What is an English Horn?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

The English horn, or cor anglais as it is also commonly known, is a member of the oboe family of the double reed group of woodwinds, which also includes bagpipes, baritone oboe, bassoon, contrabassoon, heckelphone, oboe, and oboe d’amore. The English horn is the middle instrument in this group. The oboe is the highest pitched member, followed by the oboe d’amore, a minor third lower. The English horn is a fifth lower than the oboe, followed by the baritone or bass oboe, which are both an octave lower.

Man playing a guitar
Man playing a guitar

The English horn was developed from the oboe da caccia, which was used earlier. Oboe da caccia means “hunting oboe,” and the instrument was used during the Baroque period. It is slightly longer than the oboe and differs noticeably in the bell, which is bulb-shaped and sometimes referred to as a d’amore bell. The English horn is often played by an oboe player, whose part has been composed to allow the player to “double” on English horn.

Italian composer Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni wrote three volumes of oboe concertos and is said to be the first Italian to compose concertos for oboe. The English horn has also been used notably in French composer Hector Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture and Symphonie fantastique and in Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’s The Swan of Tuonela. There are also well known sections in Czech composer Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, known as the New World Symphony, as well as in Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini’s William Tell Overture and German composer Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

The English horn has also been used in more modern music. Noted instrumentalist Bob Cooper played jazz solos on both oboe and English horn, as well as tenor saxophone. Mitch Miller, although probably better remembered as a pop singer and choir leader who had a hit with “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and hosted Sing Along With Mitch, was an accomplished oboe and English horn player and played them in Percy Faith's arrangements. A rare and possibly surprising combination can be found on the album Frank Sinatra Conducts the Music of Alec Wilder, a 1946 recording on which Sinatra conducts Wilder’s “Air for English Horn,” among other pieces.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Where did the English horn originate? England?

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