11 of the Greatest French Horn Players of Past and Present

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French Horn players often listen to other Hornists to study their repertoire, whether for a recital, audition or concert. Whether they are from the past or those of the present, beginner or professional, Hornists often admire well-known Horn players for how they interpret music, as well as their tone and technique. Here are some of the greatest and most well-known Horn players from the past and present.

Horn Players from The Past

Whether it is making history in the symphonic/Horn playing world or for their phenomenal playing abilities, if it weren’t for these musicians of the past, there would not be the Horn players they are now.

Aubrey Brain (1893-1955)

Aubrey Brain playing Brahms’ Horn trio, Eb major, op. 40

English Horn player Aubrey Brain (July 12, 1893 – Sept. 21, 1955) was born to London Symphony Hornist quartet member Alfred Edwin Brain.

His uncle, Principal Horn for the Queen’s Hall Orchestra and American Damrosch Orchestra, also named Alfred.

At the age of 18, Aubrey earned a scholarship at London’s Royal College of Music.

Shortly after winning the scholarship, he became Principal Horn of the New Symphony Orchestra under Sir Landon Ronald.

He joined the London Symphony Orchestra on their tour of the United States the following year.

In 1913, Brain joined Thomas Beecham’s opera orchestra as Principal Horn.

By 1923, he began to serve as professor of Horn at the Royal Academy of Music.

Throughout his playing career, his distinct brand of Horn playing set the standard for many Hornists over the years, which influenced his son, Dennis Brain.

Aubrey Brain was the first Hornist to record an entire Horn concerto with the Royal Symphony Orchestra.

This concerto was the Horn Concerto No. 2 in E flat K.417 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Dennis Brain (1921-1957)

Dennis Brain introducing the Horn

As the son of Aubrey Brain, Dennis Brain (May 17, 1921, – Sept. 1, 1957) was interested in the Horn from a very early age from the first notes he played on his father’s instrument every Saturday morning.

Although Dennis was interested in the Horn, Aubrey believed that students should not study the Horn seriously until their teenage years when the teeth and embouchure have developed fully.

Until then, Dennis studied piano and organ.

When he was 15 years old, he transferred from London’s St. Paul’s School to the Royal Academy of Music to learn Horn under Aubrey while continuing piano organ studies under the tutelage of concert organist George Dorrington Cunningham.

On Oct. 6, 1938, Brain had the opportunity to play J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 alongside Aubrey with the Busch Chamber Players at Queen’s Hall.

He had the chance to play alongside his father again in 1939 with the Léner String Quartet.

After chosen as First Horn with the National Symphony Orchestra at the age of 21, Brain, drafted into the military during World War II, joined the Central Band of the Royal Air Force.

Upon developing the Royal Air Force Symphony Orchestra, he joined the ensemble and went on a goodwill tour with them to the United States.

Brain started his solo career in 1943 and by 1945, he became the most sought-after Hornist in England and Principal Horn for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Philharmonia.

However, he resigned from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra upon realizing the insufficient time of playing in both ensembles.

In 1955, Brain produced a radio show called The Easy Horn, where he gave valuable pointers and tips to other players.

In one of these pointers, he stressed the importance of the Hornist over the instrument in achieving the perfect sound.

His final performance was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor with the Philharmonia on September 1, 1957.

An automobile accident killed Dennis Brain while he was on the way home to London.

Phillip Farkas (1914-1992)

Phillip Farkas

Born to non-musician parents Anna Cassidy Farkas and Emil Nelson Farkas in Chicago, Illinois, Phillip Farkas (March 5, 1914, – Dec. 21, 1992) started his musical studies playing the piano at an early age with the encouragement of his mother.

When he was 12 years old, Farkas joined the Boy Scouts, became the troop’s bugler and sought the tutelage of a neighbor who played the trumpet until the age of 14.

Developing asthma at 14, his parents encouraged him to play a wind instrument in the school band.

With only a couple of choices to choose from, Farkas chose the tuba.

Unfortunately, the conductor of the streetcar that he commuted on would not let him on due to the instrument’s size.

When Farkas asked the conductor what the allowed musical instrument was on the streetcar, the conductor pointed at a French Horn case.

Soon after the incident, he and his father took a trip to downtown Chicago and rented a Schmidt horn for $3 a month.

While his love of the instrument grew through playing the instrument, the young Hornist decided that a career as a professional Horn player was what he wanted for his future.

Success as a Horn player started when Farkas was a student at Calumet High School, playing in the band and orchestra and with the All-Chicago High School Orchestra and the Chicago Civic Orchestra.

He later landed his first professional job as a Horn player with the Kansas City Philharmonic.

While his reputation as a top-notch Horn player began to grow, Farkas became the only Hornist to play Principal solo Horn positions in three major orchestras, including the Boston, Cleveland and Chicago Symphony Orchestras.

He taught Horn privately at several colleges such as Cleveland Institute, DePaul University, Kansas City Conservatory, Northwestern University and Roosevelt University.

Farkas accepted a job as a Horn professor at Indiana University when he left the Chicago Symphony in 1960.

A few years before his professorship at Indiana, Farkas published his first book, The Art of French Horn Playing.

This highly regarded book, known as the Bible of Horn playing, is a fixture in every Hornists library.

He also helped design a product line of French Horns and mouthpieces with the musical instrument manufacturer Frank Holton & Co. Holton and Farkas produced 18 different Horn models and six different mouthpieces.

After retiring from Indiana University, Farkas continued to perform and give masterclasses throughout the world, inspiring other Hornists and practicing every day until he died in 1992.

Livia Ruth Gollancz (1920-2018)

Livia Ruth Gollancz

Livia Gollancz (May 25 1920, – March 28 2018,) was the eldest child of British publisher and humanitarian Sir Victor Gollancz and artist and architect Ruth Gollancz.

With her education at Kensington High School (now known as Kensington Preparatory School) and St. Paul’s Girls’ School, her musical education consisted of learning the clarinet, playing the piano and violin switching to viola.

At age 15, Gollancz bought her first Horn for £5.

She was 16 years old accepted into the Royal College of Music with studies in viola, piano and Horn.

As World War II raged in Europe and Asia, opportunities for women began to open up, including female musicians.

In 1940, Gollancz, straight out of college, joined the London Symphony Orchestra.

In 1943, conductor Sir John Barbirolli appointed her as Principal Horn of the Hallé Orchestra.

This appointment made her the first female to hold a Principal Horn position in an orchestra in the United Kingdom.

However, after two years, the young Hornist believed that Barbirolli’s approach to classical music was too romantic for her taste.

However, she later regretted that decision.

Gollancz later joined the Scottish Orchestra (presently the Royal Scottish National Orchestra) in 1945 and then BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra as Principal Horn.

Upon her return to London in 1947 to play Principal Horn of the Royal Opera House, its musical director, Karl Rankl, was resistant to female musicians and therefore refused to work with Gollancz.

In 1949, she joined the Old Vic Theatre Company and in 1950, Sadler’s Wells Opera until her retirement in 1953 due to dental issues.

She continued to play viola and violin during retirement.

She took over her father’s publishing duties at Victor Gollancz Ltd, making her one of the first women to head a publishing company.

Helen Kotas Hirsch (1916-2000)

Born to Czech parents and growing up in Brookfield, Illinois, Helen Kotas Hirsch (June 7 1916, -Dec. 15, 2000) began her music studies learning the piano at age six and the cornet in high school before playing the Horn and learning under the tutelage of Frank Kyrl of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

She continued Horn studies with Kyrl while she attended Lyons Township Junior College in LaGrange, Illinois.

Kotas continued studying the Horn under Louis Dufrasne of the Chicago NBC Orchestra was pursuing a B.A. in Psychology at the University of Chicago.

When she was pursuing graduate studies, she joined the Chicago Civic Orchestra, which allowed her to play in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as an extra under the baton of Frederick Stock.

In 1940, Kotas auditioned for the Pittsburgh Symphony for conductor Fritz Reiner and won the third horn position.

However, when Phillip Farkas resigned the following year, Stock requested that Kotas fill the Principal Horn spot and contacted Reiner to let Kotas out of her contract.

James Chambers, a substitute, filled the third horn spot while Kotas took the Principal Horn position.

This appointment to Principal Horn in the Chicago Symphony made Kotas the first woman to play a Principal wind position in a major orchestra.

In 1947, Phillip Farkas returned to his place with the Symphony under the baton of Artur Rodzinski.

Using a loophole in Kotas’ contract, Rodzinski moved her down the section and after sitting out, Kotas left the Chicago Symphony after the 1947-1948 season.

Upon leaving the Chicago Symphony, she remained in Chicago and married Edwin Hirsch, a Chicago University pathologist, in 1949.

Kotas Hirsch continued to play and was Principal Horn for the Grant Park Symphony from 1950-1958 and the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra from 1954-1965.

She later taught at the Sherwood and American Conservatories as well as Wheaton College.

Barry Tuckwell OBE, AC (1931-2020)

Son of an organist Charles Tuckwell and Elizabeth Tuckwell, Barry Tuckwell (March 5, 1931, – Jan. 16, 2020) studied organ, violin and piano at an early age before a friend introduced him to the Horn at the age of 13, taking lessons from Richard Merewether.

By the time he was 15, Tuckwell, appointed to the third Horn position in the Melbourne Symphony by conductor Joseph Post.

A year later, Tuckwell played as assistant to Hornist Allan Mann in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra while taking lessons from Mann at the Sydney Conservatorium.

Moving to London at 19 years old, he played Horn in the Bournemouth, Scottish National, Buxton Spa, and Halle Orchestras.

Four years later, he played first Horn in the London Symphony Orchestra.

In 1968, Tuckwell left the London Symphony to pursue a successful solo freelance career until he retired at age 65 in 1997.

His entire solo career consisted of 200 concerts a year.

As one of the most recorded Horn soloists with over 50 recordings, Tuckwell received three Grammy Award nominations.

Along with his solo career, he served as a conductor for orchestras in Europe, Australia, and the United States and founded the Maryland Symphony Orchestra in 1982.

In 1965, Tuckwell became an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.

In 1992, he also made a Companion of the Order of Australia.

Julius Watkins (1921-1977)

Julius Watkins and Quincy Jones – 1960

Known as “virtually the father of the jazz French horn,” Julius Watkins (Oct. 10, 1921 – April 4 1977,) was born in Detroit, Michigan and began playing the Horn at age nine and was under the tutelage of Francis Hellstein, Principal Horn of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Attending a technical high school and playing in the orchestra, he also took classes in music appreciation, piano and harmony.

When Watkins was 16 years old, he decided on a Hornist career path different from the usual and started to learn jazz.

Early in his career, from 1943 to 1946, he played trumpet in the Ernie Fields Orchestra.

Watkins played several jazz Horn solos on several recording sessions with vocalist Babs Gonzales and drummer Kenny Clarke.

Upon moving to New York City, he attended the Manhattan School for three years and played in several small group jazz sessions with two led by Thelonious Monk.

Throughout his career, Watkins recorded with many other jazz musicians such as Charles Mingus, Phil Woods, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, to name a few.

Horn Players of the Present

David Cripps

Known as the Hornist who played the famous leitmotif solos in the Star Wars movie trilogy, David Cripps also played in the soundtrack for the Superman movies with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Born in Great Britain and starting the Horn at age 14, Cripps was quickly accepted to and climbed to the Principal Horn spot in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.

After studying Horn and conducting at the Royal Academy of Music, he played Principal Horn in the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, seven years with the Hallé Orchestra, two years with the Philharmonia, and 10 years with the London Symphony Orchestra.

His teaching experience includes professor of Horn at Arizona State University, Florida State University, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, Eastman School of Music, and the Royal Northern College of Music.

Cripps lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, and is director of Orchestra Northern Arizona.

Frøydis Ree Wekre

Frøydis Ree Wekre

Born in Oslo, Norway, July 31 1941, Frøydis Ree Wekre studied the piano and violin as a young girl.

Being fascinated with the instrument’s sound and a desire to have her voice in the orchestra, she started playing the Horn at age 17.

Studying Horn in Oslo with Wilhelm Lanzky-Otto and Vitali Bujanovsky, she won her first Horn position with the Norwegian Opera Orchestra at age 19.

She continued her Horn studies in Oslo and Russia and the United States.

In 1961, she joined the Oslo Philharmonic and became co-principal in 1965 until she retired from the orchestra in 1991.

Presently a wind chamber music and Horn professor at the Norwegian Academy of Music, Wekre is a well-known teacher and performer globally and has given masterclasses throughout Europe and the United States.

Many of her students perform in major orchestras throughout the world.

Robert Lee Watt

Born in Neptune, New Jersey, to a jazz trumpet player January 15, 1948, Robert Lee Watt had the desire to play music began at the age of 8 when he was curious about his father’s trumpet.

However, after playing trumpet for several years, he discovered the instrument he wanted to play while coming across a 78 recording of the William Tell Overture.

Fascinated with the sound, he asked his father what instrument came in after the trumpets.

His father replied that it was the French Horn. Despite his father’s reservations, Watt took up the Horn and seriously pursued it in high school.

His band director also had reservations about him playing Horn, saying that Watt’s lips were too big to play on a Horn mouthpiece.

With Watt persisting, the director gave him an old horn that barely worked.

Still, Watt’s love of the Horn never swayed, and he advanced quickly and won many honors and positions in honor bands throughout the state of New Jersey, thus bringing honor to the school.

After graduation from high school, Watt attended Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music as a music major and taking Horn studies under Harry Shapiro of the Boston Symphony.

Taking a great interest and seeing great potential in Watt, Shapiro pushed him very hard.

Due to Watt’s hard work the first year, the young Hornist had the honor to play the Richard Strauss’ Concerto No. 1 in Eb with the Boston Pops Orchestra under the baton of Arthur Fiedler.

With much encouragement from his Horn teacher at the end of his junior year, Watt played his first auditions in the Chicago Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Making the finals round of both orchestra auditions, the Los Angeles Philharmonic offered him the Assistant First Horn position two months after.

This appointment made him the first African American Horn player hired by a major American symphony.

He remained in the Los Angeles Philharmonic until his retirement in 2008.

In 2016, Watt published the book, The Black Horn, which chronicles his life and his determination to excel in the Classical music world.

Sarah Willis

Sarah Willis by Sebastian Haenel (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Born in Maryland in 1969, Sarah Willis grew up in several other places such as Boston, Moscow, London and Tokyo.

She started to play the Horn at age 14 and attended the Royal College of Music Junior Department.

Later, she joined the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and took Horn lessons from Jeff Bryant and Anthony Halstead.

After moving to Berlin in 1991, Willis studied with Fergus McWilliam and won the Second Horn position in the Berlin State Opera.

In 2001, she joined the Berlin Philharmonic, making her the first female brass player to play in that orchestra.

Besides her orchestra duties, Willis has performed in other orchestras such as the Sydney Symphony, London Symphony and Chicago Symphony orchestras and various chamber ensembles.

In 2011, she was a mentor and contributor for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra.

Willis presently hosts a German program called Sarah’s Music on the German TV station Deutsche Welle and Horn Hangouts on her website and archives on her YouTube channel.

Summing up Famous French Horn Players

The world of music is a much grander place thanks to these french horn players.

They have inspired many with their beautiful and haunting melodies that add depth, texture, and meaning to any symphony or ensemble performance.

Each one has a unique story about how they came into the world of brass instruments as well as what inspires them in life outside of music.

We hope you enjoyed reading this blog post about some of the greatest french horn players!

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Written by Lisa Taylor
Lisa is a professional musician who has been playing french horn and various other brass instruments for the last 20 years. She has an undergraduate and masters degree in music and now teaches and performs all over the US with orchestras, brass bands and chamber groups.