The English Horn is a member of the double-reed family of woodwind instruments, which includes the bassoon, the contrabassoon, the oboe and the English Horn, as well as less common instruments like the oboe d’amore and the heckelphone or bass oboe. The English Horn produces sound by moving air through a pair of “reeds.” These reeds, made of a type of cane similar to bamboo, vibrate to produce a unique sound which then passes through a narrowly conical piece of plastic or wood. The English Horn reed, which is somewhat larger than an oboe reed, is connected to the instrument by a curved tube of metal called a “bocal” (as with the bassoon). English Horns are usually made of grenadilla wood. Holes cut into the instrument’s body allow the player to alter the pitch, and a complex series of buttons called keys which cover different combinations of holes enables players to utilize multiple “fingerings” to play different notes.
English Horn fingerings are the same as oboe fingerings, but due to its larger size the English Horn sounds a fifth lower than the oboe (in the same key as the French Horn). The English Horn’s balloon-shaped “pregnant” bell makes its sound richer and more melancholy than the oboe’s. Because its larger size also makes it heavier than the oboe, many players use a neck strap to keep the instrument’s weight from putting excessive strain on hand and wrist muscles.
The English Horn is English in name only; although it bears similarities to certain hunting horns of the British Isles, the English Horn is probably so named because of linguistic confusion. Its original French name, Cor Anglé (“angled horn”), described the instrument’s early shape (bent rather than straight, as it is now, although the bocal is curved). At some point, this phrase came to be known as Cor Anglais (“English Horn”), which is pronounced exactly the same as Cor Anglé.
The English Horn came into regular use around the middle of the 18th century. However, not every orchestral piece features the instrument, so it is generally viewed as a “second” instrument which proficient oboists learn to play in case it is needed. Indeed, the English Horn has been misunderstood by so great a composer as Gustav Mahler(1860-1911), who in his First Symphony wrote an English Horn part which requires that the player utilize a device known as a “Mahler extension” to sound a low Bb (a note which the English Horn cannot produce without this special device). Major orchestras, however, will maintain a dedicated English Horn position, and the few English Horn players who focus on their instrument (rather than primarily on the oboe) are able to showcase the full potential of this remarkable instrument.
Unfortunately, the repertoire for virtuoso English Horn is rather limited, and although English Horn players like Tom Stacy of the New York Philharmonic have attempted to bring the English Horn into the realm of popular music, it is generally regarded almost exclusively as a classical instrument.
Reed-making. Like oboists, English Horn players must learn the art of reed-making. Using a variety of specially designed tools – including half a dozen different knives – reed-makers turn a round tube of cane into two identical pieces which vibrate together at just the right pitch. This is exacting work and must be done by hand, as a fraction of a millimeter means the difference between a reed which will play beautifully and a reed which will produce a thin, unstable sound (and that only with great effort). Reeds are notoriously fickle, and will play differently based on the temperature and humidity of a given hall, so English Horn players always keep several reeds (and their knives, in order to make adjustments) available to ensure that they will have a reed which suits their performance needs. It takes an experienced reed-maker about 30-45 minutes to produce a reed, and although English Horn reeds usually last longer than oboe reeds (which only last a week or so), their supply must still be continuously replenished.