The omnitonic horn was an experimental series of horns invented in the early 1800s with the purpose of allowing natural horns to change keys quickly and efficiently. Despite several attempts at improving its design, the instrument never became popular and had all but faded by the 1850s, as the valved horn had established itself as the more popular design. Although the omnitonic horns are today little more than museum pieces, they are part of an important era of invention and innovation without which, the modern horn could not exist.
Prior to the invention of modern valved horns, the horn could only play the notes from the overtone series and those tones which could be obtained with the right hand (stopped horn) technique. The horn only played in one key, which could be changed by the use of various lengths of tubing called crooks. As the Romantic era dawned, harmony was becoming more complex and dense, and the limited abilities of the natural horn were becoming increasingly taxed by the new harmony. New compositions often required numerous key changes which became very tedious for the hornists of the era.
As early as the 1760s, instrument makers and hornists began searching for solutions to the natural horn’s inherent limitations. Many of the early attempts, including that of the Mannheim hornist, Christian Dikhuth, who added a spring-loaded slide to the horn, were less than successful. It was not until the 1810s that any real success was found. The experiments of this time period were concerned with solving two main issues: the first was to make the horn a chromatic instrument, which was main focus of Heinrich Stölzel & Freidrich Blühmel who patented the valve in 1818; the second was to improve the design of the natural horn by making crooks changes easier and faster, or in later cases, to eliminate the need for crooks at all, which is where the omnitonic horns come in to play.
The first omnitonic horn was patented and built by J. B. Dupont of Paris, France in about 1815. Other omnitonic horns were designed by Charles-Joseph Sax, father of the famous Adolph Sax, (1824); Joseph Meifred, a professor at the Paris Conservatory and author of Methode pour le cor chromatique ou a pistons (Method for chromatic horn or valved horn) (1830), Guiseppe Pelitti of Italy (1845), and John Callcott of England (1851).
Pierre-Louis Gautrot (1812 – 1882), owner of the instrument manufacturing firm Gautrot aîné of Paris, France, spent the most effort of any instrument maker on the omnitonic horn. He patented numerous versions of the horn and gave nearly thirty years of his career working on improving the instrument despite the fact that the omnitonic horn was already falling out of the limited success it had enjoyed by the time he patented his first omnitonic horn in 1847.
Gautrot’s omnitonic horn was designed with a series of three rotary taps and a double tuning slide used to change keys. Gautrot’s design was capable of up to twelve crook changes, which was a considerable improvement over previous omnitonic horns, but his efforts received little attention. Reginald Morley-Pegge, in his book the French Horn, stated that many of Gautrot’s inventions “were extremely ingenious, even if they were not always practical.”
About the omnitonic horn itself: “The complicated adjustments of slides and taps required to switch from one tonality to another seem, at any rate on paper, to be quite as lengthy a process as changing an ordinary crook, and this, together with what, for a hand horn, must have been excessive weight, no doubt accounts for the fact that it attracted little notice in professional circles.”
Despite the numerous setbacks that Gautrot suffered, including a failed lawsuit against several of Adolph Sax’s patents, he continued his determined work on the omnitonic horn. In 1854, he applied for several patents for innovations to several brass instruments, including a new version of the omnitonic horn. Franois-Joseph Fétis, a Belgian critic, gave the instrument a very unfavorable review: “Gautrot presented a cor-transpositeur. According to Mr. Fétis who followed and studied the work of the elder Sax in Brussels this new cor-transpositeur was just a clumsy imitation of the Cor-omnitonique that Sax built in Belgium almost thirty years ago.”
Gautrot introduced another simpler version of the omnitonic horn in the 1870s, quite possibly the last omnitonic horn ever designed. It was a strange, octopus-like design which possessed a single rotary valve which could change into one of six keys.
It is important to note that the omnitonic horns were not a ‘bridge’ instrument between natural and valved horns as is sometimes thought, nor were they intended to be. The omnitonic horns were, in essence, natural horns with multiple crooks attached at once. They were meant to played using the same techniques as one would use for the natural horn, that is, the use of the right hand for stopping the bell of horn.
The omnitonic horns saw the greatest success in the country of France mainly because of the French’s preference of the natural horn sound and their reluctance to accept the valved horn; the Paris Conservatory did not recognize the valved horn until 1903, despite the efforts of Joseph Meifred who taught valved horn at the conservatory from 1833 to 1864. The horn’s use in other countries was quite limited, particularly in Germany where the valved horn met with great and early success. Even with the resurgence of the natural horn with modern hornists who seek period instruments for more realistic and historic performances of horn repetoire, the omnitonic horn has become little more than a brief footnote in horn history.
Photos and information about Pierre-Loius Gautrot and his omnitonic horn design courtesy of Dick Martz, for more information as well as the rest of his instrument collection, please visit his website: http://www.rjmartz.com/horns/gautrotomni/