Dr. Nicholas Smith
The Hornsmith






            This article is a revision of a dissertation I completed in May of 1980 for my DMA at the Eastman School of Music.  When I was first looking for a topic, a colleague in the Oklahoma City Symphony jokingly suggested I do a paper on the Horn Mute.  I laughed, but after some thought, decided to include it, along with two other topics, on a list that I presented to Verne Reynolds at Eastman.  Mr. Reynolds was also amused, but after his initial reaction subsided, felt that I should write it up and send it to the dissertation committee.  They saw nothing humorous about it, and in fact approved the topic, which proves that either dissertation committees have no sense of humor, or that there were no horn players in the group.

            Two other chapters from the paper will be offered to the Horn Call for publication.  The second concerns the acoustics of how the mute works (or as many players would contend, doesn’t work), and the third a catalog of currently available mutes as well as suggestions for choosing one.

            Early History.  There is no record of the first use of the mute for horn, or for that matter, any other brass instrument.  For the horn, the first usage is said to have been well before 1750. [1]   A typical early example is found in Buxtehude’s Cantata, Ihr lieben Christen, freut euch nuin, which calls for two Clarini in Sordini.


            Ex. 1.  Muted clarini passage from Ihr lieben Christen, freut euch nun, bu Dietrich Buxtehude.

            During the first half of the eighteenth century, horn mutes were most likely of similar design as trumpet mutes, like the ornate example in Figure 1.


            Fig. 1.  Trumpet mute of the eighteenth century.

The only difference between the horn and trumpet mute was merely the larger size of the horn mute due to the larger throat of the horn bell.  One writer described the mutes as being “made of wood in the form of a truncated cone with a hole in the bottom through which the sound issued.” [2]   Their performance is said to have been poor.  The contact between wood and brass produced an unpleasant buzzing.  To remedy this problem, mutes of cardboard were made and used, although their tone quality was also poor. [3]  

            It was at an unknown date during the years 1748-1760 that J.J. Hampl formulated the hand technique which revolutionized horn playing.  Initially he began his research to improve the facility of existing mutes.  Though we have little description of Hampl’s research, Domnich mentions that when Hampl inserted a wooden cone or plug in the bell, it lowered the pitch a semitone, besides changing the timbre.  However, when this cone was hollowed out and slightly enlarged, the pitch was not lowered and the desired effect was achieved. [4]   So in addition to the Inventionshorn and hand technique, Hampl is also credited with producing the first non-transposing mute.  Gerber mentions that Hampl “devised mutes which neither raised nor lowered the horn’s pitch.” [5]   Hampl’s design was purportedly popular, especially with soloists and duettists of that period.  It is unfortunate there are no examples of this mute in existence.  However, Gerber describes this mute as “a simple cone made of sheet brass covered with leather, and having an opening at the upper end.” [6]   Gerber’s source for this description as well as his other information on the horn came from the celebrated hornist Carl Thurrschmidt (1753-1797).  Thurrschmidt came into contact with Hampl’s mute through the Boeck brothers.  They used this mute as early as 1775 when they began their careers as duettists.  As in all products hand-made, a certain degree of variance is expected, which might account for the lack of any written dimensions.  It is this writer’s belief that these mutes must have been quite large in relation to the size of the horn bell to prevent any alteration of the pitch.  An apt comparison would be the relation of the size of a trumpet straight mute to the trumpet bell.  All mutes must account for end correction, which is an acoustical phenomenon common to all brass instruments. [7]   For the sake of portability, most modern horn mutes have an inner shaft which acts as a tube lengthener.  This explains the smaller size of the modern horn mute relative to the size of the bell.


            Fig. 2.  Cutaway of a modern de Polis type mute.

            As mentioned before, the echo or muted effect became quite popular with soloists and duettists during the last quarter of the eighteenth century and early years of the nineteenth century.  However, all mutes had one serious drawback.  While the mute was being used, the player could never use his hand technique to chromatically alter the natural harmonic series of the valveless horn.  In other words, he could never play stopped notes, which were essential if he were to play anything other than the open notes of the harmonic series.  This was quite limiting, but a solution to the problem was found by the aforementioned Car Thurrschmidt.  Descriptions of this mute are vague.  Frölich describes it as:

. . . a papier-mâché ball, about six inches across, with an open end to be inserted into the bell of the horn.  Inside this ball was another covered with leather and with a cord attached to it which hung down from the bell.  With this, the neck could be more or less fully occluded at will, in the same way as by hand stopping. [8]


            Fig. 3.  Cross section of stopping mute according to Frohlich.

            Another source is the Bernsdorf Tonkunst.  The mute is described as:

. . . a hollow ball or sphere of papier-mâché covered with cloth approximately six inches in diameter to which an open tube is attached which fits into the bell.  Inside the ball is a wire with a disc by which the opening of the tube can be covered, so the hornist can stop the horn even while muted.  The wire has a handle which projects from the lower side of the ball. [9]



            Fig. 4.  Cross section of stopping mute according to Bernsdorf.

            Though the mute was often used by soloists, there are few, if any, orchestral examples of its application until after the beginning of the nineteenth century.  However, soloists such as the Boeck brothers, Thurrschmidt, the celebrated unto, and Nicolaus Simrock, who later became the famed publisher, influenced young composers such as Beethoven and von Weber to use the muted effect.  In particular, Simrock is known to have influenced Beethoven’s writing in the  Rondino in Eb for Eight Instruments which has a muted passage with a stopped f in the first horn part.

            Ex. 2.  Muted passage with stopped notes from the Rondino in Eb for Eight Instruments by             Ludwig van Beethoven, op. posth.


Simrock probably possessed one of the Thurrschmidt “chromatic Mutes” as in Fig. 3 or 4, and Beethoven found the effect usable.  However, Beethoven rarely wrote for  the muted horn and used the effect only twice in his large orchestral works.  One example is found in the Sixth Symphony at the end of the last movement.


            Ex. 3.  Muted horn passage from the Sixth Symphony, op. 68, by Beethoven.

The other passage is found in the Concerto for Violin, op. 61, at the end of the second movement.  This short passage is an echo of an identical “open” passage at the beginning of the movement.

            Ex. 4.  Muted horn passage from the Concerto for Violin, op. 61, by Beethoven.

An excellent example of how von Weber used the mute is found in his Concerto in Eb major for Clarinet.

            Ex. 5.  Muted passage for three horns found in the Concerto in Eb for Clarinet by Carl Maria             von Weber.


            French School.  By 1820, the French school of horn playing was becoming a dominant musical force with the Paris Conservatory producing scores of fine players who influenced horn playing in many ways.  The French perfected the hand horn technique begun by Hampl, Leutgeb, and Punto of the previous century.  Fortunately, tutors of books on how to play an instrument had become popular, and through them we have a glimpse of the techniques used by musicians of the last century.  The first horn tutor was published in 1803 by Frederic Duvernoy and was called simply, Méthode pour le Cor. [10]   The next was Heinrich Domnich’s already-mentioned tutor, published in 1808 and called Méthode de Premier et de Second Cor. [11]   This book codified all the basic principles of the French school of playing, and also offered the first real history of the horn up to that time.  The best tutor, however, was written by Louis Francois Dauprat and was published in 1824. [12]   It is superlative in stressing the development of good musicianship and taste, and although written for the hand horn, contains much information which is valuable to the modern horn player.  Among his comments are several statements about mutes and muting which show a gradual decline in the use of the mute in France.

Since good artists are coming to modify the tones of the horn almost at will by the hand, lips, and breath, they no longer use the sourdine and it is no longer in favour.  Without doubt, one obtains with it the effect of pianissimo which can surprise, but this foreign body changes the quality and timbre of the tones, and lowers sensibly their pitch when placed in the bell which it fills up almost completely.

            The double echo above all, being priceless, becomes useless.  When one has need of this effect, as in the overture of Le Jeune Henri, for example, we have seen that two horns at a distance and well hidden, will produce a better and more natural effect than that which comes from a piece of wood, pasteboard or elastic rubber inserted in the bell of the instrument. [13]


So, it would seem that the mute was considered merely a bother and was discarded by many players by the middle of the last century.

            More information on nineteenth century use of the mute comes from the first tutor for the valve horn.  Although the French were reluctant to adopt the valve horn, in 1833 a class of valve-horn students was begun at the Paris Conservatory under the instruction of Pierre Joseph Emile Meifred.  His tutor was aptly called Méthode de Cor Chromatique ou á Pistons, and was published in 1841. [14]   By this time, the French must have practically forgotten the mute as Meifred remarks “the hand, in this circumstance, replaces the old sourdine, today totally abandoned.” [15]   The fact that mutes were unreliable in pitch and were also another added piece of equipment to carry contributed to their demise.

            Germany & Austria.  The Germans and Austrians appear to have also given up the mute by 1840. [16]   However, Richard Wagner revived its use in the 1860’s.  Because of his demands for a large orchestra, he probably felt that both hand muting and stopping were not loud enough and he reintroduced mutes to allow the players to be heard more easily.

            Ex. 6.  Muted horn passages from Götterdämmerung by Richard Wagner.

            These mutes were still made of turned wood or papier-mâché, and were not a big improvement over earlier models.  Oscar Franz describes them in his Complete Method for Horn:

Mutes made of wood or pasteboard are ...employed by placing them inside the bell, but their use is not very convenient as they must be held in place by the hand.  In these echo effects, the purity of intonation must be carefully considered, especially as some intervals become higher and others lower.  As this impurity is detrimental to the effectiveness of the echo, the lips must force those notes which are too low and relax upon those which are too high. [17]


            The musical effects created by Wagner were also used by other German romantic composers.  The following examples illustrate muted passages in works by Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss.

            Ex. 7.  Muted horn passage from Symphony Number 5 by Gustav Mahler.

            Ex. 8.  Muted horn passage from Don Quixote, op. 35, by Richard Strauss.

The passage from Don Quixote must be played fortissimo and “brassy”, an effect which could not be produced properly by hand muting.  Even today, players need a special “loud” mute for this passage.

            The muted passage found in the works of Strauss and Mahler are numerous and, in fact, more numerous than muted passages found in works by most twentieth-century composers.  Exceptions to this last statement would be Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and Bela Bartok.

            Schoenberg, Berg and Webern wrote passages for the muted horn which are probably some of the most difficult ever written.  All three composers wrote muted horn parts at extreme dynamic levels and in the extreme registers of the instrument.  The following solo passage from the first act of Wozzeck by Alben Berg is typical.

            Ex. 9.  Muted horn passage from Wozzeck, Act I, bar 239.

            Even harder is their writing for a section of horns.  In this difficult passage from Passacaglia by Webern, horns I, II, III & IV play in unison.  Already difficult on the open horn, this is more taxing when muted, even if the players used identical horns and mutes.


            Ex. 10.  Muted horn passage from Passacaglia, Op. 1. 4th bar of 6

            It is fortunate for horn players that the music of these composers has never been popular with audiences.  Although Berg’s operas are enjoying some artistic success, most works by these three composers have relatively few performances.

            The compositions of Bela Bartok, on the other hand, have remained popular with audiences, and the hornist will note his generous usage of the muted horn.  Bartok’s writing for muted horn may be exposed, but it is far more idiomatic then the muted writing by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.  The biggest problem to be solved by the player is the sudden or almost immediate change from open to muted or visa versa.

            French Romantics and Impressionists.  Works by the French romantic and impressionist composers abound with writing for muted horn.  They are, however, different from the German passages.  The French passages more often evoke a far-away, distant quality, rather than the “steely”, edge-like sound of the German romantics.  These passages were also much easier to play with the hand-mute technique.  An echo was the desired quality, which made hand-muting ideal.  Therefore, mutes never gained favor with the French players.  The following illustrations are typical of French muted passages.

            Ex. 11.  Muted horn passage from Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun by Claude Debussy.

            Ex. 12.  Muted horn passage from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas.

            Twentieth Century.  During the first quarter of the Twentieth century, composers used the muted effect quite often.  However, most players were still using the hand instead of actual mutes.  This tradition survived well into the middle of the century.  The late Wendell Hoss, one of America’s well-known hornists, mentioned to the writer that non-transposing mutes were little used and that players chiefly depended on hand-muting or the transposing type mute. [18]   Mr. Hoss mentioned that the first big innovation in non-transposing mutes was a design by Parduba in New York.  A set of these mutes was made for Bruno Jaenicke and the Schultz brothers, who were all members of the New York Philharmonic horn section during the 1920’s.  The mutes were made of brass and weighed about four pounds, which is quite heavy by today’s standards.  They were conical in shape with an inner shaft which was adjustable in length for tuning purposes.  The inner shaft consisted of two parts, an upper part which protruded from the upper end of the mute and a lower part which fit into the upper part as in the following illustration.


            Fig. 5.  Inner shaft of the Parduba mute.

            The lower part of the shaft also had notched rings around it for reference in correct pitch placement.  The upper section, with lower section attached, could be pulled from the neck of the mute to produce different tone qualities.

            With the adjustable inner shaft, these mutes were supposed to be able to produce a mellow, plaintive quality as well as a coarse, raspy sound.  However, Mr. Hoss mentioned that they tended to be coarse, loud-sounding mutes.  Despite their sound quality, they were a big innovation and seem to have affected the design of all succeeding mutes.  Gunther Schuller mentioned to the writer that these mutes were still being used by horn players in the Metropolitan Opera as late as 1960.


            Fig. 6.  Parduba Mute, cross section.

            Although Parduba mutes were a breakthrough in the design of non-transposing mutes, they were never made in great quantities, and most players never came into contact with them.  For professional players there was little to choose from in the way of a mute and many players designed their own from various materials such as bottles, gourds, the common papier-mâché, and wood.  Because of this, there was never a great deal of consistency as far as muted sound, even with players in the same horn section.  There were attempts by a number of players to manufacture their own design, but none of them enjoyed the success of Frank de Polis.

            de Polis Mute.  Frank de Polis was born in Sulmona, Italy, in April of 1891, and studied trumpet initially before switching to the horn.  He attended Rome University where he continued further study on the instrument before coming to America.  After his arrival in the United States, he studied with the long-time principal horn of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Anton Horner.  After serving with General Pershing’s band during World War I, de Polis played is some of the leading movie houses in New York City.  In 1921, he became assistant principal horn of the Cleveland Orchestra, and later played with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Fox Theatre Orchestra.  In the 1940’s, he was a member of the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra and the ABC Radio Orchestra. [19]   He began making mutes after experiencing dissatisfaction with what was then available.  He experimented with various designs until he got the results he wanted.  His colleagues were impressed with the quality of his mutes and began requesting them for themselves.  The mutes can generally be described as being a cone on top of a short cylinder with an inner shaft running from the open top to the bottom of the mute.  They were all made of fiberboard with a thin wooden bottom.  Figure 7 is a cutaway diagram of this mute.


            Fig. 7.  de Polis mute.

The mutes became very popular with orchestras such as the Philadelphia Orchestra and the NBC Symphony which had their entire sections use them.  At the time of his death in 1962, de Polis’ mutes were probably the most popular of any in use and the design has been widely copied.

            Although maintaining the same general shape, his mutes often differed with regard to specific dimensions.  Figure 8 shows the differences within the basic design.  These variations were necessary due to the differences in the design of horns for which the mutes were made.  For example, Figure 8C was designed specifically for the large-belled Conn 8D horns used by the Cleveland Orchestra horn section.


            Fig. 8, Variances in mute design by de Polis.

            After de Polis’ death, the mutes were manufactured for a number of years by Ted Griffith, a trombonist with the Toronto Symphony, who had worked with de Polis.  Lack of time forced Mr. Griffith to stop producing the mute and to sell the production rights to Walter Lawson and William Cook of Aulos, Inc., in Baltimore, Maryland.

            Other Contemporary Designs.  The de Polis Mute has remained one of the most popular designs with professional players, but several other mute makers deserve mention.  Horn mutes by the Humes and Berg Company are some of the most popular mutes sold.  Their availability and very reasonable cost have made the mutes one of the most widely used in America, especially by younger students.  According to Milan Yancich, Carl Geyer designed this mute which was first manufactured in 1942.  The Humes and Berg mute has the same basic design as the de Polis mute, although its upper cone part is made of molded fiberboard.  Like the de Polis mute, it also has an inner shaft and a wooden bottom.

            Lorenzo Sansone (1881-1975) designed and manufactured three different non-transposing mutes.  One had a simple come shape, much like a trombone straight mute.  Another was made of spun aluminum and could be tuned by turning the screw mechanism at the top of the mute.


            Fig. 9.  Cross section of a Sansone aluminum mute.

            Sansone’s third, and most successful design was similar in shape to the de Polis mute, although it had an inner shaft that could be pulled out to adjust the pitch.  It was also made of fiberboard, including the bottom.  The mute was last manufactured and sold by the Giardinelli Band Instrument Company of New York City.


            Fig. 10.  Cross section of Sansone fiberboard mute.  

            In surveying today’s professional players as to what their mute preference is, the name Eugene Rittich of Toronto, Canada seems to be mentioned more than any other.  Mr. Rittich has been for many years Co-Principal of the Toronto Symphony and his experimentation with mutes began as a result of his dissatisfaction with what was available.

            He began working in 1962 to try and achieve better intonation and response from the then popular cone on cylinder mute shape.  This failed to produce the results he wanted, so he experimented with a simple cone shape which achieved better results.  Before long, he was receiving so many requests for copies of his design, that he decided to produce them for sale.  Since that time (1967), he has worked to find the best combination of the many variables found in a mute’s dimensions.  These include taper and length of the cone, top hole diameter, diameter of the inner cylinder, placement, width, and thickness of corks, and the materials from which the mute is made.

            The Rittich mute has an adjustable length inner cylinder for fine tuning the mute to any horn.  Although this feature isn’t new, it is probably the most successful application of a tunable mechanism on a mute to date.  The success of his design is evident by the large number of copies being presently produced by other manufacturers.

            Conclusion.  Changes and improvements in mute design have usually occurred because of dissatisfaction with what was currently available.  Continuing research to improve the various playing qualities of present designs will always be greeted with much enthusiasm by all players.



[1] R. Morley-Pegge, The French Horn (London, 1960), p. 139.

[2] Heinrich Domnich, Méthode de Premier et de Second Cor (The French Horn)  (Paris, 1808) trans: Morley-Pegge (London, 1960), p. 139.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ernst Ludwig Gerber, Neus Historisch-Biographisches Lexicon der Tonkünstler (Leipzig, 1813), ii, p. 439.

[6] Ibid.

[7] At the open end of an air column containing a standing wave, the air is moving in and out of the open end, and its motion actually extends a little way past the end.  This makes the tube appear longer than it actually is by an amount called the end correction.  John Backus, The Acoustical Foundations of Music (New York: W.W. Norton, 1969), p. 65.

[8] Joseph Frohlich, Zeitschrift für Instrumentenbau, vol. 6, p. 325, quoted in R. Morley-Pegge, The French Horn p. 140.

[9] Evard Bernsdorf, Universal-Lexicon, p. 225.

[10] Frederic Duvernoy, Méthode pour le Cor, Gravée par Mme. le Roi (Paris, 1803).

[11] Domnich, Méthode de Premier et de Second Cor.

[12] Francois Dauprat, Méthode de Cor alto et Cor Basse, chez Zetter et Cie (Paris, 1824).

[13] Francois Dauprat, Méthode, Part II, pp. 151-152, trans: Birchard Coar, A Critical Study of Nineteenth Century Horn Virtuosi in France (DeKalb, Illinois, 1952), p. 87.

[14] Pierre Joseph Emile Meifred, Méthode de Cor Chromatique ou á Pistons, chez S. Richault (Paris, 1841).

[15] Meifred, Méthode, Part II, p. 42, trans: Coar, A Critical Study, p. 122.

[16] Horace Fitzpatrick, Letter to the Author, March 3, 1977.  Dr. Horace Fitzpatrick is a noted horn historian who has greatly researched the development of the natural , valveless horn.  He has published a number of articles and a book on the subject and is very active in teaching the natural-horn technique at Oxford and the Guildhall School of Music in London.

[17] Oscar Franz, Complete Method for Horn, (Carl Fischer, New York, 1906), p. 59.

[18] Hoss, Letter to the Author, March 9, 1977.

[19] Norman Schweikert, Letter tot the Author, September 7, 1976.

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