The Post-Horn:  A Historical Study of Instrument Origins from On-Road Utility

The Post-Horn:  A Historical Study of Instrument Origins from On-Road Utility

Even though the noise of the vehicular horn might be one of the least musical sounds on the roads today, there is a specific vein of the story of its origins which is quite musical in essence.

If we go way back to the times of horse drawn carriages, a very peculiar tool was used to announce the arrival of mail coaches; a valve-less prototype of the current vehicular horn, known as the post-horn. As the name suggests, the tool was mainly used by carriages that brought in the posts and mails, a sort of predecessor of the present-day mail-van.

In the case of the mail carriages, which usually comprised of two horses, a post-horn blower enjoyed a singular position and responsibility – that of blowing the post-horn to signal the arrival of the mail and of course, to ensure that unsuspecting pedestrians moved out of the way of this two horse-power vehicle that could crush them to death.

Understanding the Post-Horn

The original use of the post-horn can be found amongst hunting parties of European yore, where the curved looped body of the horn was slung across one of the shoulders of a hunter and used whenever he needed to signal and communicate with the others in his party. This usually involved signaling the capture of game, to indicate one’s location to others, and so on.

When the post horn was adopted by the mail carriage service at the time in regions such as England, the curved body was sometimes straightened out into a straight cylindrical horn to facilitate ease of use and better holding capability.

The Quintessential Post Horn of Yore

However, both variants of the horn made their way from the hunting grounds to the streets. Over time, the curled and looped variation of the horn was preferred by normal coaches and horse-drawn carriages in a similar fashion and utility mode as the present-day car horn, while the straight and cylindrical horn became exclusive to the mail carriages.

Due to the fact that the post-horn was largely valve-less, the changing of pitch of this “instrument” was done by manipulating the vibrations of the lips while blowing on it. During one of the many mail delivery trips, a post-horn blower who was especially bored of producing the same tone through the instrument placed his hand in the bell end, thereby producing a different sound.

Transition from Horn to Musical Instrument

As more and more people started to experiment with ways of changing the sound of the post-horn, inspired by its natural harmonic sound that appealed to musical tastes, the instrument soon made its way from the streets to the concert halls.

Famous musicians of antiquity, renowned for their musical contribution throughout history, have utilized the post-horn in their orchestras. Some of these individuals include:

– Johann Beer, who used to post horn as the main solo instrument in his orchestra,

– Mozart whose post-horn usage in Serenade No. 9 earned the composition the name “Post Horn Serenade”,

– Mahler advised one of the best soloists of the brass section of his orchestra to take up the post-horn during his composition called the Third Symphony, pushing the instrument into the spotlight,

– Hermann Koenig popularized a symphony known as the Post Horn Gallop which is played even today during certain football matches in England, being the official song of the Leicester City Football Club.

The Post Horn Being used in the Orchestra

A Crucial Lesson from History

Over the years as the post-horn became more of a staple in concert halls, valves were added to its existing design in order to craft the instrument that is known as the Cornet today. Being a sister to the trumpet, this extremely crucial instrument for the brass section of orchestras around the world was born out of the renovation of the post-horn.

This is a fundamental lesson from history pertaining to the fact that some of the best instruments have non-musical and often, irritating origins. How does this bode for the current vehicular horn though?

As drivers in countries like Indonesia and India replace their universal sounding horn with more musical sounds, it is becoming evident that people crave musical alternatives to the monotone of the current horn.

Maybe, it is time we took the vehicular horn off the streets and re-envision it as an instrument rather than a profane source of noise pollution. Maybe, it is time for the modern day vehicular horn to follow in the footsteps of its ancestors and embrace a life in the studios and concert halls of the future.

How does that sound to you?

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