Musical art of horn players, an instrumental technique linked to singing, breath control, vibrato, resonance of place and conviviality

Inscribed in 2020 (15.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

1.1 Description of the element

The musical art of horn players brings together the techniques and skills that players use to play their instrument, called a horn. A long metal tube with a conical bore is wound into several hoops to form a circular instrument, which has no holes, finger pads or pistons. The mouthpiece fits into one end and the other is flared into a bell, which acts as a sound amplifier. Only the musician’s breath influences the pitch, accuracy and quality of the notes produced.

The horn belongs to the family known as natural horns, which all appeared at the end of the 17th and early 18th century. They were originally intended to enliven hunts with music in the context of Europe’s princely courts. This historical link explains why the term ‘hunting horn’ is still sometimes used today. As early as that period, horn players played in orchestras with other instruments, just like current musical practice.

The instrumental technique is based on the body control of players, who dictate the air pressure, flow rate, and frequency of lip oscillation. The lips act as a vibrating membrane. This enables players to produce a sound with a characteristic and sought-after vibrato. The horn is distinguished by its small-diameter, finely pierced mouthpiece with a very thin rim. As a result of the bell, players can achieve a sound intensity of 115 decibels. The timbre of the instrument is clear and piercing, especially in the high notes. The instrument’s sound range is based on natural resonance with rich harmonics, especially in the low notes. With twelve notes, its range enables compositions with a singing melody, accompanied by a second voice and harmonized with a bass score. The technique of ‘plugged sounds’, produced by inserting a hand into the bell, enables semitones to be produced and hence a more complete chromatic range to be achieved.

As an integral part of the art of horns, singing serves as a tool both for training and transmission. During rehearsals, singing is preferred to playing the horn since this spares players’ lips, which are used heavily when the horn is played. Wordless singing enables interpretation (rhythm, chords, nuances, articulation of the musical phrase, etc.) to be adjusted and aims to achieve collective harmony of the voices. Singing in a group enables players to develop great cohesion and moments of convivial solidarity, which prepare for instrumental performances.

Playing the horn is a performative art, open to musical creativity and practised on festive occasions. It is played in the context of concerts and musical occasions associated with popular and public events (festivals of nature and the feast of St Hubert, equestrian events, the music festival on 21 June, village festivals, sound and light shows, religious services, etc.) and private events (weddings, birthdays, inductions, etc.). Especially at village festivals, the presence of horn groups invokes a shared attachment to rural life. All outdoor events strengthen players’ historic link with nature.

Playing consists of sharing the instrument’s characteristic music, timbre and vibrato with the public. The natural sound range is all the more exalted when performances are given in resonant places (forests, hilltops, castles, churches, caves, etc.). The style of horn playing is based on acoustics and the grip of the sound, which elicits strong emotions in listeners.

1.2 Geographical location and Range of the element:

France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy

The musical art of horn players is well developed in France, which has the largest number of players in Europe, especially in the Loire Valley, the Île-de-France region and central France. The practice is also present in Belgium (mainly Wallonia and Flanders), Luxembourg and Italy (Piedmont region).

This musical art is also found in several European and North African countries, and in North America.

All the players in the four submitting countries are developing intercultural exchanges based on musical traditions. The art of horn playing is mainly established in rural areas and market towns rather than in large conurbations, as evidenced by the groups’ registered legal addresses. In Belgium and Italy, only two groups are active in towns with more than 150,000 inhabitants. In France, only 10% of groups are located in towns with more than 50,000 inhabitants.

1.3 Domain(s) of the element

Domain(s) of the element as intangible cultural heritage identified according to the Article 2.2 of the Convention:

  • oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage
  • performing arts
  • social practices, rituals and festive events
  • knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe
  • traditional craftsmanship
  • other(s)

Evaluation Body Decision

Decision 15.COM 8.B.28

The Committee

1.Takes note that France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy have nominated Musical art of horn players, an instrumental technique linked to singing, breath control, vibrato, resonance of place and conviviality (no. 01581) for inscription on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity;

2.Considers that, from the information included in the file, the nomination satisfies the following criteria for inscription on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity:

R.1: The nomination file highlights the characteristics of the bearer communities and the different roles of the community members, and clearly explains the inclusion of women and youth. The element is transmitted orally and imitatively as well as through courses at ‘horn schools’, with the associated knowledge passed on from experienced players to new learners. Community members are brought together by their shared fascination with this instrumental music, with no specific linguistic, ideological or financial criteria for admission to the practice. The social functions and cultural meanings of the element are valued by bearers from all social and professional backgrounds.

R.2: The nomination states that the inscription of the element will make citizens aware of the wide-scale fragility of intangible heritage due to changes in legislation, the effects of fashion and developments in society. It further states that, at the international level, recognizing the musical art of horn players would help draw attention to musical practices based on a range of instruments with shared principles: they are all simple to make, easy to access, have essentially oral-based modes of transmission, and have a creative repertoire open to new compositions.

R.3: The viability of the element has been ensured by the horn federations and associations, as well as by all the States Parties concerned, which have supported the horn groups through budgetary contributions or administrative and legal measures. The four States Parties have proposed five safeguarding measures, namely: 1) transmitting the practice to new players; 2) strengthening research and documentary processing to enrich the repertoire and knowledge of the musical practice; 3) raising awareness about the issues associated with intangible cultural heritage through the horn; 4) extending revitalization actions to other regions; and 5) entrusting the monitoring of safeguarding measures to a dedicated entity. In each of the submitting States, the practitioners concerned were involved in the safeguarding process from its initial stage onward, which involved identifying and recording the practices of horn players.

R.4: The nomination process relied on the participation of most of the relevant federations and associations from the States Parties concerned, with a very strong presence of the French International Federation of Horns. This was a lengthy process, involving many activities and opportunities for participation. The file also contains a large number of letters of consent that attest to the importance of the nomination.

R.5: Between 2014 and 2019, the element was inscribed in the national inventory of each State Party by the national agencies in charge, with a unique reference number ascribed to each element in the inventory. The inventories and documentation of cultural aspects related to Musical art of horn players are conducted with the active participation of the communities, groups and non-governmental organizations concerned. In all four States, mechanisms are in place to regularly update the inventories, overseen by the relevant bodies.

3.Decides to inscribe Musical art of horn players, an instrumental technique linked to singing, breath control, vibrato, resonance of place and conviviality on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.