The Alto horn is a wind instrument that is a part of the saxhorn family. Ithas several names, including tenor horn (British English), althorn or alto horn (American), and E♭ horn (Germany). The interior chamber of the alto horn, called the bore, is conical in shape like the fluegelhorn and baritone horn. It typically uses a cornet-like mouthpiece. Most commonly, this instrument is used in British brass bands. However, in an orchestra and some concert bands, the French horn sometimes takes the part of the alto horn. Vice-versa, the alto horn, is occasionally used as an alternative of the French horn.
The alto horn is made in various shapes. In the U.S., U.K., and most parts of the world, the most common alto horn looks like a min-tuba with its bell pointing upward, which helps the voice blend before reaching the audiences. However, in contrast to that, the solo horn that is mostly found in Europe looks like an enlarged flugelhorn. This solo horn had a bell that is pointing forward that is projected towards the audiences. An older and lesser-known variant of this instrument has a bell facing backward. This is usually the instrument used in the military marching bands that preceded the soldiers. In addition to that, the instrument also helps the soldiers hear the marching counts. Moreover, another variant has a detachable and easy to rotate bell pointing in the direction that depends on the performer’s choice.
The standard horn with an upward bell comes in two shapes. The first is with the beginning of the bell looping over the top of the instrument’s valves. Meanwhile, the second one has a bell that loops below the valve. These types of horn instruments are mostly seen in the U.S. and the U.K. In U.K. brass bands, only the standard upright instrument is seen.
In Europe, the Cerveny wind instrument factory had started manufacturing alto horns in the year 1852. The company currently offers an instrument model that has a loop found in the most classic horn. Aside from that, they also have an oval model shaped like a Wagner tuba, or also known as the Bayreuth tubas. All models have rotary valves in contrast to the more common ones, the piston valves. In the British brass band, the alto horn usually played a unique part along with the solo horn in the middle of the band. Despite having a unique part, the alto horn was rarely featured in solo passages. This instrument’s resonance, timbre, and the parts it usually plays make the alto horn difficult to hear even if it is in professional studio recordings.
Despite its rare solos, the alto horn plays a part in providing a mellow sound in the brass band. Consequently, among the powerful trombones and cornets in the brass band, the alto horn was then called as the ‘Cinderella’ due to its poor projection and power. On the other hand, the reputation of the alto horn does not stop the composers from writing for the alto horns. Subsequently, several instrument makers attempted to recreate the alto horn. Part of their attempt is to give it a better power and projection while retaining its narrow-mellow characteristic. Fortunately, few of these modern instruments made it to the market within the U.K., with the Yamaha Maestro and Besson Sovereign dominating. Also, the alto horn market lasts for about a decade.
Nowadays, alto horns have a wide range of bore when it comes to sizes. Horns with a narrow bore, especially those that were made by the Besson company, emphasized the tonal delicacy of older instruments. It also plays more like a flugelhorn while the instruments with larger horns sound more like a trumpet with a conical bore. Furthermore, Antoine Courtois, a leading manufacturer of brass instruments, had featured rare instruments that feature a fourth valve, which functioned similarly to the trombone’s F trigger.However, regardless of the size of the bore, well-made instruments should retain a mellow and light tone.
Moreover, the alto horn parts in the musical sheet are written in the treble clef. It is an E♭ transposing instrument written a major sixth above concert pitch. The notation of the alto horn for middle C represents the E♭below the middle C.