and 6 had four valves, while number 7 had only 3.

The Half-Tube Saxhorns

A half-tube instrument is a brass instrument that cannot play its fundamental pitch easily.  Saxhorns 1 through 4 can usually be placed in the half-tube grouping.  These instruments all have three valves.  Numbers 3 and 4 are virtually identical to today’s Alto/Tenor Horn and Baritone Horn.  In fact, in France, these are still sometimes referred to as Saxhorns.  Numbers 1 and 2 are a little trickier.  Some say that they are closer to cornets while others say they are closer to flügelhorns.  The truth is, they are probably somewhere in between cornets and flügelhorns.  A cornet is firmly a half-tube instrument while a flügelhorn is firmly a whole-tube instrument.  Sax’s original instruments probably could play the fundamental, but not easily.  What seems likely is the the early instrument, and most of those made by Sax himself were closer to cornets, while later instruments, notably those by other manufacturers, were closer to flügelhorns.

A later Sax-made Sopranino Saxhorn in flügelhorn style

A later Sax-made Soprano Saxhorn in flügelhorn style

Over-The-Shoulder Instruments

OTS saxhorns were a purely American take on the instrument.  These became popular during the Civil War when bands would march in front of the troops going in to battle.  These instruments had bells that pointed backward so that the sound pointed towards the marching troops.  There are several modern groups that use these instruments in Civil War reenactments.


Today, the saxhorns are still with us, but mostly under different names.

  1. E-flat Sopranino – E-flat Cornet
  2. B-flat Soprano – B-flat Cornet
  3. E-flat Alto – Alto Horn
  4. B-flat Tenor – Baritone Horn
  5. B-flat Bass – Euphonium
  6. E-flat Bass – E-flat Tuba
  7. B-flat Contrabass – B-flat Tuba

This is the standard make up of 80% of the modern British brass band, something that Adolphe Sax would immediately recognize.  The name Saxhorn has completely fallen out of use – save in one instance…

The French Orchestral Saxhorn

In France, there is still an instrument called simply the Saxhorn.  It is a bass instrument pitched in C a step above the modern Euphonium.  It has a minimum or four valves, though as many as six are common.  This was the standard French tuba for a large part of the 20th Century and the sound that many French composers, including Ravel, had in mind.  Due to the instrument being a whole-tube instrument and having extra valves, it is able to play most of the tuba repertoire despite being the smallest of the bass tuba instruments.